Group Doueh

Discover: Sublime Frequencies

J. Edward Keyes

By J. Edward Keyes

on 08.14.12 in Spotlights

The Seattle label Sublime Frequencies established its idiosyncratic personality early. Their first few releases were field recording-style documents of street musicians and radio stations in Sumatra, Bali and Myanmar – mysterious, thrilling messages from far-off lands that were refreshingly free of the mannered scrubbing and polishing most “world music” receives before it arrives at its inevitable destination near the register at a coffee shop. Sublime Frequencies releases seemed interested in delivering not just sounds, but an experience – the feeling of tooling around Mali in a taxi at midnight, or uncovering a cache of cassettes from the ’80s at a marketplace stall in Cambodia.

That spirit has grown more apparent with each new release. In 2007, they released the first domestic compilation of tracks by the Syarian singer Omar Souleyman. That same year, they released an album by the Saharan guitar band Group Doueh. In contrast to the initial batch of Sublime Frequencies releases, both Souleyman and Group Doueh were active, touring musicians, expanding the label’s focus from archival to contemporary. What remained, though, was the label’s sense of fearlessness and curiosity and their unending drive to discover.

eMusic’s editor-in-chief J. Edward Keyes talked with label founder Alan Bishop about the mission and distinct personality of Sublime Frequencies.

So, I’d like to talk a little bit about the origins of Sublime Frequencies – can you talk a little bit about how the label developed?

There are many variables as to how and why the label was formed. Several of the first few releases were actually finished or recorded 20 years before we knew we would establish this label. But the idea eventually sprung from periodic meetings held from 2001-03 when Hisham Mayet, Richard Bishop, Robert Millis, Charles Gocher, Mark Gergis and I would get together and screen video clips we had shot over the years. Sometimes the prepared clips would be brief, others would last an hour. We would edit special sequences to amuse each other, or shoot new sequences in the days before the gatherings to keep it fresh and entertaining. It was loose and informal, yet many great ideas would be flying around the room.

We had a focused and fearless tone from the beginning. What we do involves work, dedication, research, savvy, and also some luck. And we all have been traveling – for many reasons – since we were children. So starting the label was more of a result of [realizing] the void we could fill with the material we had been collecting and would continue to collect.

I’m impressed with the locations you’ve chosen to spotlight – you seem to have a very particular focus for the kind of music you’re releasing – whether you’re recording it, or it’s recorded by others. What are your guidelines for “curating” the Sublime Frequencies catalog?

Many people ask us what our aesthetic is, and our answer is always the same: We know it when we hear it. Sure, there are obvious specifics that we gravitate towards: 1960s music everywhere; raw, expressive and unfiltered sound; a focus on North Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. We have so many interests – anyone can perceive this if they study the 70-plus releases we have produced. There never has been a particular template for what inspires us. We are creating that very undefined template as we go.

You’ve also been very good about introducing styles of music that are unfamiliar to a lot of the Western World. I don’t know many people in the U.S. who knew much dabke before you put out the Omar Souleyman records. Does a desire to educate play any role in the mission of Sublime Frequencies, or is that just an added upside?

The fact that so much of what we release is new to everyone living outside a specific geographic location, one could say that our releases educate all who hear them. We “educate” naturally if others are willing to listen. As a label, though, it is not a conscious focus.

Any parts of the world that you haven’t spotlighted yet that you would like to?

Everywhere really, but there is only a certain amount of work each of us can do. We also accept ideas for projects and submissions from anyone who cares to approach us. There is never a time when we are working on less than 75 potential releases. I just looked back at the last six years of project lists, and 75 is the number that seems to average out at all times. When five are finished, at least five new potential releases are waiting to take their place almost immediately.

Tell me a little bit about how you first heard about Omar Souleyman? What qualities attracted you to him as an artist?

Mark Gergis was the one who collected some of Omar’s cassettes inSyriain the late ’90s and sent me a compilation of his favorite tracks. The intensity of the music was the most impressive thing from the start. Omar has a great voice and is a fantastic showman, but the music is irresistible.

I’m wondering the same about Group Doueh. What was the story behind working with them?

My first contact was while I was recording radio inMoroccoin 2005 and when Doueh appeared on the air, my brain immediately exploded.

For compilations like Staring Into the Sun and Night Recordings from Bali – what’s the process behind capturing the music contained on those records? I have Radio Algeria and Radio Pyongyang, and I can’t imagine it comes together very easily.

Nothing comes easily. The Radio releases are not as effortlessly carved as some people think. It’s not about simply turning on the radio and hitting record and moving around the dial or leaving the room. I have my own highly refined operating system when it comes to how I approach radio collage, and I will collect up to 50 hours of material for each project before editing begins. Field recordings differ depending on each situation. I have my recorder wherever I go and am always looking and listening for something to capture in sound. Almost all of my favorite moments come from random encounters that I would have never predicted. Persistence and patience are essential to these processes.