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Elia Rediger: A place of serenity for my soul

Elia Rediger, Swiss composer and artist, is the new head of the AMBUSHED FROM BEHIND series. Here he explains how working in the Congo is such a joy – and has energised him for working in Europe

Elia Rediger is a Swiss singer, artist, composer and director. In 2014 he was a guest at the Tischlerei for the production GILGAMESH MUST DIE! In the 2019/2020 season he is curating five evenings AMBUSHED FROM BEHIND: THE POWER OF THE ARTS.

Ambushed from Behind
Power of the Arts I:
The power of fate

Power of the Arts II:
The power of pictures

Power of the Arts III:
The power of noise

Power of the Arts IV:
The power of the curse

Power of the Arts V:
The power of bling-bling

For me the Congo is a place of mysticism. It’s very difficult to make plans. I just work with whatever is available. The people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo spent many years under the tyrannical yoke of a capricious dictator, and it’s amazing how that still plays out today. Under these conditions, visualising the future is an act of self-deconstruction – there’s nothing that you can really rely on, not even on the inevitability of tomorrow. For us Europeans, who obsess about stability, this is a huge paradigm shift. If you ask me, though, there’s something quite poetic about this living-in-the-moment thing.

I feel at home working there. My friends are Congolese artists. In Lubumbashi, a city in the south, we’ve just finished adapting an oratorio by Händel for a piece called HERCULE DE LUBUMBASHI. We wanted to make a film in a cobalt mine but the owner was sceptical. And then suddenly we were given the go-ahead, because Easter celebrations were going on – Christ rising from the dead – and I look slightly like Jesus with my long hair and my beard. The owner took that as some kind of mystical sign.

It’s fashionable nowadays to question the merits of aid work, but when I’m there it’s like I’m the one getting the aid and the development, because I’m forced to adopt a different existence and a totally different rhythm. When we Europeans have problems visualising our future, it tends to be linked to a fear of a decline and fall, whereas here it inspires me to celebrate the Now and not to adopt a whingeing bunker mentality, even in the face of adversity.

Every time I return to Switzerland, I find I’ve recharged my batteries. The Congo is gigantic. In European terms it would stretch from Denmark to Portugal. In Lubumbashi it’s pitch dark at night. The climate is hot and damp, so things tend to attract mould and start to rot quite quickly. The soil is fertile and all the minerals like cobalt and copper make the sand glitter and gleam. It smells of well-spiced meat, of sewers and open watercourses. The place is plastered in mobile phone advertising. Most Congolese own at least two mobile phones due to the sheer number of networks. The sunsets are gobsmackingly beautiful, with the sun sliding down like a spotlight within the space of a few minutes, so it goes dark very quickly. To me the country tastes like diesel, Fanta, Palm Beer and fufu, the manioc-based paste that you dip in hot sauce. The streets reverberated to the sound of diesel engines and choir practice.

I suppose I’m part of the generation of DIY, genre-fluid composers. For a long time opera was a very popular format and it went well with pop music, which was where my roots were. But the pop aspect has sadly often been lost in opera. We have to get it back, because there’s an erotic side to opera that flirts with the unfamiliar, the unknown. I get inspiration from Congolese music, people like Wendo Kolosoy, a singer-songwriter who uses a form of yodelling. Obviously a farm boy like me from Switzerland is going to like that. In the early 20th century the Congolese composer Joseph Kiwele began incorporating European chorales into Congolese music. The tragedy of colonialism is part and parcel of his music. The conflict between colonialism and Congolese identity is still palpable today.

How do people handle the fact that they spent 150 years being indoctrinated by a foreign culture?

I grew up as the son of aid workers in the Congo. As a child I experienced extreme contrasts. At Easter, for instance, we used to listen to the St Matthew Passion and then head off to a Congolese village festival, which had a re-enactment of the trial of Jesus accompanied by drums. So you can understand how the AMBUSHED FROM BEHIND series is right up my street. It’s a mash-up format that takes the productions on the main stage and presents an Off response to them in the smaller, experimental premises of the Tischlerei. My sub-heading for the series is »The Power of Art«. What place does power have in art? And how do artists tackle this subject? A new generation of Congolese artists is intent on boycotting this post-colonial trench warfare.

They want to do their own thing and forge their own culture. They soak up stuff like classical music. Maybe that’s the greatest thing about people: a new generation always comes along, hope flares up again – and the old ghosts melt away.

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