<< home
___ ___ |__| /\ |__/ |__ |__ |\/| | | /~~\ | \ |___ |___ | | __ /\ | \ /\ |\/| /~~\ |__/ /~~\ | |

Cult of the Blacksmith

Part 1: A recipe for transformative technology

In this essay I pursue using audio and text in conjunction, to explore my fascination with the mysticism of West African metallurgy. I view this indigenous technology of refining and forging metals into tools, weapons and ornaments as a source of oral storytelling revealing some of the philosophies at the foundation of the belief systems of these civilisations. Through physical and oral forms, West African blacksmiths are able to communicate complex concepts of physical and metaphysical significance.

The blacksmith in the mythology of the Mande of present-day Senegal for example is characterised as a healer possessing great knowledge of the plants linked to Mande life. The creation mythology of the Dogon of present-day Burkina Faso and the Fon of present-day Benin, both associate the origin of social order with the primordial smith sharing knowledge on material transformation through fire with mortal humans, allowing for the development of tools to build society. (Roberts & Berns, 2018)

This, of course, is informed by a conceptualisation of life as part of a larger cosmic reality governed by supernatural forces and spirit. Through stories, poetry and song, we learn about these spirits existing in physical form as rivers and lakes, forests, geological figures such as caves, mountains and rock faces and other natural features.

Interacting with nature is described in folklore as a sacred affair associated with consequence. Only those blessed with unnatural power, such as the blacksmith are able to justify interacting with nature as a creative, scientific and spiritual activity. The early blacksmith embodies societal concepts on innovation through technology as a product of understanding and relating to divine knowledge of the natural environment.

In this body of work, I focus on the literary devices used in oral mythology on indigenous African metal technologies to construct meaning. Using similar metaphors and paradigms, I hope to construct and share my understanding of the complex concepts communicated by West African blacksmiths such as frameworks for engineering sustainable relationships with the natural environment, the role of technology in societal life and the depiction of creative spiritual practices.

Roberts, A. F., & Berns, M. C. (2018). Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths. African Arts, 51(1), 66–85. https://doi.org/10.1162/afar_a_00393

Part 2: A Prayer to Nature Spirits

We used to worship our forest
We used to worship our rivers
We used to ask for their wisdom
We used to ask for their help

Recommended reading:  

Dwamena, A. (n.d.). Field Notes | Nature, Spirit and Climate Change in Ghana. https://fieldnotes.nationalgeographic.org/expedition/alongthevoltainghana

Awuah-Nyamekye, S. (2012). Belief in Sasa: Its Implications for Flora and Fauna Conservation in Ghana. Nature and Culture, 7(1), 1–15. https://doi.org/10.3167/nc.2012.070101

Part 3: Simulating Creative Spiritual Practices

The work is presented as a series of audio snippets from a soundtrack, each with a unique caption. These snippets are culled from a large 25-minute audio piece where I attempt to place the sampled sounds referencing non-industrial metalwork in affective proximity with each other. The samples include vignettes of recorded audio, referencing ingredients, activities and processes involved in forging metal.

My goal was to simulate a blacksmith at work, using my captions to branch out at different steps in the process and present my reflection to the audience.

The composition is sonically anchored by chord progression played as a slow mutating drone that consumes and recontextualizes samples of ores, sands, clays, stones, bellows, voices, etc. The drone as a sonic element, for example, represents the blacksmith fire, burning at pace and anchoring their process.

Part 4: The Divine Smith

“The Dogon understand the perils and purposes of life through complex narratives describing the beginning of time when the Supreme Being Amma lived in the “Above” with proto-human beings called Nommo. According to a well-known account, one Nommo had the audacity to steal a piece of the sun from Amma in order to bring fire to Earth, a feat necessary to the inauguration of human culture. Infuriated by such hubris, Amma hurled lightning bolts after the fleeing Nommo, causing its ark to crash and leading to the dispersal of plants, animals, and humans across Dogon lands. This same Nommo became the first blacksmith of Dogon, mastering practical and arcane knowledge necessary for human survival. Dogon arts reflect such life-sustaining associations, as in one remarkable iron figure with arms raised in poignant prayer, perhaps to bring adequate rain.”

Roberts, A. F., & Berns, M. C. (2018). Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths. African Arts, 51(1), 66–85. https://doi.org/10.1162/afar_a_00393

“The divine smith "invented" fire and the use of fire to change states of matter. He taught men agriculture and the domestication of animals. The interrelationship of the elements, air, water, fire, and earth, is crucial. But it is fire most of all that expresses the "magic" of metallurgy. It changes nature. It speeds up natural processes, compressing millennia into moments. And so the divine smith controls time. Fire in African cosmology symbolises spiritual existence, the incarnation of the sacred, and the closeness of the divine.”

Richards, D. (1981). The Nyama of the Blacksmith: The Metaphysical Significance of Metallurgy in Africa. Journal of Black Studies, 12(2), 218–238. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2784243

Part 5: Fire + Change

Fire is the architect of change, causing the furnace to burble and crackle, the wood and coal to shriek and crumble, and the ore to ping when struck. It facilitates the recontextualization of elements of nature into productive forms.

In contemporary music production, sampling as a technology similarly allows composers to contextualise existing pieces of music by destructively reorganising waveforms. This enables the invention of new sonic structures as an alternate expression of the original piece of music.

Sampling can be a bridge to a specific time, a reference to a particular place, idea or feeling. Sampling as a narrative element in music production enforces the fluidity of sound to bend and deform to accommodate the intangible emotions we seek to express through sound.

Part 6: A few of my favourite trees

Citrus and acacia
Kola and mango
Maize and cassava
Mahogany and beech
Tamarind and iron wood

Part 7: Maintaining the Forest

The first ingredient for any good fire is good fuel. The blacksmith is interested in relatively abundant and quick-growing species of woodland plants to fuel their pursuit of a consistent fire, burning with minimal smoke and consistency to turn black sand into the colour of the sun.

Fuel is precious and replenished by clearing the older trees at the end of their lives, already drying up inside and easier to burn.

The West African woodlands are connected to life through mysticism as most things are with permission sought through ritual practice to appease the spirits of the trees. The wood harvested to begin the blacksmith's pursuit is religiously managed.

The first ingredient for any good fire is fuel you can sustain.

Part 8: Turning Black Sand into the Colour of the Sun

Metaphors and sampling as narrative devices in written or oral communication both allow for fluidity of expression. Metaphors express thought in approachable and considerable forms bending truth beyond literal understanding. In West African oral literature, the blacksmiths are cast in celestial mystical realms, elevating their pursuit to a spiritual act.

This transfiguration of material processes embeds a sense of reverence and respect into the materials and process facilitating metalwork. These materials are often personalised and described with life-like attributes, making their sacrifice in the process of forging more considered and costly.

The Blacksmith’s fire, as a person and as narrative device, offers a recipe for turning black sand into the colour of the sun, without turning everything else grey.