Download: Hisham Mayet – Sublime Frequencies Mix
It’s a crap metaphor, I know, but sometimes it’s fun to imagine western pop-culture as a vain, self-obsessed teenager with a limited attention span. Every few years, it surfaces from its bed long enough to actually notice the rest of the world. Uncertain whether to re-enrol in college or to get a proper job, it packs a rucksack and heads off abroad to find itself. A sort of musical gap-year…
We’re going through one of those phases right now: in a mirror image of the post-punk period, today’s musical landscape is littered with a zillion ‘ethnic’ influences, from Damon Albarn’s adventures in Chinese opera to Franz Ferdinand’s aborted attempt to board the Africa Express via M.I.A’s global goulash of 21st century pop. Whilst most artists are embracing these influences in a genuine spirit of musical exploration you still can’t help but feel the occasional twinge of cynicism. When Vampire Weekend and Yeasayer describe their music as “Upper West Side Soweto” or “Middle Eastern-Psych-Snap-Gospel” it sometimes feels uncomfortably reductive, as if entire cultures – someone else’s lives and dreams – have been compressed down into a convenient marketing tag that sprinkles exotic fairy-dust over the otherwise familiar and hum-drum. Cheap air-travel and the internet offer the illusion of a world that’s now so tiny you can store it on your hard-drive, but our relationship with the rest of the planet seems as one-sided as ever: you can only Google “Soukous” if you already know it exists. Thank God, then, for Sublime Frequencies.
Sublime Frequencies is a Seattle-based label founded in 2003 by Hisham Mayet, Alan Bishop and his brother Richard. It specialises in raw, street-level field-recordings, mostly from North Africa, Asia and the Middle Eastern. Bar-bands, back-alley buskers, short-wave broadcasts, deranged Indonesian folk-pop, Kurdish cassette-booth fodder, Cambodian freak-beat, Tuareg guitar-heroes…you name it: SF like to get up-close and dirty, releasing garishly-packaged runs of mind-bogglingly brilliant music that has fallen through the cracks.
The label’s back-catalogue is breath-taking in its variety: from the brutal, gunshot-splattered bashment of Proibidão C.V – Forbidden Gang Funk from Rio de Janeiro to the bonkers 150bpm sun-frazzled selection of pre-invasion Iraqi pop on the Choubi! Choubi comp. Check SF’s series of African desert-blues records, Guitars From Agadez, or the label’s album of insect electronica – field-recordings of Asian cicadas that resemble malfunctioning laptops – or their North Korean Commie Funk CD, which flips from cheesy DX7-backed power-ballads to Eurovision-style propaganda sing-along’s: it’s a Kim Jong-worshipping jolly-up for all the family!
“SF’s methodology is deliberately contrary and counter-intuitive, allowing their operational aesthetic to remain elusive and untarnished by clueless corporate copycats.”
SF’s methodology is deliberately contrary and counter-intuitive, allowing their operational asthetic to remain elusive and untarnished by clueless corporate copycats. The label is fiercely independent, staffed by an international network of volunteers who work guerilla-style, unimpressed by fashion and far from dry acedemic research, corporate sponsorship or tasteful boutique imprints. Self-financed, low volume runs of high quality material sell through before internet piracy becomes an issue. Their back-catalogue veers from lavish gatefolds with detailed sleeve-notes to random collage-style CDs sourced from local radio-stations, found casettes and live recordings and films of street performers. Their preference, however, is for vinyl. “It’s more of a risk and more expensive to make,” says Alan Bishop, “but these days it seems to be manageable. Our aim is to someday have every release on vinyl. Perhaps we’ll even do them all on cassette too.”
Stream: Omar Souleyman – Dabke 2001
Sublime Frequencies spun out of Sun City Girls, an Arizona free-rock group formed in ’82 by the Bishop Brothers and the late, much-missed Charles Gocher. SCG were a delirious mash-up of free-form jazz, noise, spoken-word and middle-Eastern mysticism, often performed in bizarre ritual costumes. They are hugely repected – no, revered – from the sub-underground upwards. Gang Gang Dance’s Josh Diamond is a big fan of both the label and the band, telling FACT: “Sun City Girls were making neo-world-tribal-ethnic-eastern-psychedelic-outsider weird shit since before Gang Gang wet its first diapers.”
Sublime Frequencies’ Radio Morocco compilation, recorded during a North African trek to Essaouira on the Atlantic coast, was a defining moment. Alan Bishop explains: “Without realising it, I was working on future SF projects as early as 1983 in Morocco when I recorded/edited the Radio Morocco sequence. Radio Palestine was done in 1985, the first three Indonesian releases are from 1989, and some others are from the ‘90s. Sun City Girls was utilising some of the same material too and, by traveling to many international locales throughout the past 25 years, all of these projects seemed to blend together.” Two decades later, Radio Morocco sounds as delightfully non-linear as ever: a hiss-smeared collage that seems to arbitrarily jump-cut between different moments in time and space, allowing the listener a glimpse of the incredible breadth and diversity of Arab pop culture.
What’s refreshing about Sublime is their insistence on working outside standard music biz parameters. In an era populated by generic Asian Lounge comps, SF are restless DIY explorers that immerse themelves in the world, rather than experiencing life second-hand via the pixellated eye of the internet. Their compilations are more like audio-montages – miniature fast-cut documentaries that provide a vibrant fisheye-lens view of a culture – like a city seen from a single street-corner via multiple camera angles. SF’s releases challenge how we view the world, highlighting the way that our own cultural debris – from psychedelia and surf guitar-twang to ‘80s FM-radio fodder – has seeped out into the global folk-pop landscape, creating hybrids that are far more innovative and bizarre than anything the west could contrive.
Many ‘world music’ imprints still favour traditional marketing strategies where a single act or artist – be it Youssou N’Dour, Tinariwen or, more recently, Seun Kuti – is singled out for commodification and prepped for maximum market penetration in the west. SF reject this in favour of a more messy, hands-on, multi-layered approach. Alan Bishop explains that their use of sonic collage was, “accidental at first, but once I realised how much I liked the concept, it became another weapon in the arsenal.”
Bishop is understandably wary about nailing down the SF ethos. If you bottle lightning, well, then it ain’t lightning any more. He says: “There are a few main aesthetic ideas which steer the focus of the label, however I never adhere to absolutes of operation because we may change direction and certainly maintain that possibility at any time in the future. We are mainly interested in unique, expressive music that has not been documented sufficiently or at all in the Western world. Islamic cultures and Southeast Asia are my own favorite areas of unlimited investigation. Another dominant feature would be that we are more interested in music from the 1950s through to the 1970s than from any other time period.”
“The 1960s were a worldwide renaissance in musical possibilities, developments, styles, and innovation,” reckons Bishop. “There are few progressive ideas that have been established since the 1970s that I would consider new and exciting musical statements. So, in essence, I’m continually drawn ahead, not back to the ‘60s. I can learn much more from that period than I can from today’s music. Today’s music is generally backwards-, not forward-thinking. Creative growth in the music industry stopped cold, became standardised and closed to new ideas. All the creativity went underground where it remains the only option for discovering quality music today. Slick, modern production destroyed everything else. In the mid- to late- ‘60s, the major labels were releasing music that is more exciting, unique and of higher all-around quality than today’s independent underground releases.
“Another key element is that orchestras were replaced by keyboard workstations. Real instruments are now sampled regularly. Live musicians and ensembles have been replaced by DJs, a midi setup or karaoke. Street musicians have been run out of town or have to apply for permits to play in restrictive areas. Modern music is plastic and phony in general. It corresponds directly with the way children are educated and society is engineered. I can also learn so much more by traveling outside the west, investigating and digesting what lies beyond it.”
This May, the very first Sublime Frequencies Tour hits the UK, featuring Syrian musician Omar Souleyman and Group Doueh from the Western Sahara, with selected venues hosting a series of talks, DJ sets and films by SF’s inner-cabal.
Stream: Group Doueh – Eid El Arsh
Group Doueh (pictured top) hail from the Saharan coastal city of Dakhla and play wonderfully uplifting, guitar-driven psychedelic-blues. Their music is trance-like and hypnotic, using handclaps, Hassanian vocals and lilting keyboard motifs to underpin the acid guitar-licks of main-man Bamaar ‘Doueh’ Salmou. They are a close-knit family-group that has playing together for 20 years, but Doueh only agreed to have their music released when SF envoys made a special pilgrimage to his home.
Omar Souleyman is the ultimate street-corner music-maker, his infectious hi-nrg dabke beats guaranteed to rock any party. He is a near-legendary figure in Syria, with a back-catalogue of several hundred cassette-albums (check Highway to Hassake: the combination of his freestyle ataba rhymes with Rizan Sa’id’s rough, synthesised street-beats and blistering keyboard solos is irresistible). Omar’s long-time, chain-smoking partner Mahmoud Harbi acts as a ‘pre-vocalist’, whispering poetry and lyrical topic-matter to Omar, who then effectively becomes a vocal conduit for him. Mahmoud is like a human karaoke-prompt and the duo have an uncanny, almost near-telepathic rapport.
Alan Bishop recalls the moment when an SF tour was first mooted: “I thought it was a pipe dream, so I wrote up a proposal from an internet café in Jakarta, thinking there was never a chance in hell we’d get the funding for this. A week later, we’d secured it. Personally, I don’t apply for grants and never will. I don’t want handouts from anyone, not to mention being ‘obliged’ to large institutions. But this is paying the bands good money, and because it benefits them, it’s worth it.”
FIVE ESSENTIAL SF RELEASES
01: SHADOW MUSIC OF THAILAND
Mid-‘60s Thai twang-guitar pop influenced by The Shadows: a space age Asian spy flick scored by Hank Marvin and Joe Meek.
02: 1970’s ALGERIAN PROTO-RAI UNDERGROUND
A treasure-trove of unearthed 45s documenting how early Rai pioneers strapped on wah-wah guitars and thumbed their noses at government censors.
03: LATINAMERICARPET: EXPLORING THE VINYL WARP OF LATIN AMERICA
A bewildering Latino mixtape full of loopy bargain-bin finds, psych-folk sing-along’s and echo-drenched acid-lounge instrumentals
04: GUITARS OF THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE: FOLK AND POP MUSIC OF MYANMAR VOL.2
Haunting, opium-smeared psych-rock and shimmering Burmese C&W sourced from third-hand cassettes: rare, and beautiful as fuck.
05: GROUP DOUEH – GUITAR MUSIC FROM THE WESTERN SAHARA
Raw psychedelic guitar-music that sounds as if it has fallen through a crack in time and space: inspirational.