Digital Placemaking Category

The Emperor’s Pianola

by Dr Shawn Sobers

The Emperor’s Pianola: How an Ethiopian royal family, and an antiquated music device, led to research into safe space and everyday life.

Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I came to live in the English city of Bath in 1936 for four

years, seeking a safe space from which to strategize to liberate his homeland from Benito

Mussolini's aggressive invasion. Fairfield House became a safe place for the Emperor and his family, government advisors, and Ethiopian Orthodox clergy, making the quaint English city the site of the headquarters of the Ethiopian government in exile and state cultural institutions. In Fairfield House was a pianola, and the Emperor used to enjoy ‘playing' and listening to the various music scrolls with his family. The genteel family scene is in contrast with the documented stress and political turmoil the Emperor was feeling at the time. This project explores the role of the Pianola in this dynamic domestic and political context, and the Emperor’s use of music as a means to create a sense of sanctity for his family, whilst simultaneously experiencing some of the biggest violent challenges of his life.

This project also explores the legacy of the pianola and the Emperor’s contemporary

influence in the city of Bath. Haile Selassie donated Fairfield House to the city’s elderly citizens in 1958, and the Pianola returned in 2013, along with 200 scrolls. I conducted interviews with the elder users of the house, using the narrative of the Emperor’s pianola and music choices as the starting point, to explore how the elders use music to create a sense of sanctity and peace in their lives.

The presence of digital has been present in the thinking throughout this research, but deliberately kept beneath the visible surface. The scaffold between the analogue and digital worlds are central to this research project, as just as in our lived reality, one cannot exist without the other. This piece of work with the elders is still ongoing, (stalled due to Covid19), and I am working with towards creating a contemporary automated digital jukebox device when all the interviews have been completed. The analogue will transport us into the digital, and the digital back up through the analogue. As in everyday life, the analogue and the digital are both sides of the same coin, rather than the different currencies they are made out to be. The pianola is an embodiment of this false contradictory duality – an analogue object from the 1930s, which is so mechanically innovative but unusual, it feels like it has come from the future.

The story of the Emperor’s pianola has not been previously researched or written about, making this project a contribution to new knowledge.

The website for this project includes outputs which I produced during the lifetime of the Digital Placemaking Fellowship, including;

· TEDx talk

· Blog article

· Pilot audio interview with Mrs Spalding

· Draft version of Illustrated Book

· Presentation about the research project delivered to African Caribbean Research Network

· Photo gallery

· Music selection

· Research process document

· Visit to Amsterdam Pianola Museum

Image Credit: Mahalia Sobers