How the Institutional Racism of Yesterday Still Reverberates Today
In this week's print edition I wrote about Group Doueh and their taste-making world music label, Sublime Frequencies. Co-founder Hisham Mayet lives in Portland. We talked about a lot, as the Libyan-born Mayet has been traveling the globe since he was a young boy.
END HITS: GROUP DOUEH JUST ARRIVED IN THE STATES FROM THE WESTERN SAHARA AND YOU FLEW OUT TO MEET THEM. ARE YOU OFTEN THE GUY SHEPHERDING BANDS ON TOURS FOR THE LABEL?
MAYET: Every tour that they've been on I've managed the tour and kind of been the utility guy—translator, tour manager, recorder, logistics, you name it, even prepping the visas from the get go. It's pretty extensive.
I WANT TO GET A LITTLE BACKGROUND ON THE LABEL BEFORE WE TALK ABOUT DOUEH. HOW DID YOU COME TO BE A PART OF THIS THING?
The label was started officially in 2003 by myself, Alan and Rick Bishop. It was a loose collection of friends who gathered on weekends to show our films and generally have a good time. We all traveled a lot, sort of collecting recordings and shooting video and documenting this stuff for ourselves. One thing led to another, we had some really successful film screenings in Seattle back in 2002 and 2003. The response was kind of overwhelming and so we just decided to give it a go. Me and Alan and Rick officially started it. And about a year later Rick pursued his solo art career. So ever since then it's been a two-man company. We have a solid crew of contributors that include Rob Milis, Mark Gergis, Laurent Geneau, and many others that have made contributions over the years...
SO YOU STARTED COMING ACROSS BANDS THAT INTERESTED YOU ON PERSONAL TRAVELS?
Essentially. The early stuff was just me out doing field recordings. Just kind of weird video and running into stuff that seemed to find me more than anything else
WELL WHAT SPURRED THE IDEA OF EVEN DOING FIELD RECORDINGS?
Ever since I was a kid I've been interested in ethnic music. I've been collecting that stuff for a long time. I was born overseas in North Africa and did quite a bit of traveling when I was a kid. I was always really fascinated by foreign and exotic cultures, their music and art and the landscape that they are from.
WHERE WERE YOU BORN?
I was born in Tripoli, Libya, and lived there until I was about seven years old. Then the family moved to the UK and I lived in London, England for about four years in the late 70's and moved to the States in about 1980. I've been living here ever since.
OKAY, SO BACK TO THE FIELD RECORDINGS... WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO START DOING THEM?
When I was a kid I would make whole entire atlases with tracing paper on maps. I was just a nut for geography and ethnography and anthropology. I studied all that stuff in school. It was informal—I have an art history degree and a history degree. But I just love anthropology and history, music, film. So it just organically happened that I would travel and record this stuff and look for music at the same time.
WHEN YOU GO OUT LOOKING FOR MUSIC AND BANDS DO YOU START BY DOING RESEARCH OR SIMPLY SEE WHAT YOU SEE?
It's a little bit of both. It's gotten much more refined, now that it's a full-time job.
CAN YOU TAKE ME THROUGH WHAT ONE OF THOSE TRIPS MIGHT BE LIKE?
I just took a trip over the winter. I've been going to a lot of the same locations because I've developed a lot of relationships with these musicians. So I'm checking back in with them, making new recordings.
This time I visited Doueh again. We cut a couple albums. Then I flew to Niger to check in on Group Inerane. I've been doing a lot of work in Niger beyond the guitar bands. I've been extensively documenting trance possession ceremonies of the animist minorities there for the last eight or nine years. " I've been stockpiling all that kind of footage.
A lot of it is just me dealing with ongoing projects, finishing up projects that have been started. And this trip I decided to go to Benin because there is an annual Voodoo festival happening early in January and I'd never been. I've got a really great contact in Niger who's got a a car and we were able to drive from Niger through Burkina Faso, down to Benin. We didn't know what we would find. We knew there was a festival, and it was celebrated all over the country, so we presumed we find something...and boy did we!!
And so we just drove. We just went there. We showed up to these villages and sort of asked around, told 'em what we were up to, that we were into experiencing some of the celebrations and ceremonies and that we'd like to film or record some of it. One thing leads to another and suddenly your in the middle of this crazy ceremony filming, documenting, and trying to get as much footage as we can.
HOW DO THESE VILLAGES AND MUSICIANS GREET YOU WHEN YOU SHOW UP WANTING TO FILM AND RECORD? AND ALSO WHEN YOU WANT TO GO INTO BUSINESS TOGETHER—ARE THEY HAPPY? WEARY?
It's a combination of a lot of stuff. Early on I was kind of maverick with the approach, I would show up with cameras rolling, recording street scenes, street noises, street musicians. It was really informal. Now we've become more patient and organized about it. Now I show up, find out where the musicians are, we have a talk over a few days, we tell 'em what I do and what I'm up to. Sometimes bands find out that I'm in town—because I try to get the word out that I'm there to record music and I pay good money. It's a combination of musicians coming to me because they know they're going to get paid really well and/or musicians I've heard of and we're chasing them down. I record so much material and really only the tip of the iceberg is released and marketed. All of it's not phenomenal, although a lot of it is.
IT SOUNDS LIKE THIS STARTED MORE AS A VIDEO PROJECT. IS THERE A BIG REPOSITORY FOR ALL THIS STUFF? IS IT SOMETHING YOU'RE CURRENTLY WORKING ON?
We've done seven films for the label. We've got 11 DVDs out there. The film angle is definitely a big part of the label. We've done releases on DVD. A lot of the footage gets released sometime, though a lot doesn't.
For me, we started on that angle, in the sense that I was filming stuff. But I also recorded a lot of audio. It's a combination of both. With a video camera you're able to capture audio and video.
HAS THE ARAB SPRING AFFECTED ANY OF YOUR BANDS OR YOUR TRAVELS OR BUSINESS IN GENERAL? RELATIONSHIPS? MOTIVATIONS?
Yeah. I don't want to get too much into the political angle of it—that's a whole other book that needs to be written.
But we have friends in all of these countries. Libya is going through an intense revolution. I was born there and have a lot of close relatives that are in the middle of it. My dad is exiled now to Egypt now because of it.
Syria is just completely falling apart. Omar is from there, although he's still able to get out and travel it's really difficult to negotiate him leaving for these tours. Egypt was insane. We've got friends there as well.
It's definitely created a more extreme environment for us to be around. We're into it and we're not. We're happy when it's an organic process, like Egypt. We're kind of unhappy when we realize that a lot of these revolutions, be it in Syria or Libya, that are really being orchestrated by the West. That's a situation were we know there are malevolent forces creating chaos for their own greed and thirst for destruction.
THAT IS A TOTALLY DIFFERENT CONVERSATION, AND ANOTHER TIME WHEN YOU'RE NOT IN A RUSH I'D LOVE TO HAVE IT. ANYWAY, MOVING ON. I FEEL LIKE SUBLIME FREQUENCIES HAS BECOME A HUGE TASTEMAKER. IT'S A WIDELY RESPECTED IMPRINT. DO YOU HAVE ANY FEELINGS ABOUT THAT?
We're incredibly proud of the label. We're incredibly proud of what we've done. We work hard, man. It's intense. It's become our lives. It hopefully shows in the way we present things and the quality of the material. The whole collective is entirely obsessed and driven and hopefully these recording manifest all of that passion.
I don't think about that stuff. I just keep working. I don't pay attention to how it's being received. We've been doing it long enough now—it's coming up on 10 years—and it's really been an organic process were it wasn't an overnight thing. There's been a slow build and we've been able to manage it that way. And we've been able to keep it small too, keep it manageable. We don't want it to get so big that we can't do what we want to do because of the machinery of it.
WESTERN TASTE FOR WORLD MUSIC AND AFRICAN MUSIC IN PARTICULAR HAS DEFINITELY GROWN IN THE LAST COUPLE YEARS. CAN YOU ATTRIBUTE THAT TO ANYTHING? IS IT A MATTER OF FINALLY JUST BEING ABLE TO ACCESS IT? OR HAS SOMETHING CHANGED IN PEOPLE'S TASTE?
I think it's probably a combination of a lot of different factors. The internet certainly has exposed people to an insane amount of material. There's not a single country or genre that isn't being thrown up on Youtube for consumption.
As a matter of fact, in the last few years a label like Sublime Frequencies has really shed light on styles that were never really marketed to the west. We were able to kind of expose that and show audiences that there's a really intense, home-grown music that was being made that wasn't pandering to western taste. And I think once people found out about that a lot of people started digging much further. It's just snowballed. Now you've got all kinds of labels following suit, whoever they may be, I don't want to mention names. But they're out there.
ON THE CONVERSE, DO YOU SEE BANDS IN THESE COUNTRIES BEING MORE INFLUENCED BY WESTERN STYLES? IS IT OPENING BOTH WAYS?
The internet is definitely the portal that goes both ways. A lot of rural parts of the world are connected now. You go to these internet cafes when you're out traveling and there's kids huddled around all kinds of videos. So it's definitely bringing to light a cross-cultural exchange that's unparalleled and unprecedented.
Back in the early days it was radio—radio did the same thing. There was a lot of western music that was being heard over the airwaves all over, be it southeast Asia, north Africa or even central Africa.
In the 50's, Rumba was huge in central Africa. And Rumba came to Cubavia the african diaspora. Then it created it's own beats and came back to Africa and totally revolutionized the music again. There's all this cross-pollination and cross-breeding and that's been happening (forever). Caravans carried musical styles from one geographic area to the other. There's this idea of cross-cultural pollination that has been happening organically for hundreds and hundreds of years. And now the internet is just the latest technology to be facilitating that exchange.
WITH GROUP DOUEH, HOW DID YOU COME ACROSS THEM? CAN YOU TAKE ME THROUGH THE TRIP?
Alan Bishop and I were traveling in Morocco and Algeria in 2005, just kind of on another one of these expeditions, gathering as much data and recordings as we could.
HOW OFTEN DO YOU MAKE THESE TRIPS?
I go at least once a year. I'll try to go for a couple months each year and I've been able to do that for the last seven or eight years.
OK, NOW BACK TO DOUEH.
We were in Morocco and I was recording radio and just kind of hanging out, writing. Chillin' out in our room. Alan was surfing the radio and we heard this amazing songs come on. It was just unbelievable. We'd never heard anything that unhinged and raw and blasted.
On the radio the broadcast was lacking information. We just caught the tail end of it. We were just utterly blown away and we recorded it. Then we hit the streets for the next two weeks asking anybody who would help us who this might be and if they had any more information. Nobody really knew. They just kept saying it was music from the south. Hassnia music, Saharawi music.
Then we came home and we just kind of became obsessed. I went crazy and decided to go back and try to find this group. I started at the very north of the country in Morocco and just went to every city, every village along the coast, playing that recording off the radio.
We heard some of that stuff before, Mauritanian stuff and whatnot. But nothing that unhinged. We had no luck and never did find out anything because we weren't there for that much longer. It was just three weeks. And then we went to Algeria and sort of got caught up dealing with that scene and the logistics of being in Algeria, which is another whole interview's worth of material.
Then we came home and we just kind of became obsessed. I went crazy and decided to go back and try to find this group. I started at the very north of the country in Morocco, and just went to every city, every village along the coast, playing that recording off the radio.
WHO ARE YOU ASKING? MUSICIANS? OR JUST EVERYONE?
I basically just hit it all. In that process I was recording other musicians and filming—I don't know if you've ever seen the film "Palace of the Winds?" It deals with that journey.
NO, BUT I FEEL LIKE I SHOULD.
You've got to see all these films. I think they'd just blow your mind, man. It's such an integral part of the label. They are amazing documents.
So during the process I'm recording people, I'm seeing other groups, and kind of just getting a low-down on the culture. I kept going south until I found something out. After about two weeks of that I was in literally the last town in the western Sahara (name? Dakhla. I was asking all the cassette shops and they were being illusive. I ended up meeting this shopkeeper who had his son take me to this studio and I showed up with all my tapes and equipment and got invited in.
I explained what I was doing there and said, 'I'm looking for this music.' He pulls out his boom box and puts in the tape. He hears that song and looks up and me and says, 'oh my God, that's my music!
IS THAT THE WIDEST SEARCH YOU'VE GONE ON TO FIND A BAND?
Yeah, I mean I've been on a few egg hunts, so to speak. But that was definitely the most dramatic and otherworldly experience. I kind of traversed the whole northwest coast of Africa looking for this group and I ended up in their living room without even knowing it. When I played him his music he was as blown away as I was, that I would come that far to find him. Obviously the relationship just blossomed right then and there. We've been friends ever since. I'm part of the family, essentially.
HAVE THEY PLAYED IN THE STATES BEFORE?
This is their first U.S. tour. They toured Europe in 2009 with Omar Souleyman. And we finished an extensive tour of Europe. It was a great tour.
IS THAT THEIR FIRST TIME REALLY TOURING OUTSIDE OF AFRICA?
In the early to mid-90s they did a few one off festival gigs in Portugal and France... But 2009 was the most extensive touring they've done.
WHAT'S IT LIKE PLAYING TOUR GUIDE TO A BAND THAT'S NEVER BEEN TO THE STATES BEFORE?
It's kind of intense. I think they got indoctrinated to western culture in an intense way when we did the european tour in 2009. There's cultural hurdles. They come from the desert. A small desert town in the middle of nowhere. It's not like they've never seen TV's. They've got radios and the internet. It's not like they're living in a cave or anything. But when you're in London or the UK and there's a couple-hundred people get totally wasted in front of them then it can be intimidating. It's always fascinating when you're in Europe and the U.S. and you get to see things through their eyes you have a different perspective of what the west is. I'm not judging it. I'm just saying for a cultural shock value it's gotta be totally intense for them—the way people dress, the booze, the wealth, just the general modern western culture. It's kind of mind-fuck if you've been living in the desert all your life.
ARE SOME BANDS THAT YOU'VE WORKED WITH PUT OFF BY THAT? OR ARE THEY HUNGRY FOR THE ADVENTURE?
They're not shocked, but they're definitely guarded about how to deal with it all. They're in for the adventure too.
And they just want to play music. They want people to hear their music. All of them love to play and that's what they do for a living. All these musicians are nothing but—they're professional musicians in their home countries. And they're making a lot of money on these tours, so that's a driving force as well.
I GOTTA ASK, WHAT DID GROUP DOUEH THINK WHEN THEY SAW ANIMAL COLLECTIVE?
They're kind of in their own world. They like to check it out for a few minutes. I don't think they quite understand it. To them it's maybe a little too abstract. But a couple of the women were out at the festival (All Tomorrow's Parties) dancing and just kind of grooving to the energy, the people and the craziness of it all.
I think each band member just treats it in their own weird way. Some of them like it, some are ambivalent, they're just kind of like, 'oh that's cool,' then they're like 'I'm tired, I'm going back to the hotel room.' They don't hate it. But they're just kind of curious—somewhat receptive.
WHAT BROUGHT YOU TO PORTLAND?
I've got a lot of friends in Portland. I would come and visit four or five times a year and I just love Portland. I felt like it was always a second home anyway and I already spent a lot of time there. It was just kind of a gradual move. I felt like Seattle didn't have anything else to offer me after 10 years of living there and I was looking for a change—just kind of changing the scenery a little bit. I've been in Portland for a couple years, but I travel so much I'm hardly here—I'm just there maybe four or five months out of the year.
IS THAT LOVE FOR TRAVELING SOMETHING THAT WAS INSTILLED IN YOU AT A YOUNG AGE? I WONDER WHERE IT COMES FROM?
It's been my whole life. The first trip I took I was still in the womb. My mother was pregnant with me and the first trip I went on was to Lebanon in 1969. In my early youth my dad would take me on all these trips all over Europe, the Middle East. Then we moved to the UK in the late 70s.
WHAT DID YOUR PARENTS DO? WAS TRAVELING A PART OF THEIR WORKING LIVES?
My dad was in the diplomatic corps and also a businessman. He traveled extensively for different kinds of work. I don't want to get into that situation too much, just because it's kind of long-winded.
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