Sonic Mmabolela


During November of 2018 I experienced some of the best weeks of my life. At the Mmabolela Private Reserve I not only grew creatively as an artist, but also personally, thanks to the many new friends I got to know while residing in South Africa. The environment, the open freedom, the South African culture, the food (thank you Neil Lowe), the people, and of course the sounds. It was all incredible and every bit of it has contributed to it being one of my favorite places on this planet.

Now that the sappy part is out of the way, I’ll do my best to summarize my experience. Led by sound artist/biologist Francisco Lopez and multidisciplinary artist Barbara Ellison, myself and six other artists, composers, recordists, and sound designers spent several weeks collecting ecological and environmental recordings from across the 6500 hectares (16,000+ acres) of Mmabolela reserve. Together we edited, analyzed, and created sonic works with the collected material.

Our initial days were spent familiarizing ourselves with each other, the environment, and what we wanted to achieve. We spent several days recording at various watering holes at different times of the day. Our typical day consisted of two or three recording outings which were interspersed between periods of individual editing and creative time. Some days we would be out in the bush by 4am in order to capture the all-important dawn choruses, when the birds, baboons, and jackals (among others) can be heard most. The stars and galaxies shone unobscured above our heads as we drove through the bushveld towards the watering holes, marked distinctly by the windmills (the picture on the right (desktop) or below (mobile) features one such windmill, as well as the largest termite hill that I hope I ever come across). During our time there, we had absolutely no outside human interface and complete freedom to go around the reserve due to the absence of large hazards such as rhinos, elephants, and lions within the reserve. Coupled with the incredible generosity of reserve owners and caretakers Mark and Lesley, there is absolutely no experience like this elsewhere.


With Francisco being an advocate for listening naturally through the ears as opposed to through a recording, we often went out into the wild for listening “concerts,” which consisted of setting up chairs at a particular venue and then keeping our ears open and our mouths shut for a couple hours. This is just one of the many ways that I was exposed to new ways of thinking, creating, and recording sound. As a biologist and former professor, Francisco had so much incredible knowledge to share not only about the local wildlife and ecosystems, but also about using heightened perception and listening as a creative tool instead of simply receiving information.


After several days (and nights) recording at the waterholes, we began exploring different regions of the Limpopo Riverbank. The Limpopo river at the border of Botswana is famed for its description in Rudyard' Kipling’s novel The Elephant’s Child. The reputation really does hold up, as the river is swarming with huge Nile crocodiles and hippopotamus. Here we spent many days and nights exploring the varied landscape and even got to record some hippos at the famous Mmabolel Rock. This rock is how the reserve got its name and, according to legend, is the site of where a local chief’s daughter was once swallowed whole by a crocodile.

Despite the hazards that come with traversing the riverbank, we did manage to find some quiet pools that were safe enough to do some hydrophone recording. Even without large crocodiles, the waters were incredibly active with fish and insects as they searched for food.

Towards the end of our time at Mmabolela, we all presented individual compositions that we had developed throughout our time there. The compositions can be listened to for free here. For my final presentation I composed a piece called Word of Mouth, and incorporated sounds of my colleagues as well as the field recordings. For me, the most impactful part of working as an artist is meeting and getting to know such incredible people as these. The other artists at the 2018 residency were:

  • Roche van Tiddens - South African composer and electronic artist; based in The Hague, NL

  • Andy Martin - American sound designer for Skywalker Sound; based in Seattle, USA

  • Kim Foscato - American sound designer for Skywalker Sound; based in San Francisco, USA

  • Clinton Watkins - New Zealander digital media artist; based in Auckland, NZ

  • Steve Norton - American composer and improvisor; based around Boston, USA

  • Jun Mizumachi - Japanese/American sound designer; based in Tokyo, JP and New York, USA

I cannot thank all of these individuals (including Francisco and Barbara) enough, as I will continue to carry the knowledge, experience, and friendship wherever I end up. Please take a few minutes to check out these other wonderful artists’ work, as well as the fantastic compilation of sounds that Andy Martin put together of some of the things we heard at Mmabolela.

Also, if you so desire, please enjoy the first ever performance of the duo Heat Stroke, which was a collaborative, improvisational performance by Roche van Tiddens and myself. We had some extra time aside from our individual projects, so Roche and I decided we would put on a nice show that utilized bones, metals, water, and other objects found around the estates. Enjoy!

With love to and from Mmabolela, South Africa.

Luke Pearson