Out of my headphones comes a flow of odd, weirdly tactile sound: what could be an army of ants marching across a plain of contact mics, a landslide of scree recorded from a mile away, or perhaps the first field recording taken from Ingenuity, the tiny robotic helicopter currently flying sorties above the Martian landscape. Delicate clicks, burring friction and the waterfall-like spatiality of granular flow all galvanise my ears.It’s the sort of thing that may interest subscribers to The Wire magazine, or that an underground musician usually seen sweating over a badly soldered modular synth could make in a moment of calm. This is Lego White Noise, and while it definitely sounds like experimental music, the name makes it clear that this is the work of the world’s most “reputable brand”.The project was devised by Lego’s “head of creative” Primus Manokaran, who describes the streaming-only album as “a collection of soundscapes” designed to promote relaxation and mindfulness. Although the seven tracks, which each run to half an hour in length, are different in their granular details, essentially they were made by Lego pieces being poured out of tubs, sifted through and clicked together.Manokaran’s team began thinking about why people love Lego during lockdown, and realised that a big hook was how it sounds. Inspired by the online craze for white noise as an aid to relaxation and focus, they began recording. “The acoustic properties of each brick was slightly different,” he says. “It was like composing with 10,000 tiny instruments.”They used as many different Lego elements as possible – from outsized toddler-friendly Duplo bricks to tiny minifigure heads – to create a wide range of raw sound, without using much in the way of audio processing bar some EQing, and reverb to create ambience.The album covers more ground than you might imagine. Built For Two is the classic sound of a Lego build: the painstaking search for the right piece typified by bricks being scraped across baseplates and the swish of elements being brushed left and right, but it is essentially abstract noise. Searching For the One (Brick), on the other hand, has a tangible structure. A hand rustles through a chaos of elements and then plinks a single piece on to a separate pile at distinct intervals (a process definitely enhanced by sequencing and looping). So there are two unique “song” styles on this album – that’s the same number as Oasis featured on their debut and one more than the Libertines achieved in their entire career, so who are we to say this isn’t music?Manokaran says each track “has a ‘formula’ and utilises a family of bricks that have similar audio qualities” but stops short of describing them as actual music, preferring the comparison to nature sounds – a wildly popular YouTube phenomenon for recordings of rivers, gentle breezes and rainfall, valued for their relaxing and often sleep-promoting properties.The “but is it music?” question that can be levelled at Lego White Noise is at least a century old itself. Italian futurist Luigi Russolo published The Art of Noise in 1913, claiming that in the age of industrialisation and modern warfare the orchestra was redundant and should be replaced with an “infinite variety of noise sounds”. Erik Satie coined the term Furniture Music the following year, an early precursor to what Brian Eno termed ambient in 1978, a liminal music intended for ignoring as much as enjoying. When Edgard Varèse described his own work as “organised sound” in 1966, he was only giving elegant echo to the ideas first dreamed up by French composer Pierre Schaeffer and his GRMC unit 25 years earlier when they first conceived of musique concrète – the practice of assembling recorded sounds as a form of composition.The affordable sampler has since created a handful of notable noise maestros including Matmos, who have created work by recording such varied sound sources as a washing machine and silicone breast implants; and Katie Gately who has used an MRI scanner as an instrument. Even the idea of making music using children’s toys is not unique, as they have long featured in the kit of veteran improvisers such as David Toop and Steve Beresford, not to mention Rie Nakajima, a favourite at east London experimental haunt Cafe Oto who, if memory serves correctly, I once saw playing a solo on a set of wind-up teeth at a Norwegian arts festival.There are many parallels between Lego White Noise and music I genuinely love. The track The Waterfall, created by thousands of elements being poured out of a huge tub reminds me of one of my favourite ever gig moments: watching Einstürzende Neubauten perform the song Unvollständigkeit and at the climax, spill a seemingly never ending stream of glittering metal rods out of a hopper on to a microphone, creating a delightful shiver of sound. In this sense, the Lego music has definite ASMR properties, the pleasant tingling sensation and euphoria triggered by specific visual and sonic triggers.John Doran and his son after a successful Lego project. Photograph: Maria JefferisI enjoy listening to Lego White Noise for much more fundamental reasons, though. My son turned 10 last week and this milestone birthday arrived with a dawning, bittersweet realisation. Over the last decade I had been blithely convinced I was helping him cement permanent joyful memories when we played together, whereas I was probably just creating Proustian triggers for myself, which will only become fully activated after he leaves home. I tried to engage him in a conversation about Thomas the Tank Engine yesterday only to discover that his memory of the show, despite an overwhelmingly intense four-year obsession with it, is now cursory at best.I feel that there is a greater chance of him clearly remembering the happiness Lego brought him, however, because of how it appeals directly to the senses, from its bright colours to its sharp-edged utilitarian design (those who have trodden on it while barefoot might disagree with this point).And most of all, because Lego sounds unique. This peculiar audio signature is due to the material it is made from: acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, or ABS. It has to be light enough to facilitate the building of complex towering structures, resilient enough to withstand constant reuse, and easy enough to mould to great degrees of accuracy. The resulting sonic properties are closer to glass or porcelain than most common plastics.But plastic it is, and the knowledge that 600 billion Lego pieces have been produced to date, comes with a significant sense of disquiet. Lego has given itself a deadline of 2030 to devise a more eco-friendly alternative to ABS. When the new Lego turns up in eight years’ time will it sound the same? I suspect this probably isn’t a priority for the company and that, unfortunately, it won’t. Perhaps Lego White Noise will ultimately end up a work of hauntology, a valuable sonic document evoking happy cultural memories of childhoods, and parenthoods, via sounds now in danger of being altered for good.
Teklay Hailay* has been so worried since November 4 that he has had trouble sleeping. That is when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared in a televised speech the start of military operations in Ethiopia’s Tigray state in response to what he described as “traitorous” attacks on military camps.
The offensive came on the heels of steadily growing tensions between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which used to rule the northern region of some six million people.
Abiy, who in 2019 won the Nobel Peace Prize partly for his efforts to end two decades of frozen conflict with neighbouring Eritrea, rushed to declare victory over the TPLF in late November after government forces entered the regional capital, Mekelle. But fighting has dragged on and reports of mass atrocities keep emerging, leading to fears of a protracted conflict with devastating effects on the local civilian population.
What has garnered less attention, however, is the plight of Teklay’s ethnic kin: the Irob, a minority group with their own distinct language who live among the much larger Tigrayan population in the embattled region. Numbering about 60,000, of whom an estimated 35,000 live in semi-arid mountainous areas in Tigray’s northeastern corner bordering Eritrea, the Irob now face an existential crisis in addition to the humanitarian suffering caused by the ongoing conflict, activists say.
“The social structure of the Irob community has been turned totally upside down,” Teklay, who lives in the capital Addis Ababa, told Al Jazeera. “Many, perhaps up to 50 percent of the original population … fled to regional cities in Tigray and even to Addis Ababa, leaving mostly elderly and children behind.”
Since the early days of the conflict, the Irob district has been under the total control of Eritrean forces who crossed into Ethiopia to support its federal troops in the fight against the TPLF.
The Eritrean government of Isaias Afwerki and the TPLF, which for decades used to dominate Ethiopian politics until Abiy took power three years ago, have a longstanding animosity over a complex territorial, economic and political dispute that in 1998 devolved into a brutal two-year war that killed tens of thousands of people.
With the Irob district inaccessible and under a communications blackout over the past six months, Teklay has only been able to receive scattered information on the humanitarian situation from people who fled south to other cities in Tigray and Addis Ababa.
“I have helped to conduct memorial rites [in Addis Ababa] for 63 Irob natives killed by Eritrean troops, with some of the deceased being my relatives and friends,” he said. “Among the 63 dead is a young man, whose farmer father was abducted by Eritrean soldiers more than two decades ago, never to be seen again.”
The 40-year-old said the restrictions in Irob areas have made it “impossible to know the real death toll” – but that is not the only thing that has him worried. There are major fears of starvation, too.
“The conflict started just as the crop harvest season was about to start, a major concern for an already food insecure area,” he said.
Teklay and other Irob people living across Ethiopia are keeping a low profile, especially after the arrest earlier this year of Dori Asgedom, leader of the pro-Irob Assimba Democratic Party over his opposition to the war, according to activists.
This means it has fallen to people in the diaspora such as Fissuh Hailu to try to raise awareness about the plight of the Irob community.
Fissuh, deputy manager of Irob Advocacy Global Support Group, said the intermittent restoration of telephone lines late last year in major Tigray cities such as Mekelle and Adigrat has allowed him to collect “very limited, yet very devastating” information from witnesses who fled Irob district.
This is incomplete list of civilians massacred by #EritreanArmy in #Irob districts only & verified by @IrobAdvocacy.Many are abducted & still missing. #Irobs refute that unfair EEBC rulling. #EritreaOutOfTigray @SecBlinken @StateDept @UNGeneva @UNTreatyBodies #TigrayGenocide @UN https://t.co/bGtI8gCiru pic.twitter.com/JoeDbgBUhC
— 𝐹𝒾𝓈𝓈𝓊𝒽 𝐻𝒶𝒾𝓁𝓊, 𝒶𝓀𝒶 𝐹𝒾𝓈𝒽 (@fishhailu83) January 30, 2021
“Ever since the start of the war, Eritrean forces have engaged in indiscriminate killings and shellings of Irob areas,” said Fissuh.
“People are terrified and live in constant fear of [a] next round of civilian massacres and abduction by the invading forces. Civilian properties have all but been looted in the area.”
Fissuh also said he had received reports that Eritrea had already appointed local administrators, with the “Eritrean military continuing to terrorise, starve the locals as well as forcing the[m] to slaughter their animals to feed them”.
The reports could not be independently verified.
While the Irob community, like the rest of Tigray, has been enduring the disastrous impact of the conflict that has killed thousands of people and displaced nearly two million, the Irob also fear that if peace comes someday, it could be at their expense.
That is because the Ethiopia-Eritrea Border Commission (EEBC) that was formed in the aftermath of the 1998-2000 war handed approximately one-third of Irob land to Eritrea, even though the decision has not been enforced. Addis Ababa refused to implement it unconditionally and instead called for dialogue. Eritrea said there was no need for talks and stressed the only way forward was the unconditional demarcation of the border.
“If the decision of the EEBC is implemented as it is, this tiny Irob land and people will be divided into two belligerent nations. That, almost certainly, will be the end of the existence of the Irob minority as a viable ethnic group,” argued Fissuh.
He said his community had not yet recovered from the effects of the bitter 1998-2000 war when the fresh round of torment struck the Irob six months ago. “During the two-year border war, the Irob community, just like now, was under Eritrean occupation, with Eritrean forces evicting the locals and forcibly disappearing 96 community members,” Fissuh said.
Martin Plaut, a longtime observer of politics in the Horn of Africa, said the Irob are potentially looking at a bleak future, with the division of the community, as envisaged by the EEBC, being the most likely scenario.
“The Irob district has effectively been annexed by Eritrea, which is treating it as part of its territory,” he told Al Jazeera. “Links with the rest of Ethiopia have apparently been cut and maps of humanitarian aid show that none appears to be reaching the area – leaving people on the edge of starvation,” added Plaut.
“It’s almost as if Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy has washed his hands of the Irob.”
Al Jazeera reached out to Eritrea’s information ministry and to Eritrea’s mission to the African Union for comment, as well as to the office of the Ethiopian prime minister, but no response was received by the time of publication. This article will be updated upon receipt of a response.
*Name changed to protect their identity