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All images provided by Hisham Mayet and/or the Vancouver International Jazz Festival
The Seattle-based label Sublime Frequencies has released – often in fairly small runs, on a variety of media – documents of music and culture that generally exist outside the awareness of mainstream western audiences, spanning a vast range of cultures and projects: from field recordings of Southeast Asian insects (Broken Hearted Dragonflies) and vintage Burmese bubblegum (Princess Nicotine) to fascinating “camcorder verite” documentaries, often focused on music, covering everything from “Thailand’s psychedelic ghost festival” on the DVD Phi Ta Khon: Ghosts of Isan – to Folk Music of the Sahara to Jemaa El Fna: Morocco’s Rendezvous of the Dead – with various ports of call in between. The lack of narration or explanation of the images captured often means one is struck by a sense of compelling, almost humbling “foreignness,” grasping for a context in which to understand what one is seeing (see the chameleons, below). A vastly incomplete list of regions taken in would include Pakistan, India, Brazil, Burma, Sumatra, Java, Thailand, Vietnam, North Korea, and various areas of the Middle East and Africa; contra the ideologies of Disney and globalization, it turns out that it’s still a huge world, after all, and there’s so much of it that falls so far outside what western attentions normally deign to acknowledge that one could fill a library with it, which is perhaps what Sublime Frequencies will ultimately do.
One singularly exciting band currently on the label is Group Doueh, a band based in the Western Sahara, a disputed region bordered by Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania. In the interview below, Hisham Mayet of Sublime Frequencies generously explains the story of his discovery of the group – a family band whose repertoire evolved in part from playing weddings in the desert, far from North American attentions. In late June, as part of their first-ever North American tour, orchestrated by the label, they played the 2011 Vancouver International Jazzfest to an enthusiastic audience, doing one set of more traditional music, seated on pillows onstage, then taking a break and coming back with a very hot, very funky, very fun set that fused their music with all sorts of western traditions, from the blues to funk to – well, I’m pretty sure guitarist Doueh (born Salmou Bamaar) had recourse to a bit of Bo Diddley, in there. The first set was a matter of passive but engaged listening for most members of the audience; the second, where the band seemed intent on relaxing and ROCKING OUT, got nearly everyone, including the band, up on their feet, with the female members – remarkably confident and expressive, given how demure and conservative their attire was – inviting various people onstage to dance with them. The youngest member of the band, El Waar, offered tight, tingling clusters of notes on his keyboard that simultaneously suggested the Persian santur and/or a highly caffeinated Terry Riley. Doueh, an extraordinary guitarist with a warmly psychedelic tone to his instrument, threw in a few unexpectedly showy feats like playing the guitar behind his head, presumably in homage to Hendrix (whom he has heard and admires); he also put down his guitar to play tinidit, a kind of lute, leading the band through a few songs from the Sublime Frequencies release Zeyna Jumma, which captures some of the flavor of this set.
For the most part, Doueh was, in fact, somewhat serious onstage, but gave a huge grin when Mayet introduced me after the show, and (after mumbling my way through a doubtlessly mispronounced As-Salamu Alaikum – the first time in my life I’ve had cause to use that greeting), I attempted an ironic “goat throw,” wondering how such a symbol might be read by a devout Muslim; hopefully Hisham translated the gesture as reading, in essence, “you fuckin’ rock,” preferably without the profanity or any reference to Satan. Doueh, who speaks little English, for his part replied with a smile and a peace sign. While not everything we heard that night necessarily fit with western expectations – there were some odd moments where different members of the band would tune up or change settings on their instruments while the song had apparently already begun, which is not how one would do it here, and there were a few beats that fell so far outside western expectations that they “sounded wrong” (while apparently being, in fact, deliberately placed – criticism is somewhat challenged insofar as it is hard for a white western Canadian with absolutely no prior exposure to this music to make evaluative claims as to what things “should” sound like) – overall the evening was both a triumph of cultural exchange and, unexpectedly, a really enjoyable rock concert, of a kind I have never before experienced.
Weirder still to know that Group Doueh themselves may well have never experienced an event such as that night – and likely never would have, if it wasn’t for the earnest attentions of a group of Seattle music geeks.
Part One: Hisham Mayet Interview
So what exactly is your role within Sublime Frequencies?
I’m co-owner and co-founder with Alan Bishop [Sun City Girls, Alvarius B] – running the day-to-day operations of the label.
Were you a filmmaker before you got into being an archivist?
I suppose the archival thing started before the filmmaking thing happened, but each was sort of a natural progression for me. The collecting of images was essentially an archival thing for me, which started to take on its own form, just from me experimenting with edits or composition or some kind of linear thought process in terms of making these films. So one came from the other, I guess.
In the liner notes for the first Group Doueh CD, you say Doueh speaks Hassania. Is language an issue? Is Arabic the lingua franca?
Hassania is a dialect of Arabic, the regional language they speak; it’s rooted in the Arabic lingustic family. It would be akin to hard core Scottish – it’s English, but it sounds different, there are different words, but the root is all still there. And he and I just communicate in the Arabic that we both know, and communicate pretty well. There’s variants between words and phrases, but there’s enough shared language to conduct all the business that we need to go on tours together, et cetera. We understand each other really well.
Did you learn Arabic as an outgrowth of what you’re doing now, or were you an Arabic speaker beforehand?
I was born in Libya, so it’s my background; I grew up learning Arabic and English at the same time, and I’ve managed to hold onto as much of it as I possibly can. I’m still trying to learn as much as I can – it’s still kind of a learning process for me. I’m relatively conversationally fluent in Arabic. I wouldn’t say I could stand on a podium in front of an educated crowd and feel safe, but I can walk around the streets and get by pretty well.
I know the Bishops have a Lebanese mother. Does their background, and yours, contribute to your common interest – in particular, I’ve often wondered if there’s any sort of emphasis in your catalogue of music from a Muslim background, as opposed to other cultures.
I don’t know if the religious angle has any part of it, but certainly, culturally, yes. Obviously this is the region we all come from, so in turn there’s going to be an interest, at least on my end. But I wouldn’t say it’s limited to it, either. I’m really into a lot of these sub-Saharan cultures, south of the Sahara, affectionately known as “black Africa” if you will, as much as I am interested in Southeast Asia. But from a logistical point of view, I’ve spent a lot of time in North Africa and West Africa… language helps me in getting around these places, and since language is literally the most important tool I have, it’s – not by force, but certainly by choice – confined me to that area where I’m able to get a lot of work done, due to the communication level that I have. But yeah, generally I’m interested in Arab culture – it’s where I’m from, and I’d love to help propagate whatever arts have been laid down and distributed and disseminated. So it does have a lot to do that I am from there, and there’s a sort of pride in the arts and the culture of it. But it’s certainly not confined to it, and certainly not coming from a religious angle. I mean, I’m not a religious person – but I have a lot of respect for it, and I think it has created some amazing art. Religion and art in that part of the world are inseparable. There’s a lot of non-religious music as well, obviously – a lot of the stuff we deal with is essentially non-religious, but…
I’m wondering if – there’s was a question on the Terminal Boredom site, where they were asking Doueh if performing in an Anglican church where alcohol was being served in a gay district in Brighton – if that was culturally difficult for him. Have you encountered anything that has been difficult to negotiate in working with Doueh, or in touring him?
Not necessarily. That gig was pretty crazy, since it was essentially their first really official gig; it was at this huge Anglican church in Brighton at a festival. But I mean, they’ve never mentioned it. Certainly, if we have a show and there’s a bunch of alcohol in back as per a rider that was mis-communicated or something, they’ll politely ask for it to be removed from the room, but it’s not a big deal. Every show that they play, and that they’ve been playing, all over Europe, has had lots of people drinking, right in front of them. And they just roll with it – it doesn’t bother them in the least. They’re certainly Muslim, and coming from that background, they don’t drink or eat pork. But it’s not something that they’re going to be against. They come from a very liberal Muslim background – most Islam is incredibly liberal. You hear about the craziness in the media – and that’s just a small percentage of what Islam is. It’s the media’s role to demonize the religion. Most Islamic countries are pretty chill about everything – I mean, if you want to drink, go for it. It’s a very personal thing.
I’m an ESL teacher by trade and a lot of my Arabic students, when they come to Vancouver, will experiment with drinking. Some have even told me they’ve eaten pork.
Yeah. I’ve never really bowed to religious dogma – my family was very progressive growing up. (Most of the cosmopolitan Arab world was really progressive throughout the post war period.) It’s pretty broad-based. …but they’re not necessarily bothered by it. They’re not going to have a beer, but you can have one in front of them. I don’t drink in front of them, just out of respect. But they wouldn’t be bothered by it.
In the Western Sahara, are there other intoxicants used?
Tea! They drink tea 24 hours a day (laughs). Literally. From morning to night. And they carry it around – it’s like a crack pipe to them.
What about things like marijuana or hashish?
In regards to the group, Doueh doesn’t at all. He smokes cigarettes and drinks tea. But that stuff does exist, it’s all over the place – hash and kif and marijuana. But they live in a pretty remote area, too. Alcohol IS in their area, too – I’ve been over there so many times, and I’ve spent so much time at their house that I’m essentially a part of their family, at this point; I’ve been there five different trips. And I’ve seen citizens of the city where they’re from walking around drunk – there is bootleg alcohol down there, and some of the local residents do drink. But as far as Doueh’s concerned, he’s a family man and quite in control.
Something I wanted to ask, from Palace of the Winds : the dried chameleons, are those food, or…?
Well, that was a gris-gris shop, you know! So that was sort of a herbal apothecary – if you will, for lack of a better term, kind of a black magic apothecary. That’s traditional medicine used for a variety of reasons – as you can see by the horns and the ostrich eggs and the ram’s heads. It’s all used for spells and cures? Or “voodoo,” and/or traditional medicines as well.
So that’s not an Islamic thing – these are elements of indigenous religion?
There are elements in Islam where this is still widely practiced. Magic is still used by certain tribal societies, nomad societies – such as the Tuareg or the Sahwari or the “desert dwellers,” if you will, pastoralists. Not that Doueh is that, but coming from that culture, it’s still ingrained in these practices. It hasn’t left people. Ultimately they’re all Muslim and they read the Koran or whatever and follow those tenets, but there are many times when this sort of practice – this hermetic sort of “black magic” practice – is still relevant and viable and practiced.
And it’s not disapproved of.
No, no, it’s really not. I mean, it’s not something you do publicly or brag about, but as you saw, that shop was right there in a market area, so it’s not frowned upon – it’s much more casual than it seems, they just sort of do it. If there is a major problem that hasn’t been solved, you kind of go this route – “let’s go to the black magic apothecary and get this and that – I need a pinch of that and an eye of newt,” and you crush it all together and take it to a soothsayer. And he has some weird crazy ceremony over a fire and does some chants and incantations. I’ve been in many of them, for a variety of reasons, personal or otherwise, and it’s pretty amazing – it’s powerful stuff, y’know; it works on a level as much as you want to believe it works. I’ve seen it manifest in a whole variety of ways. But that’s a whole other book, we’re talking about!
Right, right! You just obviously really like the chameleons – you spend quite a bit of time on them.
Yeah, that was my little moment of macabre viewing, I guess. I was just having a good time. More that I was just bored waiting for Doueh’s son to finish his soccer match, so I just went around town filming things, and that was one of them.
In terms of cultural issues, disapproval and whatnot – the fact that Doueh is influenced by James Brown and Jimi Hendrix, probably to a western listener, makes his music easier to access. But in his cultural context, is there anyone who would disapprove of that sort of thing – the fact that he’s playing traditional music with a kind of western bent? Does anyone care?
No, no. I don’t think it presents a problem for him. His wedding repertoire is still traditional – the traditional canon that is his foundation, which is most of what Sahrawi music/ Mauritanian music is. All of it comes from a pretty limited canon. If you’ve heard enough of this music, you realize it’s all coming from the same stock of songs and poetry that are done ad infinitum. One of the best things about Doueh is that he was able, even early on, to branch out beyond that structured canon and incorporate all these sounds, western or otherwise. But I’ve never known an example of other musicians or anyone frowning upon the fact that he’s fusing the two. I mean, it’s music – they’re just going to roll with it. I mean, I don’t think he’d play any of the poppier songs at a wedding, because it’s just not ever requested; they usually tend to go for the formula of the modal system – the modes, the poetry that’s sung at weddings. Because it’s all pretty traditional. But they’re open to whatever. He can incorporate as much as he wants, and nobody’s going to give him any flak for it. It just kind of is what it is.
Playing to western audiences, does he try to change his presentation?
I think so. Sometimes. That’s a battle I have to fight with him all the time. I think he tries to acquiesce to what he thinks western audiences will like, and he tends to get away from the foundation of what I know he’s capable of doing, when western eyes aren’t upon him. I think that’s had a lot of impact on him, too – positively and negatively, in a weird kinda way. Y’know, doing these tours, and realizing that he’s released these records, and reading some of the good reviews that he reads, that I send him or translate for him – all of a sudden, he’ll play a few numbers that I can’t quite negotiate in my head as something that is his true essence. And I know he’s just doing it to maybe please the crowd, and I’ve said, “this can’t be, you’ve kinda gotta stick to your guns and do what you know how to do and don’t feel like you’re trying to please the crowd! The crowd is here to hear what you’re essentially about, not what you think they need to hear because they like you or don’t like you.” I mean, it’s a rare thing, but it’s happened – it’s happened enough that I’m talkin’ about it!
Does it worry you that being on Sublime Frequencies is going to change what they do?
No, I’m not worried about that, because – as you can see, if you’ve heard any and all the records – my role with Doueh is that I’ve essentially crafted and marketed every release for a specific sort of aesthetic vision. I’ve compiled and edited and selected all aspects of the releases, and Doueh’s not had any input. He’s never been in disagreement with me, but he realizes that the label has a focus and an aesthetic and he’s given me his archive and said, ‘go for it, do what you gotta do, I’ll just keep making songs and you get to pick and choose what you put on the album.” Which works out great for me – I mean, that’s what Sublime Frequencies is essentially about, as the outlet of this stuff – the compiler’s roles are just as important as anything, because there is a label aesthetic at work, here.
Do you ever shorten individual songs? I notice, for instance, in the film that songs, not just by Doueh, often end on a fade-out. Do you ever shorten things because you feel they go on a lot longer than a western audience would be interested in?
The only real example of that really happening on record is, on Treeg Salaam, the side-long piece on side 2, that was a 48-minute tune.
And I shortened that to around 20 minutes. There was a sort of logical lull that I just kinda did a fade-out in. But no, usually most of those songs are given room to breathe. I mean, if there’s a fade out in the film, maybe it goes on for another 30 seconds or 40 seconds or something like that. Most of the tunes are pretty true to the length at which they were recorded. Certainly for Doueh. There are other examples of other groups where songs may go on a little bit longer.
Something I wonder about – for me, there’s a bit of a puzzling lack of information on Sublime Frequencies releases, at times. I would have actually liked to have known, if there had been a commentary track, what the chameleons were about, or such. With the new Doueh album, there’s no liner notes, there’s no lyric translation. I’m wondering if you’re reluctant to provide information, if that’s part of Sublime Frequencies’ aesthetic , if you want things to stand on their own terms as music.
Yeah, I feel, in terms of Doueh, the story was told on the first LP, at length, and I feel almost like it’s a disservice to keep writing that same story for every album. The Rolling Stones didn’t have liner notes on their 4th or 5th album – I feel like it’s a bit patronizing to tell the story over and over again. At this point, any person with a brain can get on Google and type “Group Doueh,” and the story’s out there.
What about lyrics?
That’s an aesthetic decision and a moral one, for me. I’ve had issues in the past – I really want it to be about the music, I want it to hit on that visceral level. And to sit there and have translations of all the lyrics just doesn’t quite do it for me on an aesthetic level, and on a kind of musical level… it doesn’t seem to be of much importance. Doueh never talks about the lyrics, what they are – they’re just essentially love/ pop songs – songs about the courting of women or love of family or country. They’re just sort of these mundane things, and to me, for that to be translated minimizes the impact of the music. One of the things I remember that really affected me was, I saw this documentary about the Ethiopiques series [ a 27-volume document of Ethiopian and Eritrean music on the French Buda Musique label ], and there was subtitles of all the lyrics as they were being sung, and it crushed me to finally know the banality of the words being sung, and how simple they are – “he’s just saying ‘I love you’ and this-that-and-the-other,” and all that mystery, and that sort of mood I’d always imagined in my head that meant so much more to me – once it was revealed, it kind of completely neutered the music for me. Because all of a sudden I knew what they were talking about, and it completely wasn’t what I wanted it to be, so it diminished any impact that that music had because of that kind of mystery, and taking on its own gut feeling… And I think that was the point where I really realized that people can just deal with it on a level that still feels like the first time that anyone would hear it. Let’s say you’re walking around in the West Sahara and listening to this music, and it hits you on a visceral, gut level that changes your life, be it coming through a crappy stereo or cassette deck or whatever. I never sit there and think, “I wonder what they’re singing about and what that would mean.” I just kind of deal with it in terms of the environment that I’m in – the landscape, the weather, the heat, the humidity. The music makes sense to me on that kind of physical and metaphysical level, rather than, ‘I need to know and decode what it means.’ By decoding it, it loses its power. And that’s a decision that I’ve made to carry on with the aesthetic that I have, with Sublime Frequencies. It’s controversial, and some people don’t like it at all, but a lot of people tell me they really appreciate it, and it creates more of an impact for them. It’s an argument that’s going to go on for a long time – there’s a book being written about Sublime Frequencies, and this is one of the main topics.
And you would say that approach carries on to your filmmaking, as well.
Well, certainly. In all the films that I’ve done, there’s only been one moment, in The Musical Brotherhoods from the Trans-Saharan Highway, I have a scrolling text that explains what the Jemaa Al Fna is and puts it into context, but beyond that… I mean, there’s been liner notes with some of the DVD releases, but the last two haven’t even had liner notes. I’ve even just skipped that… I mean, I dunno – it’s experimental ethnography, if you will, it’s trying to reach this plane of storytelling that can be abstract and impressionistic, but I think it clearly lays out a moment in time and place as cathartic as anything with fifteen pages of liner notes, or whatever it may be. The idea of a lot of these documents is just total immersion without any context, and I think it kind of blindsides people in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to deal with it. Sometimes I feel a lack of information gets you closer to the bone and to the essence of a culture or art than if you had a lot more information to dictate your thought process.
But sometimes I want to ask questions, and you’re not around!
I understand that: ‘what are these lizards’ or ‘what is the West Sahara.’ But the idea that you would have these questions and possibly even do some independent research would illuminate you a million more times than me putting just some little driblet of information about this very thing, which would shut the door in terms of what it is, actually… I’m not going to be able to elaborate information ad infinitum about each little thing. I could have 30 pages of liner notes in every release, but to us that’s just a waste of time. Y’know – we’re not academics, and a lot of what we’ve done is a response to all the academic recordings that we all grew up with. I’m one of the biggest collectors of ethnographic LPs, and I’ll be honest with you, Allan, I rarely am engaged with the liner notes ! I mean, not at length – I just peruse them. But I don’t care about the charts and the notes and the modal system, I’m just more interested in the music – how it impacts me on a physical level. The more I find out about that stuff, the less impact that music seems to have for me.
It’s almost like you have to live with a certain level of insecurity. It’s odd – I’m a bit contradictory that way. I have, for example, a lot of Alan Lomax recordings, so naturally I also have his big book, The Folk Songs of North America. I was excited to get it – but it turns out I haven’t read that thing at all. I bought it – and I put it on the shelf.
There you go. Perfect example.
Let me go to the liner notes from the first album. The story of Alan Bishop finding the music on the radio, and then you tracking it down, is really really a good story. It’s one of the more engaging bits of liner note I’ve read. Is it more dramatic than the usual way that Sublime Frequencies finds music?
This one was certainly the most poetic. It really was an amazing thing. We were in this hotel room in Essaouira and Alan was flipping through the radio dial and this song comes on [“Eid for Dakhla,” which ended up as the first track on Sublime Frequencies’ initial Group Doueh release, Guitar Music from the Western Sahara, and was performed in Vancouver]. We were awestruck. We found out later that it was a radio documentary about the scene down there, but we never were able to get the information as to who this was; it was just a survey of the music down there. When we had heard Mauritanian music, it had been western produced stuff, and it sounded so clean and studio-produced; but then we heard this, this complete lo-fi ruckus, we were just, ‘this is IT.’ And then, like the liner notes say, we walked around and around and around and nobody gave us any information and I became obsessed with how to deal with this, and decided I was going to go back. Essentially, Palace of the Winds is my documentation of that trip, looking for Doueh, and the visual narrative of going the length of the country, town by town, village by village, stopping off at all locations, asking, recording, getting sick, dealing with it all, and almost at wits’ end, literally, near the border of Mauritania, I pop into this house, waiting for another defeat, and there he was, waiting to have a cassette tape put in his damn boombox, and that moment, man – it was just one of those moments where the universe stops, and the cassette’s in there, and I still don’t even know that it’s him or anything. He hears those opening chords and looks up with that million dollar smile he has and says ‘oh, yeah, how’d you get these recordings – this is me!’ I was frozen solid, goosebumps all over. I felt like I was floating for two days.
It’s a great story. So… music was Doueh’s main source of income, when you found him?
Essentially, yes. He was running the cassette shop and, even at the time, the wedding gigs were essentially supporting him – as they do now, still; they’re full-time musicians, and he comes from a family of musicians. His father was one, his brother is a renowned guitarist in the area, his grandfather was a musician as well, so – it’s almost a musical caste system, and he’s born of it.
Are Jamal and Bashiri still in the band?
They are not. Jamal has gotten married and has settled down. But Doueh has seven kids, a few of them are going to end up being musicians as well. So Doueh has recruited El Waar [organ/ keyboards] ; he’s a 17 year old, he’s the one who was on the European tour with us, just last month, and he’s got now three women, who have played with him over the years, anyway: Tricha [vocals, tea glasses], Lamnaya [vocals/ tbal], and of course Halima [ardin/ tbal/ vocals]. And we had another dancer on this last tour, who is not going to be coming to North America. But the group has always been revolving, it’s never really been a solid lineup. Bashiri has been with him a long, long time, but he’s fallen ill, and he’s got a family and kids and an administrative job in Dakhla, so he’s not easily able to travel or deal with the recording sessions as much as he would like. So they’ve moved on. They’re all still friends, but – life gets in the way, sometimes.
And this is their first time in North America?
Yes! They’ve never been “across the pond.” They’ll be playing from Asheville North Carolina through Chicago, Minnesota; of course, they’ve got the gigs in Central Park, New York; then Montreal, the Vancouver Jazz Festival, and then they’re going to do Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco. So it’s a big tour – big enough for them! It’s going to be interesting, because they’ve never done something like this in terms of the US. They’ve got two European tours under their belts, and both of those were done overland – because you can do that in Europe, obviously – but this will be an interesting thing to see, how they deal with plane hopping for basically every gig, except for the Northeast and West Coast. But they’ll do it! They’re travelled pros, now.
Was it difficult setting up?
We have a booking agent that helps set up most of the festival gigs and we try to book some things as well, but I take care of basically everything else when they’re on the ground; meaning, I’m tour managing, translating, recording, filming, doing all of that business. But the Canadian Visa is in, and I think it’s just a formality with the US Visa.
Are you worried about that? I mean, things seem to be getting a bit better in the States, but the fact that they’re Muslims coming from the area of the Middle East…
There’s always a concern about that. Nothing’s ever guaranteed , so I feel a little nervous about that. In terms of [Syrian Sublime Frequencies recording artist] Omar Souleyman, we haven’t been able to bring his saz player in – his string player – and I think this is the fourth tour they’ve done. They just won’t let him in the country! So there’s that that can happen, but I think Doueh’s going to be okay. I think that the relations between Morocco and the US are pretty good.
Why won’t they let Omar’s string player in?
Who knows! There’s a variety of reasons – they’re saying his name is close enough to some other guy’s name who could be on a list somewhere. It’s idiocy and banality from the security organization – whatever they’re calling themselves.
Is Omar available for interview?
He’s not, especially for this tour – we’ve done an interview blackout due to the political situation in Syria. We made an official statement not to do a single interview on this tour – although there was one that was granted behind our back, in Austin, where we explicitly asked them not to… and then the booking agent went ahead and did it behind our back, with a translator. And then all they did was talk about the political situation, which is precarious at best. With both these guys – Doueh AND Omar do NOT want to be politicized, or be political about anything, because it totally jeopardizes their whole entire lives, back home. They just want to be musicians, they really don’t want to deal with the politics at home. None of their music is political, and they don’t want to be labeled as such, “agitators” or what have you, so we have to be very sensitive to such things. I think a lot of journalists are looking for a political angle in their articles, and it’s sometimes at the expense of the artist and their music; they don’t realize how detrimental they can be, for these guys back home.
I know another issue that kind of dogs Sublime Frequencies is the limited editions things are distributed in. I wonder if it works in your favour – I mean, I know sometimes, when I’ve stumbled across a Sublime Frequencies release, I’ll go, “Oh my God, I have to buy this NOW, because there’s only going to be BE 500 of them made and I’ll never SEE it again!”
So I’m a little less careful about my purchases with Sublime Frequencies, or with the Sun City Girls, for that matter. I’ve wondered if that’s kind of a strategy, or…?
You know, it is and it isn’t. Here’s the thing – the bottom line is, the hardest thing about running a label is managing inventory. Sometimes you release something and it sells out really quick; sometimes you release something and you’re sitting on copies for fucking years, and you have to drag them around closet to closet, house to house. It’s never about creating something that people can’t have – that would be ridiculous; and we’ve actually increased the pressing sizes of the LPs, because there was a demand there, and we wanted to meet it, not because we wanted to make a billion dollars. We were surprised at some of the prices on eBay, and it sucks, to sit there and know that this thing you want people to hear all of a sudden is going to cost them $100. But at the same time, we know we have a limited audience, so we have to meet that number; and we’d rather under-press something than over-press. At least by under-pressing something, it’s gone, you don’t have to think about it, you don’t have to worry about it, you’re not sitting there looking at fifty boxes in a closet. Our strategy is, instead of wasting money on bigger pressings, it’s always best to re-invest whatever money is being made from a particular project into a new project. Resources and time and energy are best spent on making the catalogue bigger and broader, than concentrating on trying to sell a ton of units of one thing. I think that’s a strategy that’s going to have to be employed by any label, to be successful.
What’s the pressing on Beatte Harab, the newest Group Doueh vinyl?
Most everything now is between 1500 to 2000 copies. We’ve increased it enough to know that there are going to be enough around for a few months so that everyone who wants one, gets one, and then it’s going to go out of print, and probably won’t be repressed.
Do you ever end up with out-of-print stuff on merch tables, for live shows?
No, because the catalogue right now is so big – we’re at 67 or 68, or something like that. What do you pick and choose? What we have on the merch table is going to be relevant to the artist – most of Doueh’s releases will be there. I don’t have any copies of the first LP – that one had a strictly limited run, and it disappeared. We said it on the album, that it was a limited one time pressing of 1000 copies.
How fast did it sell out?
It was funny, because it took seven months to move. There it was – there was 1000 LPs, and it took that long; seven months, in this day and age, seems like an eternity, but it trickled. If you remember, at the time, that LP was available for months and months and months. [Essential music mailorder site] Forced Exposure had it, a lot of stores had it – anybody that really thought about it or wanted it, there it was, man; buy it! And then something happened; when the Group Inerane LP followed it, then it kind of went ballistic. I think that LP really charged things up. Before we knew it, the Doueh LP had disappeared, and the Inerane LP was gone in a flash. And some of the other ones started to move really fast. We try not to worry too much about it – it’s flattering, that things sell that fast, but we have so many new projects that we’re concentrating on that we don’t think about it. We’ve done CD reissues of them all, so if anyone is really bitching about the music not being available – that’s not the case, because the music’s there, it’s just in a different format. And these vinyl pressings are really fucking expensive to make! The cost associated with going there, collecting the vinyl itself, the packaging – it’s insane money, and we don’t have that kind of capital to be producing this stuff ad infinitum. So it’s like: we can only do this many, and we’re going to move on to the new project.
Beatte Harab is really, really lovely. The gatefold, the photographs. It’s a lovely object. The title – does it mean Arab Beat?
No, it actually means The War Room! (laughs).
Why The War Room?
I don’t know. It’s the most powerful song on the record, and I wanted the album to be called that, because when they play that song, I just get goosebumps – especially when you hear it live, it’s one of the most amazing tunes ever. They did another version of it on Treeg Salaam; it’s kind of a reprise on this album. But I didn’t translate the title. For Treeg Salaam, on the one-sheet, I explained that that title meant Streets of Peace, but I felt like I just wanted to put Beatte Harab and nothing else, because it sounds kind of ominous – I didn’t want there to be a negative connotation to the meaning.
Part Two: Doueh interview
While both Doueh and Hisham Mayet were obliging, interesting, and generous subjects, interviewing non-English speakers who live in the Western Sahara creates a few special challenges for a journalist. In my cases, these involved learning how to use Skype, figuring out how to record a Skype conversation with my primitive technology (propping a tape recorder and an external computer microphone next to my speakers), working around what appears to be variable internet service in Northern Africa, negotiating a significant time difference, and finally, once the connection was established, waiting for Hisham to translate my questions into Arabic, for Doueh to respond in Arabic, and then for Hisham to translate Doueh’s answers into English – a somewhat slow, strange process, at least insofar as I’ve never done anything quite like it before. Strange, too, to hear both Mayet and Doueh break into a fairly long aside, both laughing in response to a question I’d asked and saying things I obviously couldn’t understand – with neurosis taking hold on my end of things, as I wondered if I’d said something singularly stupid (it proved to be nothing of the sort).
Doueh, can you describe how you felt when Hisham tracked you down and played the tape?
Hisham: (Translates into Arabic)
Doueh: (gives a little laugh, answers in Arabic).
Hisham: He said he was incredibly surprised and very happy that anyone would be that interested in this music to make such a journey, and was obliged and happy to start the union that happened… he was just kind of blown away. And it’s turned into a beautiful relationship.
Did Hisham have to try hard to convince you?
Doueh: (Answers in Arabic).
Hisham: (Comments in Arabic, Doueh and Hisham chuckle). No, he was very supportive of the idea! When I showed up, he trusted me and could see that I was on the level. The initial dialog, and going through his archive – he just saw the passion and interest in the music, and felt that it was an honor to be doing it, after I’d explained who I was and how far I’d come and who the label was, and seeing that the contract was simple and easy to read. And he was excited about getting his music out to a larger audience – he had been really hesitant in the past, but this seemed a very solid relationship.
His guitar – I gather he plays a Fender, and he uses pedals?
Doueh: Fender, Fender! (Continues in Arabic).
Hisham: A Fender Telecaster… (Arabic). He’s got a Super-Phaser and a wah-wah pedal, and those are the two that he uses right now.
The guitar or the pedals – does he have an interesting story about acquiring them, or how long they’ve been with him?
Hisham: Well, I can answer that – he buys new pedals all the time, whatever’s in front of him that’s caught his fancy, he’s buying it! He bought the last two just a year ago. He’s also got some added frets on the fretboard, to give him the microtonal scales of this music. That’s an interesting tidbit, as well.
It surprised me, too, to see, in Palace of the Winds, he’s fingerpicking. His guitar sound is so tangy at times, that I’d imagined he was playing with a pick, but…
Hisham, Doueh: (Arabic).
Hisham: He always fingerpicks – he plays the tinidit and the electric guitar, always fingerpicking. With the extra frets, you just get an otherworldly sound.
Okay. Could he explain a bit about the modal style of playing, and how song structures differ from the style of music he plays, and traditional western popular music? It seems very different, but I don’t know how to describe it – can he tell me a bit about the tradition he’s coming from.
Doueh: (lengthy answer in Arabic).
Hisham: Well, he said, the differences are – this is coming from a Hassania background and a culture and it’s been developed outside the realms of other west African musics from Morocco and Algeria, such as Rai; it’s kept its identity just through tradition, the oral history of it, and the modal scales that are used by everyone. It’s the scales everyone learns when they are young, when they all start playing this music. There’s a sort of code that needs to be taught and refined, and from that comes the foundation of the music. He said if there’s any similarities with any sort of western music, it’s the blues that he feels the most kinship with, in terms of colour and style and execution; that’s something that resonates for him, and that he feels has the most connection to his own music, and music from the region, from Mauritania or the West Sahara.
Any particular form of blues – we’re talking Delta blues, Chicago blues…?
Hisham: Um, he’s not going to know that, I know, but a little bit of the Chicago blues sound, and whatever he’s heard of the Delta blues.
Okay. I’m curious if he ever modifies songs, or his performances of them, to connect to personal experiences, particular audiences or situations…?
Hisham, Doueh: (Arabic).
Hisham: He says there’s definitely variance of the tune. With this style of music, there’s a lot of improvisation, so depending on the gig, or the venue, a song can be dramatically different, based on the mood, the type of festival or ceremony or wedding, so there’s always variances within the tunes.
Tea glasses, how are they played? They’re listed as an instrument on the album.
Hisham: They have a metal tray, and both the glasses are just rhythmically struck on the tray, and that’s the sound that you’re getting, which is usually played in conjunction with the Tbal, which is the clay drum that’s next to it.
Is there anything else he’d like audiences to understand about this music?
Hisham, Doueh: (Arabic).
Hisham: He says most importantly – he doesn’t think audiences will understand the lyrics, obviously, but what we really want to convey is the spirit of the music. It’s coming from our environment, and the sound, the mood, the vocal timbres, and all the instruments coming together should invoke our sense of place and where we’re from. This is a dance music; it should be something that’s celebrated physically, as well. He would like it to be celebratory, and an ecstatic music.
I gather food has been a bit of an issue. Has he found anything he’s liked? What does he eat when he’s on the road?
Hisham, Doueh: (Arabic).
Hisham: He’s saying our diet is an Islamic one, and we’re careful about what we eat. We mostly want to eat Halal meats, if we do eat meat, especially if it’s lamb or mutton or beef. They love to eat chicken, and they’ve eaten fish and chips, in the UK; they’ve eaten lots of pizza, and they like that, with vegetarian or tuna fish as toppings. The food has to be within certain parameters, but they’re always accommodating. They won’t eat pork, and they won’t eat meat that hasn’t been butchered by a Halal butcher.
Can he offer any strange or funny or surprising stories about his experiences in Europe?
Hisham, Doueh: (Arabic).
Hisham: He’s saying it was always a good time, and people were really respectful, and nothing was really strange. We played a show almost every night, and so a lot of the tour was just seeing the countryside, and showing up at the gigs, and meeting people. And he had nothing but good memories and good thoughts and that the hospitality was really amazing.
No elements of culture shock?
Hisham: No, I don’t think he’s going there! [Doueh, who for his part, has been listening to Hisham and I in English, has thought of something, however, and speaks up; he and Hisham begin to laugh]. We were just laughing about this long drive that we did from Stockholm to Koln. He said, “that was a little weird,” and I said, “that wasn’t weird, that was torture!” It was just hell on earth for all of us.
Okay. Great, thank you. I’m looking very much forward to hearing his music, and I hope he has great experiences on the tour.
Hisham, Doueh: (Arabic).
Hisham: He says thank you, and we’re excited to come, and they’re very proud of the label, Sublime Frequencies. He was thanking me for the ability to tour with them and the places that I’ve taken them and the opportunities that have come from this discovery – all the records, and the recognition, and that the music is going out there. He’s just really happy about it. And all the members of the groups that have travelled are thankful and excited about all of it, they’re happy to be doing it.
Excellent. I don’t know how to say “Thank you.”
Hisham: Say shukran.
Doueh: (chuckles a bit).
Hisham: ou alaikum a salaam.
Hisham, Doueh: (Arabic).
Hisham: Ou alaikum a salaam.
Uh… Alaikum a salaam [Everyone is laughing at this point].
Doueh: Alaikum a salaam! Nice nice! (laughter increases).
Hisham (repeats): Nice nice!
(Fade out on Arabic conversation…).
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