The fog creeps up from the floor of ÆDEN. It dances around the edges of the dress that Sanni Est is wearing. The venue is packed with people sitting on the floor, attentively listening to the performance by the Brazilian singer and transmedia artist. On stage with a harpist, Sanni worked out a setlist of covers and original pieces to present at XJAZZ!. Coming from a classical vocal training background, her voice climbs crystal-clear pitches across four octaves amidst the hazy concert space.

I meet the artist ahead of her show after the soundcheck. Sitting in the back of the room, I quietly listened in as she and the musicians supporting her, strike the first chords. “I love experimenting with different instruments,” Sanni Est tells me as we sit down in the venue’s large backstage bathroom in search of a quiet place. Instead of performing her recent album Photophobia with its complex audiovisual performance, she created Sanni Sings for the festival – a less logistically challenging but still immersive interpretation of cover songs and her own.

Beyond Technique

Photophobia is an extremely interesting project. It moves outside of music conventions and normative recording structures and projects futures of radical decoloniality and solidarity. It is a decolonial and abolitionist record. The harp – a very Western, classical connotated instrument – did not fit my impression of the record. Sanni laughs revealing the tiny gems decorating her front teeth: “I did go to classical music school. A conservatory. I like implementing what I learned but I am not a classical singer”. The show, like Sanni Est’s artistic practice, plays with the listener’s expectations, disrupts them, calls them out, and radically follows creative instinct.

Inspired by artists like Björk who also used classical training to break the rules, Sanni describes the balance and tension between classical formation and experimental, boundary-breaking songs as natural to her. “The way Björk sings is extremely vulnerable and raw and strong at the same time. She has all the techniques in the world. She could sing differently, but she doesn’t. It sounds human. That was my goal basically.”

The Transness of the Voice

“My education was a classical European one even though I was in Brazil”, Sanni tells me. The colonial structures and epistemic violence echo in educational contexts across the globe. Power structures inscribe themselves in the way knowledge is valued (or not) by the dominant discourse. Part of the project Photophobia was appropriating the knowledge that Sanni was taught, and using it for her artistic exploration outside of the boundaries of Western classical education. Sanni merges influences from the Brazilian and Afro-Brazilian music scene with electronic production, sound art, and tools from her classical background.

“Photo – light
Phobia – rejection.
“Photophobia” is a manifesto,
is etymological research,
is a performance,
is an artistic movement.”

During her classical vocal education, Sanni Est struggled to explore her chest voice and predominantly sang with her head voice. In our interview, she explains that going through puberty as an amab person (assigned male at birth), her voice went deep sending her into a crisis that kept her from singing for years. It was only later that Sanni allowed herself to rediscover her chest voice. “I stopped singing because I would have been too ashamed of exposing myself basically”, she tells me.“When I was 18, I came to Berlin and I didn’t sing for eight years because that was when I started transitioning. I could not combine both things because my classical education taught me that your real voice is your chest voice and not your head voice for men.”

After realizing that she is trans and beginning transitioning, her voice became a danger to her passing in a cisnormative world. “I am a very femme woman, and I even did vocal therapy to feminize my voice in the time that I was not singing. There, I learned vocal techniques and my goal was to sound like a cis woman, period. It took me years to build the confidence to explore the transness of my voice. It was a very deep and internal process that happened through the composition and research of Photophobia”. As I talk to her, Sanni radiates that confidence and speaks openly about the struggles on her way. During her show, she explores the full range of her vocal register, soaring high and dropping low.

“What is expected of the trans body? What is expected of the trans femme body? How can I decolonize my music when I still feel like I have to be a cis woman? I took my time to find new aesthetics. It was very confrontational but now I feel invincible. It does not threaten my identity anymore.” 

Self-Abolition and Decolonization

Sanni Est allows her voice to shine in its full beauty calling it an “exploration of the transness” of her voice. The gender binary and cisgender normativity is a colonial wound, as Sanni has described it. Breaking with the colonial gender binaries and the rigid classical education, Sanni’s goal was to decolonize her musical practice, to get rid of the Western influence and the colonial structures. “Photophobia was meant to be very decolonial,” the singer tells me. “But the deeper I got into it, the more I understood that to decolonize myself I needed to – I don’t want to use the word but – empower and free myself. I needed to abolish myself.”

The song Self-Abolition is about this process: The abolition of identity categories as ascribed by an oppressive Western modern-colonial system of thought. It is also the most impressive presentation of the singer’s four-octave vocal range. Sanni Est moves from Self-Abolition to Transhumang, manifesting herself in a category outside of what that discourse thinks of as human. She paints post-human, beyond-human worlds in her music. While still considered a decolonial project, Sanni was not able to proceed as planned without the use of any technology or software developed by the colonizer, the white Global North.

“I came to the conclusion that I should use everything that is reachable to be and appropriate also my own education. It wouldn’t have been fair to myself and my artistry if I needed another world to be able to make my art. I had to use what was available to me, but always do so on my own terms. My focus was to be as true to myself and emotionally naked as possible.”

The Mangrove

While Photophobia reappropriates Western and colonial music theory and technology, it was also profoundly influenced by the local music tradition in North-Eastern Brazil. In the mid-90s a musical movement started in that region that is also Sanni’s place of birth. Manguebeat was named after the Mangroves that make up a significant part of the landscape there. It was the first musical style that combined North-Eastern Brazilian rhythms like maracatu, frevo, caranda, afoxé, and Yoruba drumming (originating in West Africa, contemporary Nigeria, Yoruba tradition has shaped the spiritual and musical landscape of Brazil) with electronic elements.

In her musical style and the visuals, Sanni Est references the Mangroves and manguebeat. “I wanted to make this concept more global. There is way too little consciousness of it and it’s so important. Manguebeat changed how we make music in Brazil.” With the manguebeat references, Sanni calls attention to artists like Chico Science and Cordel do Fogo Encantado who shaped the movement.

Growing tall roots over the water, Mangroves are a natural phenomenon. They are an essential part of the Amazon rainforest’s ecosystem and home to communities of crabs and other critters. To Sanni Est, who describes herself as an environmentalist, calling attention to the disastrous rate at which the Mangroves are being cleared is central. “[The Mangroves] are a vital environment to the earth. Without mangroves, there is no human life on Earth. We do not know that because Mangroves grow in tropical areas, which are usually in colonized countries and in coastal areas. Most of the tourism happens in the coastal areas and big investors from the Global North are pushing the continuous clearing of the Mangroves for their own economic purposes.” Deforestation and gentrification affect Black and Indigenous people disproportionately.

“The Mangroves are cemeteries of animals. They are places of death. So it stinks and is regarded as an inconvenience to the urbanization process of the cities. But they should not be destroyed. Thinking about a post-human world, nature will stay. But the conditions for human life are not going to be provided if we stick to this rhythm. But everything else will flourish again. The mangroves will still be here.”

Sanni Est’s Photophobia is out now.

Photos by Liv Toerkell.