Sound-tracking the city

Sitting on the bus. Walking down the street. Running along the canal. Waiting in traffic. We spend a lot of time moving (or not moving) through the city. With our earbuds in, our movement through the city is often accompanied by our own unpremeditated but ever-present personal soundtrack. The connection between the city streets and music has a rich history. The city has rhythm that is hard to deny. Though most of us take it for granted as background noise, it can be generative and inspirational.

Few of us get to make it their job to think about how the city and music play off each other and how to get them working together. Kwende Kefentse gets to tackle that question daily as a Cultural Planner for the City of Ottawa and continues to do so after 9-to-5. He is perhaps more commonly known around Ottawa as DJ Memetic, one of the music producers, promoters, and DJs behind Timekode and other projects around town.

We Skyped last month to talk about music, the city, and his Rideau2Richmond project.

Diving right into the big question about the connection between music and the city, Kefentse replied: “Music starts at home, right. Wherever you’re at, there’s a relationship between sound, between expressing yourself with sound, and that place.” He continued, “the way music animates all of our experiences as we move through cities is really, really relevant. I think the whole concept of sound-tracking a life or a path, rings of an urban experience. . . and I don’t know. . . maybe that’s enough.”

Sound-tracking the urban experience is the concept behind Rideau2Richmond, a 28-track album released earlier this year. Partly inspired by and partly documenting the (infamous) OCTranspo #2 bus route, the project started as a commission by the local technologically-based artist organization Artengine. The project grew from there when Kefentse shared the tracks with his friend and local artist Colin White who suggested filming the accompanying video.

For anyone who has taken a ride on the #2, they are likely to recognize the eclecticism of the sounds, characters, and sights. There’s a surreal mix of monotony and over-stimulation, predictability and utter randomness, familiarity and anonymity. You slowly watch your reflection roll by through the series of shop windows, glimpses of landmarks, your regular shops, dozens of places you keep meaning to try, the big chain stores intermixed with mum-n-pops. Strange overheard conversations and friendly nods exchanged with strangers. And of course, watching for your stop through dirty slushy windows in the winter along streets that all blend into one another.

The #2 was an obvious choice for Kefentse because of the record shops that line the route, a route he would take regularly when Timekode was still hosted at the Eri Café. It just made sense to sample the vinyl as it intersected with the bus route.  As for whether or not he had imagined similar sound-tracking for other routes, Kefentse points to the special character of the #1 and #2 as the traditional mainstreet routes and old streetcar suburb typology that he thinks were key in producing this kind of thematic connection between the city and music.

Rideau2Richmond becomes a time capsule and document of a specific path through the city, at a particular time, and experienced through its sights and sounds. Kefentse points out the already missing sites from the video, like the old beerstore and Daily Grind on Somerset, and the impending changes from LRT and other planned developments along the route. What is interesting about this album is how it appeals equally to music-lovers as it does to city-lovers. It is clear that Kefentse, along with all the other creative individuals who contributed to this project and the ever-growing cultural scene, have the special skill of “thinking critically about the city through the creative process.”

Rideau2Richmond is available at the Spacing store in Toronto and record shops in UK and Canada. It can also be streamed/purchased on bandcamp.

You can catch DJ Memetic, DJ Zattar and guest Quantic as Timekode celebrates its 10th anniversary this Friday (Dec. 4) at the Horticulture Building, Lansdowne Park.