isham Mayet, co-founder of Sublime Frequencies, was born in Tripoli, Libya, and probably has more passport stamps than teeth, and he has a full mouth of those. Oddly though, the place he ends up talking the most about when I meet him in Seattle is, well, Seattle, where he’s lived since 2000. He talks about a hundred Seattle bands I’ve never heard of, of places to go; he talks about the people in the city who inspire him. Hisham Mayet is where he is, which is richer and more complicated than it sounds. “Seattle’s a pleasant place to be,” he says, but he never uses the word the word home. In a 2005 interview with Carl Wilson of the Toronto Globe and Mail, the label’s other co-founder, Alan Bishop, said, “People are crazy and weird everywhere.”
Blunter than a club. And not particularly politically correct. Hisham gets that and says Oh hell. The label’s output—field recordings, street musicians, and radio sweeps mostly from Northern and Western Africa and Southeast Asia—is almost aggressively exotic in its packaging, and almost nothing is explained in liner notes. It’s like being bated by something across a floor of marbles. Then you make it across and open the package and swoon. Then you feel that weird pinch of cultural morals and post-colonial guilt about not really understanding the black and brown and yellow folk of the world, then things get giggly. “We’re looking for the extraordinary, what’s beyond the mundane—if that’s how you define ‘exotic,’ we’re 100% behind it.”
From critical and anthropological perspectives though, what the roving contributors to the label do is regressive, even repugnant. Of course, it’s easy to say we should understand other cultures, when the accepted meaning of “understanding,” in this context, is fifty words of wall text next to a sweet ceremonial mask or hitting Wikipedia to explain jihad. That some musicians on SF compilations—especially when recorded off the radio—probably don’t get paid doesn’t seem rapacious on the part of the compilers as much as incidental. Spoils. The contributors to Sublime Frequencies want to deliver confusing, immersive documents, and that’s exactly what they do. In 1978, the filmmaker and ethnographer Jean Rouch spoke cautionary words; by that time, they might’ve even been words of resignation:
“You see, I am an old anarchist—you have to destroy the power, not take the power. I think we are opening all the boundaries, and that with this tool, this media, people without writing, can transmit their fantasies to some other people and to share that with them. And it was maybe the aim of the first anthropologists. But, unfortunately, they wanted to be scientists and to push their own explanation on the others systems. We are just making archives of that without explanation. The explanation will come later on. I think that's wonderful because it will change the face of the world.”If Sublime Frequencies does anything, it’s archive without explanation. Because the preoccupation with mediating stuff like this can be a paralyzing one. In an interview in Bidoun, Bishop said, “As far as I'm concerned, it's open season, and you record what you want to record. It's disappearing, too. It's good to get it while you can.” On Hisham’s recent trip to Niger, he was initiated into the Zarma people, a subset of the Bori animism cult. He’s the first person since Rouch who has been granted access to record the group.
Hisham, Alan Bishop, and collaborator Robert Millis are sitting onstage at a table while a curator at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle asks them questions. They only half-belong and they know it. Bishop seems to have two basic interview strategies: deadpan naiveté or a lot of cursing. Tonight, it’s the former. “I just seek experiences. And I have a camera. So I guess I’m a filmmaker,” he says. He doesn’t move. Nobody really moves. Somebody might fart, but the ideas are pretty much staying put. It feels like a gentler version of a trial.
And it’s been going on for years now. Since its inception in 2003, the label has released thirty-one albums and DVDs, and they keep having to explain. They tell a couple of stories, but like a lot of their work, the subjectivity is almost impenetrable—you just have to see it or hear their documents. Better yet, you just have to do it, because the only real way to understand and appreciate a cross-dressing ghost pouring whiskey down someone’s throat in Burma is to just, you know, let the ghost get you drunk. Later, you learn about the ghost: why is the ghost, what is the ghost. Empiricism: “We usually know that something exists that we want to record,” Hisham says. “Whatever else that happens is gravy, in that regard.”
Listening to the releases and watching the DVDs, it’s hard not to be swayed by what they do, because, well, they have no shame in doing it, and all their perspectives are rooted in a very basic, almost primal sense of fascination. But again, Hisham has reasons and rhetoric for it: “If one travels enough and actually submerges one’s self in a culture, you realize that people are different and ‘exotic,’ and that’s what turns me on. Why travel and explore if every culture is a homogenized version of your own?”
On the street outside a bar in Seattle, Hisham spills his reservations. “It’s hard when you talk to a writer about this stuff and take them in, because usually you read the piece later and it feels like an attack.” It’s one of the reasons he asks me to send questions over e-mail even though we’re standing right next to each other. But for Hisham—and Robert, and Alan Bishop—curiosity is a distant second to passion. “I mean, the thing is, that so many people have this way of interacting with foreign cultures that is considered politically correct, but it’s like, you’re just putting them under this great big microscope—I mean, who’s the fucking racist now?”
I tell him that my opinion on the morality of the situation wavers, that it’s a lose-lose scenario dealing with a very sensitive subject, but—and this is the but that makes Sublime Frequencies a totem—I also tell him that when I listen to SF releases, I just get a burning desire to go places and open my ears. Sometimes, I think about places like Brazil or Central Africa. Other times I think about a place like New Orleans. Plenty to hear in New Orleans, but was I even listening? How hard would a kid in Niger flip for a recording of panflute chaos in a New York City subway? I will not even start to think about the guys who drum like crazy on buckets. Too much.
“That’s it. That’s just it.”