Beyond The Fringe
The Boundless Musical Geographies of Hisham Mayet and Sublime Frequencies
The street performers all push their instruments--traditional or otherwise--into satisfying distortion for maximum crowd enjoyment. People clap, sing, and dance, and it's hard to differentiate between the audience and the performers. A DJ spins incredibly beat-up singles on the street, tweaking the pitch as it plays to make the notes more bent. It looks like a ton of work getting the grime out of records in the desert.
This is Marrakech's massive central square and Hisham Mayet is there with his camera--working on what would eventually become the Sublime Frequencies DVD release Jemaa El Fna: Morocco's Rendezvous of the Dead. The shooting style's what you might call "untraditional"; he's editing as he's filming. Sometimes he focuses on strikingly beautiful people in the audience and then veers back to the performers, themselves concentrating instead on a group of young kids playing on the fringes of the scene.
"DIY ethnography, punk rock ethnomusicology, subjective anthropology, ecstatic diplomacy." That's how Seattle-based co-founder Mayet describes the music and film label Sublime Frequencies, whose motto is "music thought not to exist is everywhere." It's apt: Mayet--a handsome, whip-smart, 40-ish raconteur--has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and North Africa, collecting sound and video along the way. In a matter of weeks he'll return to "Niger to continue my documentation of West African trance possession ceremonies," he says. He also plans to continue his exploration of the Tuareg, a nomadic, matriarchal North African dessert people whose music and dance is a strange hybrid of Arab and African styles.
Sublime Frequencies' impressive catalog of the last four years--six DVDs, two LPs, and 33 compact discs--is radically time/space-defying. These releases seem to come from a land where Sun Ra and the Ethiopiques series of psychedelic '70s funk are purely for the cocktail hour. Sublime Frequencies is the Nonesuch Explorer label on acid. "We are covering areas where most ethnomusicologists don't go--many of them are not interested in pop or folk hybrid music," Alan Bishop--the label's other cofounder and bassist for the recently disbanded Sun City Girls--explains, surrounded by his cavernous rehearsal space.
Mayet and Bishop used to get together with Richard Bishop and Charles Gocher of the Sun City Girls to watch and listen to recordings they'd made on world travels. When showings of the material at a Seattle dive bar called the Rendezvous met with great enthusiasm, they decided to start the label. "The label is owned and run by myself and Alan Bishop--we are the day to day operations," Mayet says via e-mail. He quickly adds that, "Mark Gergis, Robert Millis, Richard Bishop, Tucker Martine, Laurent Jeanneau, FM3 from Beijing, Carlos Casas in Spain, and Albano Costillares in Argentina have all contributed releases on the label," not wanting to imply that he and Bishop do everything.
These releases--consisting of (among other things) field recordings from Bali, North Vietnam, and Southern Laos; forbidden "gang funk" from Brazilian slums; radio collages made in Jerusalem and Algeria; interviews with people on the street in Syria; Javanese and Moroccan pop music; and Marrakech street performers--have a gloriously in-your-face approach to what's typically been the realm of academics. Bishop refers to phenomenologist Charles Fort's coinage "extrageography" to describe the Sublime Frequencies modus operandi. "[It's] a term Fort used to describe phenomenon outside of the accepted dimensions and perceptions of science and the common man," he says. "I use it as a generic place name to describe cultural areas--which have vibrant folklore and music--that are beyond the will of most to entertain as `valid' points of reference to study or merely want to learn about. For example, Niger, Benin, Oman, and Nagaland are extrageography because most people don't know anything about them, yet I could argue that people in those four areas of the world are as valid and perhaps superior to others when it comes to creating music of expressive beauty."
The CDs often have only the tiniest bits of information; the Radio Series--literally collages of recordings made from radio broadcasts--do not list the performers or tracks. The DVDs contain no narration at all, and often include but a smattering of background information. The label leaves it to the consumer to figure stuff out.
"A narrator is a distraction," Bishop says. "There is always an agenda, which `guides' the viewer. The best parts of all ethnographic film--Herdsmen of the Sun by Werner Herzog and Divine Horsemen by Maya Deren being two of the best--are the moments without narration. I'm not an idiot. I can figure out what's going on most of the time. Many other people are not idiots. They can make up their own mind about how to interpret non-narrated film. Why not completely superimpose yourself into [another] world without some schmuck--even if it's some well-intentioned schmuck--telling you what's going on?"
"This music and its players exist outside the marketability machine, so it's being played [and] presented unadulterated," Mayet says. "It's not necessarily technique that we're after, but rather honesty, passion, and unblinkingly raw interpretations of traditional forms. These performances or celebrations do not exist for the camera. A lot of the footage recorded transpired in a completely serendipitous manner."
Before he passed away earlier this year, Gocher told me that he felt "the whole Sublime Frequencies thing is allowing people to travel to where the music is without having to physically locate there."
"Now, when we travel, we know that we're on the job, trying to get the best and most unusual footage we can in order to release more DVD projects," Richard Bishop adds. "We will most likely continue to use the `no-narration' approach, which is in direct line with our film philosophy--no spin, no agenda, just pure sound and vision--to be interpreted and further researched by those who choose to."
There are those--from wonky message boards I Hate Music and I Love Music to the International Herald Tribune--who question Sublime Frequencies' method of unadorned/often unexplained presentation, arguing that it amounts to further marginalization and exoticization of other cultures rather than a true attempt at understanding. Then there's the question of how well the original performers should be compensated or whether it's possible even to find half the musicians on these labels. The Drag City-backed and Baltimore-based Yalla Yalla label has also been called to question on these fronts ("Who Is the World?" Best of Baltimore, Sept. 19), what former CP music editor Jess Harvell termed "claims of chauvinistic bootlegging" on the music blog Idolator. Such critics should "fight a much larger and nobler battle," Mayet says. "Their time would be much better spent focusing on issues that are affecting all of us in much more sinister ways."
The political import in releases of contemporary music from the Middle East is clear. Brian Turner, WFMU-FM program director, praises Sublime Frequencies titles such as I Remember Syria, Radio Palestine and Choubi! Folk and Pop Songs from Iraq as "timely in their importance" in an e-mail. "It's disappointing to see how the general music world is so immersed in its own problems--complaining about who's getting paid--rather than addressing the mortifying state of world affairs and releasing music to address it. The Sublime Frequencies series casts an amazing light on the cultures of other nations, including those that Bush considers `evil.' This stuff is just so important."
Mayet's films are consistently the best in the SF canon. "I really wouldn't know what else to do if I wasn't doing this right now," he says. "It nourishes me on a daily basis--I love a challenge and doing this is the ultimate test of will and execution."
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