Book Excerpt: Dance music, found sounds & cultural heritage

By in Features





In his new book Ears To The Ground, published by Velocity Press, former VF contributor Ben Murphy explores the world of underground electronic and field recordings. In this excerpt from chapter 15–World wide: dance music, found sounds and cultural heritage–Murphy observes the role of found sounds in the works of dance producers around the world.

At its most cutting edge, dance music is a laboratory of sonic experimentation. Field recordings, foley and samples from the real world have long been part of the production palette for the most forward-thinking artists. When it comes to the use of found sounds, South London producer Burial is a genius. William Bevan’s dark, mournful twist on UK garage emerged from the underground in 2005, and his self-titled debut album the following year crossed over and resonated way beyond the dance world. 

Atmospheric and cavernous, his sound evoked the feeling of rain streaked south London streets viewed through the fogged windows of a night bus in the early hours, but it was 2007’s Untrue that was his masterpiece. On album tracks like “Near Dark”, the sounds of thunder, rain, and the crackle of radio interference merge with foley sounds of spent bullet shells hitting a concrete floor, sampled from a Playstation game. “Etched Headplate” uses the sound of a cigarette lighter being sparked for its skippy snare sound: both an evocation of late night smoking sessions, and a reference to the offbeat drum hits of the jungle / drum & bass rhythms that first inspired him. 

The found sounds that Burial uses serve to enhance the atmosphere of his tracks, but they also cloak their deep emotions. Often melancholic, sometimes euphoric, the sense of fuzz, crackle and rain in his music, and the sonically-altered R&B voices – sampled from YouTube cover version acapellas – are submerged, lending the best of his music a surreal, dreamlike quality. In his famous Wire interview with late writer and theorist Mark Fisher, Burial said: ‘If you hide sounds in the mist, it’s like a veil across the far wall of the tune’.

On his second album Let’s Get Killed, Belfast DJ, producer and film soundtrack composer David Holmes documented a wild trip around New York, interspersing the beats with snippets of conversation with people on the street, and ambient noise recorded around the city. The recordings were made when Holmes visited NYC when he was 17, but he didn’t use them until ten years later. The resulting album showed his cinematic flair, its extreme tales bringing the Big Apple to life, and its variety of styles, from drum & bass to trip-hop, showing Holmes’ consummate skill as a producer.


Today, field recording is an international art, and a fresh faction of dance producers is using them in unconventional ways. Producers in Morocco, Egypt, Tanzania, Uganda, China, Japan, Jamaica, Colombia and Argentina have incorporated found sounds into club-compatible tracks, which also communicate their environments and express their cultural heritage.

Morocco’s Guedra Guedra (real name Abdellah M Hassak) takes his artist moniker from the folk dance of the same name. Guedra also refers to a cooking pot, which can be adapted into a drum when a leather skin is stretched over the top of it. Hassak mixes samples of both Moroccan folk music and music from countries south of the Sahara, from chants to instrumentation and percussion, with atmospheric recordings and dance beats that draw from bass-led genres such as dubstep, footwork and jungle. On his 2021 album Vexilology, the electronic and organic rhythms merge to the extent that you can’t hear the join. The track “Aura” samples the chanting of the Zayane mountain community, and positions it over wubbing sub-bass; on other tracks, traditional instruments such as the taghanimt flute and bendir drum are used. 

‘The Guedra Guedra project was first created following a desire to propose another way of imagining and producing music inspired by my culture and my history,’ he told Mixmag. Talking of the way in which he harmoniously combines his recordings with electronic beats, he said: ‘I never think of giving a specific style to a specific production, the first important element is to produce some new stuff that exactly matches the true reality of African field recordings and archive without distorting it to keep the true poetic sense. I think it’s this crossing that gives that final touch to this music, there will always be different results from one song to another.’

Though his work focuses on representing different folk traditions through an electronic music lens, Guedra Guedra is also thrilled by the musicality of the world itself. On his album’s first track, “Seven Poets”, the trill of a songbird is threaded through musical chants, and looped in a rhythmic way so as to become almost a percussive device. Talking to interview website 15 Questions, he spoke of how field recording devices, and the way they capture sound, allows us to hear the world anew.

‘Nature itself can be considered a vast “musical composition” to be harmonised by highlighting natural sounds,’ he said. ‘The most moving experiences I’ve had with these non-human created sounds have primarily occurred when I’ve listened to the world through various sound-capturing tools, such as acoustic microphones, hydrophones, electromagnetic sensors, binaural and mono recordings, and more.

‘These tools have allowed me to perceive the world in ways different from those perceived by the human ear alone. By listening to the world with these devices, I’ve been captivated by sounds I could never have grasped otherwise. Birdsong, rustling leaves, ocean waves – all these sounds take on a new dimension, revealing a hidden symphony woven into the fabric of nature itself.

‘I consider these experiences “musical” in the sense that they present elements of composition and structure that evoke emotions similar to those of traditional music,’ he continued. ‘The rhythmic patterns, natural melodies, and complex sonic textures found in these non-human sounds create an organic harmony that resonates with our senses in a profound and powerful way.’

Ears To The Ground by Ben Murphy is out now via Velocity Press.