The American music label Sublime Frequencies seeks out some of the rawest musical traditions from North Africa and the Middle East, creating international phenomena out of wedding performers from the Sahara to Syria
Words by Owain Lawson
In November of 2010, Hisham Mayet, cofounder of the Seattle-based record label Sublime Frequencies, screened his 2008 video documentary, Palace of the Winds, at a corner-store diner that had been converted into one of Montreal’s hip destinations. With a collage of music and images captured in Morocco and Mauritania, the film’s elegant visions of desert landscapes and intimate home concerts contrasted sharply with the bleak Canadian cold and wet outside. The film was projected over the lunch counter to a small audience of cognoscenti, the kind of engaged and voracious followers the taste-making label attracts. While Palace of the Winds was, like many Sublime Frequencies offerings, an engaging but opaque musical journey without any narrative structure, Mayet was open and affable, pleased to recount the remarkable stories behind how his films and albums are made.
Born in Libya and raised in London and California, Mayet is an inveterate traveler and passionate documentarian who, along with his collaborators at Sublime Frequencies, voraciously seeks out, records, and collects music. Rather than the disengaged, professionally produced sounds that typify mainstream world music, the label deliberately seeks out raw, immediate documents of unique musicians from remote areas, captured with whatever unsophisticated recording device is at hand and released in glorious low fidelity. Recalling the work of Alan Lomax, the legendary Smithsonian archivist and ethnomusicologist who made field recordings of disappearing American folk music in the 1930s, the label celebrates the special kind of casual proficiency found among folk traditions and grass-roots working musicians. The immediacy of the recording process communicates something transcendent and intangible, imparting the sensation of being in the moment, of being at the wedding party, street corner, or living room where it was performed.
“I’ve been traveling since I was in the womb; my mother flew to Lebanon while pregnant with me. I think that I absorbed so much in terms of different cultures in those formative years, that it’s been hotwired into my system to have it be the only work I do now,” Mayet explains over e-mail. “I’ve been physically and systemically collecting, recording, and filming and sharing material for over ten years now. I suppose the main reason, is that with these sounds and images from all the different areas I’ve been exploring, some of the finer examples of the music and culture and geography are so sublime and ecstatic that it would be a crime not to.”
Redefining the notion of what a record label can be, Sublime Frequencies collaborators discover, record, and produce their releases in entirety; as such, the label is a curatorial artistic project in its own right. Founded in 2003 by Mayet and Alan Bishop, the label began as a means to disseminate the vast archive of footage and recordings they and their friends had amassed over decades of travel. Though their initial inspiration may seem casual and unambitious, the label immediately set to releasing records in rapid succession, made possible by pressing short runs that sell out quickly, and now have a prolific catalog of sixty-nine albums and DVDs of music by artists from the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Asia.
While many of their releases are compilation-oriented, such as 2004’sRadio Palestine: Sounds of the Eastern Mediterranean, a visionary collection of music recorded directly from the radio by Bishop during a visit there in 1985, they’ve also re-released professional recordings by such legends as Omar Korshid, the guitar virtuoso of Umm Kulthum’s orchestra, and Erkin Koray, the father of Anatolian heavy rock, along with regionally specific compilations such as Choubi Choubi! Folk and Pop Sounds from Iraq.
In 2007, the project expanded to include single-artist releases by current bands, and the label dropped what would become its most prominent releases. Omar Souleyman from Syria, Group Inerane from Niger, and Group Doueh from Western Sahara have since emerged from the Sublime Frequencies catalog to become standouts, and have been brought by the label to tour North America and Europe to raving success. In the same way Lomax’s recordings inspired new generations of American folk musicians from Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan, ten years on, Sublime Frequencies are seeing their bands play major international festivals and influence Western musicians, as evinced by Souleyman’s 2011 collaboration with Björk.
Group Inerane, a psychedelic Tuareg rock outfit, is the go-to wedding band in the war-torn Agadez region of northern Niger, deep in the Sahara. Band leader Bibi Ahmed performs a popular guitar style that emerged from Libyan refugee camps, a mix of traditional Saharan folk and electric blues, with a breathtaking natural virtuosity that recalls Hendrix or Neil Hagerty, backed by a chorus of singing and trilling female voices. Their 2007 release Group Inerane: Guitars from Agadez vol. 1 remains a remarkable and durable album. “That was recorded about forty-five minutes within meeting them for the first time,” Mayet says. “It was as ecstatic an experience as I could have ever wished.”
Mayet met Group Inerane while gathering footage for his film Niger: Magic and Ecstasy in the Sahel in 2004. The film closes with an extended performance by Inerane, ten gaily dressed men and women dancing gently while singing and playing in a small brick room, surrounded by a giant sheet of pink, rose-print fabric. Mayet continued to visit and record them and Group Bombino, another Agadez-based group of musical revolutionaries, throughout the Second Tuareg Rebellion that shook the region from 2007 to 2009. It was a hard time for the musicians: Most were exiled to Burkina Faso, and Adi Mohammed, the second guitarist of Group Inerane, was shot and killed during the tumult.
Two years later, the surviving members and their new guitarist Koudede Maman toured Europe. “Touring has opened them to the possibility of affecting the West in ways they would have never dreamed of,” Mayet says. “Most of them had traveled to many places in Europe, so I think they went at the tour as a job more than an adventure.” While Sublime Frequencies has had a profound impact on their lives, Mayet suggests the band’s international acclaim doesn’t carry much significance at home: “I think their immediate community is cognizant of their success overseas but in terms of them being awarded a local medal of honor, that’s still some time away.” Bearing copies of their newest release Guitars from Agadez vol. 4, Inerane returned home from tour to Agadez, which remains desperately impoverished and unstable, its Libyan refugee camps swollen since the war last summer.
On his first overseas tour in 2010, Souleyman gave an instantly legendary performance at the Montreal Jazz Festival. After days of torrential rain had decimated attendance at the outdoor festival, Souleyman took the stage mid-afternoon and, as the first of his signature, wild dabka sounds erupted from the speakers, the skies parted and remained clear for the unyieldingly energetic forty-five-minute set. Souleyman, from Hassake in northeastern Syria, has a deceptively traditional appearance—a middle-aged man with a large mustache, sunglasses, and kuffiyeh—but his music is a kinetic, rugged, and original take on dabka, and his regal, commanding stage presence is completely invigorating. Given that his image conforms to an Arab stereotype demonized in the West, a more unlikely figure to become an underground sensation is hard to imagine.
Souleyman was discovered for the label by Mark Gergis, a relentless traveler who curates many of the label’s Middle Eastern releases. “When I travel somewhere,” says Gergis over e-mail, “I’m listening to everything, meeting people, recording sounds and music from the radio, asking questions.” On his first trip to Syria in 1997, Gergis discovered Souleyman’s music on heavy rotation on local radio and sold at cassette kiosks. “I was searching for rawer forms of Syrian and Iraqi dabka music at the time, and Omar’s sound really struck me. I bought as many cassettes as I could and continued to visit the country over the next decade, always buying his latest issues.”
Since his first release for the label in 2007, Souleyman has become one of their most sought-after artists, selling out his US record pressings in days. By the time he was approached by Gergis, Souleyman had already achieved the celebrity he still enjoys in Syria, where he makes a living as a hugely popular wedding performer. Gergis says, in Syria, “Omar is known for being something of an international celebrity, which is probably a curious and anomalous thing amongst the Syrian dabka circuit, but it hasn’t really affected how he works or performs at home ... It was quite a surprise for everyone, including him, but when you think about it, it makes sense. He is a natural stage man with classic showmanship and charisma, and the music is incredible, and it’s an urgent type of Arabic music that really hasn’t been heard much in the West.”
Bringing these artists overseas has not always been an easy process. During the last year of violence and repression in Syria, the label has been concerned about the kind of exposure Souleyman has received, to the point of having a “no-politics policy” when granting interviews with him. “In his own words, he is a singer, not a politician, and we like to keep it that way,” Gergis says.
To whether there’s a chance touring and working with an American label might have a negative impact on Souleyman at home, Mayet responds emphatically, “I think it’s quite the opposite. The main issue is how the Western press treats their story. Most journalists are idiots ... Some journalists are fishing for a political angle and sometimes that gets complicated because most of the countries that we deal with are on top of ‘terror watch’ lists. When a journalist tries to make a connection to a current political situation, it compromises the musicians in a severe way. None of them are political outright.”
While it’s first and foremost a project to celebrate and transmit music, Gergis concedes there’s an implicit political dimension to Sublime Frequencies’ choice to expose Western audiences to joyful music from Syria, Iraq, Libya, and other countries that have been made objects of fear in the Western imagination.
“All of the Middle Eastern releases I have worked on try to humanize the region and let Western audiences listen in to and think about sounds from a place they may never have” considered before, Gergis says.
Mayet suggests he’s happy to issue releases that reflect his interests, experiences, and values and let them speak for themselves, to keep himself free to explore the music he finds personally fascinating without worrying about how the project is interpreted. “Sublime Frequencies will continue to operate under its own set of rules,” he says. “That was how we started, and how we will finish this project.”
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