World music in the 1960s and ‘70s basically revolved around anti-establishment heads and academic mavericks producing LPs full of raw and rare field recordings for Smithsonian Folkways, Ocora, Nonesuch Explorer and a handful of other pioneering labels dedicated to sonic and cultural exploration of long-isolated lands.
Unfortunately, the new-age industry and Starbucks-brand liberals gradually hijacked the genre, often reducing it to nothing more than slick background vibrations for yuppies. Nowadays, in this post-The Rhythm of the Saints epoch, “world music” more often than not refers to the prefab tribalism of Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios or the CDs in Putumayo listening booths. “Guaranteed to make you feel good!” claims the colorful packaging.
Since 2003, however, a loose-knit collective of globetrotting sound archivists and filmmakers has been quietly revisiting the genre’s gritty roots. Based in Seattle, the stridently independent Sublime Frequencies imprint is to corporate-funded world music what snarling punk was to overproduced FM rock in the mid-‘70s.
“This stuff is not for the weak-hearted. This isn’t tourist fare. This isn’t your Putumayo thing,” asserts co-founder Hisham Mayet, who’s preparing for a string of screenings of his two latest films: Musical Brotherhoods from the Trans-Saharan Highway and Palace of the Winds, a “look at the culture and music of the Saharawis from the Western Sahara and Mauritania.”
Sublime Frequencies has pumped out more than 30 compact discs and vinyl LPs to date, ranging from straight-up field recordings of ancient folk (Ethnic Minority Music of North Vietnam, for example) to mind-bending compilations of foreign pop—music that rarely, if ever, leaves its homeland. In this category, PROIBIDÃO C.V, which spotlights an aggressively lo-fi and underground brand of electronic funk from Brazil, is a brutal but enlightening listen.
As with the CD releases, SF-funded films and DVDs employ a visceral, do-it-yourself approach to documentation. But unlike your average Discovery Channel program, Mayet and partner Alan Bishop never employ narrators. Like lost tourists whose guide took the cash and split, viewers are dumped into a foreign land, where they meander down bizarre streets and scramble over jagged rocks, inevitably stumbling into strange-looking dudes playing stranger-looking instruments.
“We’re in your face with our cameras,” explains Bishop, a former member of the Sun City Girls, the cult trio that started fusing experimental noise and ethnic folk music back in the 1980s. “We’re in situations that are sort of hard to film any other way.”
This is especially true of Musical Brotherhoods. In 2005, Mayet, whose family emigrated from Libya when he was 6 years old, traveled to the eastern tip of North Africa, where trade caravans gather after long journeys across the Trans-Saharan Highway. These sprawling get-togethers take the form of what are essentially all-night hootenanny circles, which yield, according to Mayet, some of the last great street music on Earth—psychedelic desert jams crackling with ecstatic chanting, ouds amplified like Stratocasters, and quasi-Middle Eastern grooves.
The musicians, however, are extremely prickly about cameras and tape recorders. “I speak Arabic, and I got in with these guys a few years earlier,” admits Mayet. “It was a lot of hustling and charming these people. Even locals taking pictures were getting the leery eye. The musicians would actually stop in the middle of the song if they saw somebody videotaping them. If they didn’t pay up, the musicians would start insulting them. But they would make sure I had the best spot, right in the pit.”
Viewers learn none of the back-story; they’re simply subjected to 60 minutes of fevered ethnic jams recorded at damn-near deafening levels. But Bishop doesn’t see the lack of context as a problem.
“How much do we need to know?” he asks, questioning standard approaches to documentary filmmaking. “Do we really have to analyze this [music] until it doesn’t mean anything?”
Mayet puts it another way: “These films are about the music. Having a narrator takes away from the immediate experience that they convey. Threading in a voice-over would be a major distraction. The viewer is allowed to experience the sounds uninterrupted with the magic and mystery still intact.”
[Justin F. Farrar is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]
who: Screenings of Sublime Frequencies’ Palace of the Winds and Musical Brotherhoods from the Trans-Saharan Highway
what: Stripped-down world music captured on film
where: BoBo Gallery
when: Thursday, Dec. 6 (7 p.m. www.bobogallery.com or 254-3426)