The live performance "SEPTEMBER" by tracy september & Kamran Behrouz marks the beginning of the Kunsttage Basel Night. Through song and animations, september narrates a tale of resistance. Danielle Bürgin met with the artist and conducted a deeply personal conversation about the significance of music and her evolution as an artist.
tracy, I'm very happy to meet you here in Zurich, where you live and work. To start this conversation and to get to know you a little bit better I’d like you to tell me when and how you came to Switzerland?
ts: “Something I've started to say or have been saying over the years is ‘Swiss happens’ in the sense that, when I bump into people and meet people who are not from here, it's not necessarily like, ‘I wanna live in Switzerland’. It’s usually work related, refuge or love related and mine was love related. My ex-husband got a job here and we moved here together in 2014. So it has now been nine years that I've been in Switzerland.”
As an artist you work with music, you sing, you DJ, you perform and produce. I’m a musical programmer for a radio and DJ myself. So music is actually my passion too. I’m curious to know, how did you go from loving music to actually making a profession out of it?
ts: “I feel like it's been quite a long journey for me to get to the point where this is what I'm going to do every day for the rest of my life. I can't remember when my love affair with music started, but I have pictures or images that come to me of doing concerts for my family. Every Christmas I’d put on a Christmas show or organized events with my friends, like talent shows. My parents had the best record collection ever. My father and my uncle were DJs and another uncle was a drummer and another one was a producer and played the saxophone. So there was always music, but there was this understanding that this is not a ‘real job’.
Even at school, I would always be in the talent shows. I played the recorder, went for piano lessons - but it was a hobby. Music was with me all along and I would say it's my first language. And I don't remember a time when it wasn't the place that I went to, to understand - it's how I process my feelings. If I'm looking at an image, I see the music in the image. If I'm tasting food or making food, I imagine conducting a choir or an orchestra of ingredients. So my processing is musical.
But when I finished high school and wanted to get a ‘real job’, I started off with studying architecture because I also like to draw and I like to paint. So it was this concept of yes, if I want a real job, maybe I would find the music in the images that I was drawing.
I did architecture for a year and I immediately knew it wasn't for me, like I could have this great fancy job, but I'd be miserable. And then I decided to change to sound engineering, which was like, ‘OK, my dad was a scientist, so maybe engineering will convince him that it's a real job.’ He was not pleased. And then from engineering I went into working in studios, recording demos for other people.
It took a long time to actually think of me being in the forefront and think of it as a career. Then I started organizing events and I got into tour management. When my father passed away I thought, ‘OK, life is just way too short to try and be a music industry professional. I need to be the musician that I've always been’ and then I slowly started and here I am.”
You’re from South Africa. Where did you grow up?
ts: “I grew up in a lot of places, but mostly South Africa. But we also lived in England at a certain point. I was born during Apartheid and the opportunities for my parents during apartheid weren't that many. There was a lot of movement that was work related or politics related. For my father specifically it made more sense to work and live in other places because that's where the opportunities were. Some of my family members were in exile already so it kind of made sense to understand that moving around is just what humans do.
So yeah, mostly in South Africa, originally from the Eastern Cape, in the former Transkei. But my grandparents then moved to KwaZulu, which is around Durban and north of that. So we also moved there. We also lived in Namibia, and there was also some time in Zambia and Zimbabwe and England, as I said. But I've spent the most years of my life in South Africa.”
I never really left Switzerland. I was born in Madagascar, but came to Switzerland as a baby. So I'm not really used to moving around between different countries. I really wonder how it affected you as a person. How it affected your work, how it maybe changed the way of seeing things, the way of creating?
ts: “Maybe the strongest thing that moving around leaves or has left inside of me is the question of what home is. Home is inside of me. It's like this understanding that you could have to move. I mean, I went to seven different high schools in all the years of moving around. So you understand that even if you form a great friendship, and you have this best friend for two years, you may never see them again or you may only see them at another time, but you still maintain contact somehow. We used to write letters by snail mail. But this sort of thing of having to start afresh or starting over often allows you to be less attached to things and also understanding that wherever you go, you will always find your people. That's the first thing for me.
When I was about to move to Switzerland, I was like, ‘no, it'll be fine. I'm sure all I need to do is find my people’ and this is the idea of home being inside of me and in the community I build. I would not survive Switzerland at all, if I didn't have the community that I have around me right now. And I'm very intentional in cultivating that. Like to make sure that I surround myself with people who make me feel like a part of home, or part of this home that lives inside of me, you know. So I feel like you could throw me anywhere in the world and I'll be fine. I really genuinely feel that way.”
I hope this is not too personal. But can you describe this community? What kind of people are there?
ts: “I'm not too sure if it's because we all share this kind of moving existence or this moving home. A lot of these people aren't Swiss born, people with migration backgrounds, people who have experienced what it is to be forced to leave a place. People who have experienced being forced to create a home inside of themselves. People who aren't too attached to the structures, who aren't attached to the idea of what home should look like or what family should look like.
Family is a very fluid thing. I can feel like I'm part of a family if we are all sharing in a certain way. So I would say that's how it looks. It's very innovative. It's very strong willed - this community - like everyone is about ‘OK, this place is not necessarily the easiest place to live if you're different, so we have to be there for each other and there's a kind of mutual responsibility to yourself and the community that you're in’. I never feel alone. It's spontaneous; I could just be like ‘hey, what are you doing’? And I don't have to look at my calendar to make an arrangement. And the food is always good. I think food is a huge part of the community. Breaking bread together and all these communal care practices are a huge part of this group of people.”
Music is also something you share with people. I'm not a singer, I'm not a musician, but as a DJ I really like to share those emotions with the crowd on the dance floor. How important is this feeling of sharing for you?
ts: “I have different aspects of my practice, whether it's DJing, producing or collaborating or working alone or whether it's film or theater. But the moment I can share it with someone else, they get to hold it and experience it from their own perspective or their own experience. And for them to find themselves in something I do is probably the most fulfilling thing. That's kind of why you share. It's not that I need the validation, I need the connection. It creates this connection. It creates this ‘Here I am offering you a part of me and you receiving this part of me is your offering as well.’ It's kind of this exchange that happens between the creator and the holder, the people who hold it as you offer it.”
You were speaking about different art practices. What was the main focus in the last couple of years? The pandemic was a challenging time for performing artists.
ts: “Yeah, I would say that the pandemic shifted my focus a bit. And even ‘SEPTEMBER’ came about during the pandemic because I had time to be still and I was like ‘hm, what do I do when I don't have a gig?’ Now I had time to look back on these ideas. Before the pandemic, it was really mostly concerts and music performance, the band and DJing.
In 2019, I was asked to be part of a theater production to create music and they were like, ‘OK, don't you wanna perform in the piece?’ So I started my first theater performance and I remember thinking, ‘this is different but interesting.’ Like this sort of ensemble of bodies creating a work. I liked that. Then the pandemic happened and the concert venues were all closed, but some of the theaters were open, with social distancing. So I could work on these theater projects more long term.
I also got to work in different spaces. And because ‘SEPTEMBER’ came up in this period, I could try out different formats, for example taking it into an exhibition space or showing it as a lecture performance. So the pandemic kind of broadened my practice.
How did “SEPTEMBER”, the project presented at Kunsttage Basel, start?
ts: “Culturally in my history and within my family or my families, there are always custodians of the family story. So I am the person now who is the custodian of this history. It's usually like a calling, so to speak, where you're just generally interested and you’re like: ‘OK, so where did we come from?’ We are the people getting the family tree information together, making sure that you're in touch with everybody. Or thinking ‘oh, so and so has had a baby, OK, let's add this person to the family tree.’ It comes from within this need to be that person. And every generation has one. Whether it is conscious or unconscious, we believe that it's passed down. So I am the person who has that role in my family currently and have taken on this role very willingly.
I've kind of been documenting my family story all my life, getting all the stories from the elders, collecting them and putting them together. I'm the person who does the obituaries and who speaks on behalf of the family at funerals. So when my grandmother passed away in 2017 everyone just sent me all this information because they're like ‘yeah, tracy, you'll do the obituary.’ And I got this notebook that my grandmother had been writing in.
I didn't even know it existed, but it's an A4 notebook, which you can buy in Coop or in Migros, with her handwriting, and from that material I put together the obituary for the funeral. It was just really amazing to read these texts and get to know her story in a different way. I then also got all these images and I found them so beautiful. I found these stories and images so compelling that I felt that I'd love to do something with these one day. So I had this folder where I would just put stuff in every time someone would send me things. Then the pandemic happened and I felt that I needed something to do because I felt I needed to produce. This need for production, but also this gratitude for time.
And yeah, I kind of started like ‘what can I do with this beautiful archive of material that I have?’ And ‘SEPTEMBER’ came to mind. I called it ‘SEPTEMBER’ specifically because it's the story of my family and my family name is September. I didn't know what else to call it besides that because it's the story of the Septembers but told through my grandmother's voice mostly.”
“SEPTEMBER” is actually a collaboration, you're working with someone else – with Kamran Behrouz (they/them).
ts: “Yes, there are three parts to it, or four parts. There are these photographs that I've inherited that are really beautiful. There are these texts that I read. There's the music that I create around it. And then there's the collaboration with Kamran Behrouz, an amazing visual artist and animator and human being who does animations for the music specifically. Kamran is a part of this community that I was speaking of. Their art resonates with me in many, many ways. We had worked together initially on one of their projects and when I saw their work, and I was looking at these images that they were creating, I was like, ‘oh my God, this is so beautiful.’
I mentioned ‘I have this idea that I'm kind of working on, ‘SEPTEMBER’. Would you be interested in creating some visual accompaniment to this?’ They agreed. In the beginning, we really tried to mix everything, the images with the animation but now we've decided that the images actually need to exist on their own so they have their own time and space and the animations can really be Kamran's perspective without the influence of my story. Just what they feel from the music, what it does for them and how to interpret this visually through their animations.
What will we actually see during your performance during Kunsttage Basel?
ts: “You will see ‘SEPTEMBER’ as it exists at the moment because it's still going to evolve. You will experience the story, the stories that are told in the texts, you'll experience the music that is a kind of an impulse or response to these texts. You will see these beautiful images and you will also see Kamran's animations to the music. And hopefully, you'll see a part of yourself. Usually for me, the art that resonates the most is the art that connects to a part of me. Sometimes it's the part of me that is angry or it's the part of me that's just very vulnerable. So hopefully people will find themselves in the story no matter how far away it took place. I think it's a human experience and hopefully people can connect to some of these emotions and stories.”
And you will be performing live, right?
ts: “I will be in the space, I will have my texts that I'll be reading and I will have my music things, making and performing the music with these visual aids around me … these visual accompaniments.”
You were talking about emotions and that you hope that we might connect to something in this performance. You told me that this is actually the story about your grandmother and her life, but maybe it could be also someone else's story, right?
ts: “I think the human experience is quite universal. In my opinion, there are two primary emotions and then all these other emotions stem from that. So it's either something that stems from love or fear, for example anxiety can stem from fear; grief can stem from love. But being human is pretty much the same thing if you take away the barriers, you know, if you're a mother, you're a mother.
If you're a friend, you're a friend. These roles that we play in society outside of our jobs. The human jobs that we have, all the human roles that we play in each other's lives, they're very similar. And even if the story seems very foreign, you can understand what it is to fall in love. Like whether you're falling in love in, I don't know, Tasmania or you're falling in love in Poland. Love is love. And if you can connect to that, then I think there will be something to appreciate in the story.”
When I’ve been doing some research about you and your work I've been reading two special words which stayed in my mind: spirituality and resistance. So how important are those aspects in “SEPTEMBER”?
ts: “I have a mantra for my life, it’s that it's all one work. So, what's happening in my artistic practice, what's happening in my family practice, what's happening in my spiritual practice, what's happening in my filling out tax forms practice, it's all kind of one thing. I have a very deep spiritual practice. It's probably what I believe keeps me alive. This is very much the paramount thing that I connect to. If I think of the three pillars, for me, it's mind, body and spirit. I would say spirit comes at the top because if mind and body have their wobbly bits and they are kind of falling apart, I can always go back to the spirit.
And for me, in ‘SEPTEMBER’ specifically, this is honoring my ancestors. My grandmother is one of my most recent angels and I'm very honored and privileged to carry her voice in 2023. And I'm certain she's happy that her legacy and her story are still as much alive in this realm as it is in the next. I feel that in some of the stories, it's also clear that resistance can happen in different ways.
It doesn't necessarily have to be always street fighting or protest. Survival is resistance. To be able to love in the middle of the most antagonizing and oppressive systems and moments of life is resistance. Joy in these contexts is resistance. So I think honoring people who have managed to overcome despite or in spite of, this is all resistance. And despite it all for me at no point, have I ever looked at any of the people in these stories as victims because they are extraordinary. They are praise worthy and I'm here to praise that. And I'm here to praise them for me being here. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for them overcoming all these things and these stories. So it's both: Resistance and it is spiritual. The fact that I inherited all these things, I believe it was meant to be, it was passed down to me and I have to honor that.”
Thank you for inspiring me in this way. I am deeply touched by your words…
ts: “…and maybe to share: ‘SEPTEMBER’ has existed in different iterations. For instance I've performed it outdoors on the street in a public festival, which was horrible because it's too personal. Not everyone deserves the story. My favorite performance of it was in an intimate space where people were all seated and listening and I started to imagine other ways that it could grow. So now I'm working with a mentor to develop it for stage and theater. So it's going to become bigger than it is now. I haven't performed it since 2020 because this was the year of trying out all these different formats and Kunsttage Basel will be the re-launch and the beginning of the next iteration of how big it's going to become.”
Thank you very much.
Danielle Bürgin, 5th July 2023.
tracy september is a South African musician and performer based in Zurich, Switzerland. Her primary instrument is her voice, which she weaves into her (song)writing, story telling, compositions and music productions. She performs as a solo artist as well as in various collaborations and constellations. tracy also makes music for film, theater and dance productions. Her music covers themes of memory, resistance, identity and resilience. She is interested in being a custodian of the living archive and experiencing the past, present and future at once. Her sound is a hybrid of jazz, traditional Xhosa singing and electronic music with a particular curiosity in the possibility of improvisation and experimentation. tracy also uses sound art and sound collages as tools for exploration.