#19, JANUARY 2006




  Old Medina, Tripoli, Libya
(all photos by Hisham Mayet)

You're probably already aware of the effort by Mr. Alan Bishop to make Sublime Frequencies the amazing CD and DVD label that it is today, but another guy who is at the SF office every business day is Hisham Mayet. That is, when he's not deep in Thailand, Niger, Libya, Morocco, or elsewhere, using his digital video camera to record ground-level musical performance, completely natural soul, and ecstatic truths, all with the kind of sheer simplicity, both technical and emotional, that makes entire museums blush. After being knocked out by four Mayet-filmed Sublime Frequencies DVD releases in a row, Larry "Fuzz-O" Dolman had to e-mail him some questions about what he does.

Where are you from, where did you grow up?
I was born on the Barbary Coast of North Africa a block away from the Mediterranean sea. From there London England was home for 4 years and then most of my adolescent years were shaped on the gulf coast of the southern USA.

What brought you to Seattle?
I drove up on Interstate 5 from Frisco around the fall of 2000, which put me squarely into one of the most impressive and inspirational artistic communities on the planet!

How long have you been traveling?
I have been traveling since I was in the womb. My parents and grandparents all traveled extensively and I went on my first trip, Lebanon, while my mother was pregnant with me. As I got older I went on numerous trips with either my parents or just my father all over Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

How long have you been shooting movies?
The first film I shot was in 1993 in Houston Texas. We had a director, two cinematographers, myself and Peter Wittenberg (where are you Man!), and a cast of about 25 people. The production crew consisted of two cameras, lights, a director, a budget of $20,000. The film was ultimately an exercise in humility.

Do you always shoot in DV?
For the last 6 years yes!

Do you call what you do video? Or something else?
I haven't labeled what I do yet.

Do you call what you do documentary?
Certainly not in the traditional sense if documentary is defined as an objective exercise dealing with facts. While certainly my first three films are nonfiction, they are interpretations of situations put together in a subjective order. The Niger film is an extension or refinement of that trajectory, and the next 40 films that I make will hopefully keep getting less and less definable as documentary, fiction, or even ethnographic pornography. Mark Gergis came up with the term "folk cinema" and that's about as broad a description as to what these DVDs can be labeled. I suppose like folk music and folk art, folk cinema is made by people outside the halls of academia by self-taught, passionate individuals that create this art out of a deep commitment to the craft and a joy of the experience. From that standpoint it manifests into a more visceral medium than overly funded projects that ultimately suffer from an overextension of technology and money.

Luxor, Egypt

When you say "interpretations of situations put together in a subjective order" it sounds to me a little like Werner Herzog's concept of the "ecstatic truth", as opposed to what he calls the "accountant's truth" of normal documentary. If you're not familiar with it, here's some key points from his Minnesota Declaration: "4. Fact creates norms, and truth illumination. 5. There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization. 6. Filmmakers of Cinema Verité resemble tourists who take pictures amid ancient ruins of facts." I guess that didn't turn out to be a question.
I can certainly attest to the man's inner truth (be it ecstatic or poetic)!

What has majorly inspired you, as a filmmaker and traveler and of course (ahem) a human being?
Well, certainly my past and the experiences that come from that have inspired me more than anything else and I had a somewhat different childhood than most. Before I was 10 years old my family was exiled from two countries and as you might imagine the finer details of such an experience informed some sort of an individualistic outlook on life. Growing up I would trace maps on books of tracing paper creating entire atlases. That was how my intense interest in Geography was channeled and nurtured. Traveling and recording is now for me a byproduct and logical extension of that interest in different places and people. We moved from London England in 1980 and settled in Pensacola, Florida, an obscure remnant of the antebellum South fondly known as the "redneck Riviera". It was there that I met people that still inspire me today and ultimately where I earned my seersucker stripes! So having to adapt to completely different worlds again and again has somehow put me where I am today.

How long have you known Alvarius B and all the other maniacs from Sun City?
I've known of them for many years and had some records/tapes, but my first contact with the SCG was right after the release of the Crossdressers/Dante's double whammy in the mid 90's. I had written Alan and tried to blackmail him into trading the rest of what I didn't have as far as SCG product with a stack of Libyan 78s, he wrote back and the rest is history. I met Charles and Richard right after I arrived in Seattle in 2000.

Got any good Alan Bishop travel stories?
Yeah but those will remain in the archives for now!

From a traveling 101 perspective, what are the first things you do when you arrive in a place like Marrakech? The Isan region? The Sahel region?
Well, obviously every place has its peculiarities and you try to do as much homework as you can before you leave on any of these trips, at least to know where you are gonna stay and try to plan for the first day there. Then when you arrive all the homework and research proves futile because on a three dimensional level you are never prepared! That is one of the joys of traveling to some of these locales. Places like the Isan region and especially the Sahel are not tourist destinations by any means, especially the Sahel! It's an intense experience that challenges your every perception and challenges you as an individual to adapt on a daily basis for the entirety of the trip.

I'm curious, when visiting a place like the Sahel -- do you ever go hungry, or do without water for long periods of time?
I have never put myself in a situation where food and water were not accessible within a few hours' walk! Ultimately you prepare yourself as much as you can. I think I forgot to mention on that first day when you arrive one of the first things to get is plenty of bottled water. That's what I do in places like Niger and I also had a portable filtration system so I had a back up if anything did happen.
       Food in some of these places is scattershot at best! I was lucky to have been in Niger when I was, the famine hit a few months after I left. I planned to be there right after the harvest and there was plenty of food around in the winter months. The locusts had hit a month before I got there, so it affected the coming harvest and hence the "situation" that was so "poetically" chronicled by Anderson Cooper and the rest of the humanitarian "media."

Dogondoutchi, Niger

I'm sure you get asked all the time if your travelling is dangerous, and of course it's NOT dangerous like we're strongly encouraged to think it is, but nonetheless I want to ask: on a trip, have you ever been in real danger?
In all my travels, I have never put myself in any postion to be in any real danger! Travelling to some of these locations is intense enough so you are extra careful not to overextend yourself. The only real dangers are those out of your control, maybe like a drunk tuk tuk driver or a bush taxi that's barreling down a dirt road at 60 mph with triple the load that it should carry! But ultimately I try and be as "professional" about all of this as I can and not act like some "extreme" sports adventure reality show.

How do you develop trust between you and your subjects?
There are many levels of intimacy/trust that happen within the framework of these performances. Various segments of festival footage are dealt with in a sort of official manner with the organizers, and interaction with the musicians is less intimate. Other moments are extremely intimate and that trust is developed organically. In parts of the Isan film where the three solo musicians are featured, I was invited into their homes. Their families were around them and that trust was intuitive. People can sense if what you¹re doing is not on the level and I think it helps that I am mostly a one-man crew as that psychologically puts them at an advantage. But there are so many situations in all of these films that are different in how they transpired. Be it the Pentecostal scene in Niamey in the Niger film where I literally fell out of a cab with my camera turned on, asked one of the ushers if I could shoot, they agreed and I walked in and started filming without skipping a beat and no one flinched. I became a part of the ceremony, and that happens on so many levels with so much of the material. In essence you are part of the performance, a shaman that inhibits and divines the participants by the sheer fact of being an outsider with a camera and ultimately raising the stakes of the performance. There are whole schools of thought on just what I'm talking about, you can record things surreptitiously and get an authentic moment that would happen without you, and then there is how I usually record, which engages all the parties involved and elaborating on the subjective "lens" that is at the heart of what I'm doing. In other instances, musicians find out I am in town or the village and come to me knowing I want to record their music. They know they are going to get an hour's work that pays them more than a month's wage. Others I track down, and in time a friendship or working relationship develops and recordings are made.

In the Jemaa El Fna DVD, when the young girl is dancing and singing and the young man is playing the drum behind her -- are they family?
Yes, they are a family and that girl was amazing, she couldn't have been any older than 6 or 7, and she worked that crowd like a pro! Hustling, prodding, and holding the floor like no one else, and on this last trip to Marrakech, Alan and I saw the same group and asked about her. The family said she's in school now and doesn't perform anymore. Too bad, she could have been the Berber diva of her time!

Tell me about my hero, the DJ from the Jemaa El Fna.....did he DJ in between performers, or did he have his own corner of the square where he rocked all night long? Did you talk to him?
As much as the Jemaa El Fna seems to exist in a perpetual nightly orgy of chaos, it is a very structured and hierarchal system of real estate. Every night these groups/brotherhoods are at it. This has been a tradition for hundreds of years. The night musicians set up camp around dusk and everybody has their spot. The DJ, whose name is Aisate Abasse, is one of the most humble and generous human beings alive. Alan and I had the pleasure on the latest trip to be invited to his house which is in the country side outside of Marrakech. We had lunch with his family, and had tea, and generally got to experience Berber life unfiltered and adorned with the grace and charm that the Arab world is famous for.

What's the story behind the scene from the Tuareg DVD with the young girls singing in the room who start breaking into smiles?
That was shot in the old medina of Ghadames. I was staying with a well known family from the town, and that was one of many "houses" that they owned. As the festival preparations were going on, my host, Tayeb al Hiba, brought me to this all-female ceremony which at first seemed awkward as I was the only male other the Tayeb, but once the girls relaxed, they started this call and response ritual that seemed to stop time! It goes back to the idea of trust between the camera and the subjects, if they trust you and they are comfortable then the performance will certainly get to that ecstatic level!

The Tuareg trance rock bands at the end of the Niger DVD -- was that at a nightclub, a place of business?
The first band Ourgan del Air was recorded in a dive bar on the outskirts of town. Earlier that day, I had been wandering around Agadez looking for musicians and was taken to this "domicile" and when I walked in there were two guys hanging out watching a bootleg porno and there I am, a complete stranger with this camera, and they jump up and shake me down with questions. I explain what I'm looking for and one of the men says I will be picked up later that evening to be brought to this place. So around 11:00 PM I get picked up on this moped and we head out to the outskirts of town to something of a speakeasy! Everyone is sized up at the door and then selectively let in. Alcohol is not really permitted in the town outside of a couple restaurants, so this place was a sort of meeting place for the locals to drink and where this sort of roving collective would play a couple nights a week. As far as group Inerane, that was the following night, and we waited around the public square all evening and were finally told that it was time to head out. My operative in Agadez and I went out to the "suburbs", pulled in and entered this mud-built family room, and my jaw hit the ground. All I saw were guitars and the drums and the whole of the extended family lounging around. Grandmothers, children, all the women and men drinking tea and a couple of people just playing this sort of trance guitar tuning that was completely formless but utterly engaging. Then Bibi and his entourage set up and I was completely blown away! The film has three segments from about an hour and half that was recorded. They just got up and plugged in and proceeded to make history!

Do they have a name for this trance rock style? Is it something that's been around for awhile or is it just developing?
They call it totally Saheladelic man! (Just kidding.) They do not have a special name for the genre as far as I am aware of. This style of music has been developing for hundreds of years! Trace back the West African history of stringed instrumentation and you can hear the tunings and scale approximations that have influenced this stuff. Remember the Tuaregs are (now to a lesser degree) nomadic peoples, and crisscrossing the Sahara they encounter all sorts of desert cultures/musics which are assimilated. The liner notes explain the use of guitars in a political vein. ("Guitars and anthems were adopted from the Malian, Polisario and Libyan rebel groups that proliferated in the Sahara in the 80s and 90s . . .")

Agadez, Niger

Have you gotten many criticisms, or should I say "critical readings," that accuse you of imperialist or colonialist tendencies? How do you respond?
If those criticisms have been made, then my response would be that it's really a kind of reverse imperialist/colonialist agenda. I think our presence out there encourages these people to appreciate their culture as it is, and by recording and distributing their art and aesthetic I think we are immortalizing their message to the world. You know anyone that makes that argument is guilty of an imperialist/colonialist agenda. I don't separate myself from "those people." I am one of them, so it's not as if one should treat them as if they belong in a fish tank or an anthropological museum, no! I sleep in their homes, eat their food and drink their tea. I think S.F. is presenting this material as a living breathing form of human expression. It's not the academic, objective accountability of the material, it's about a raw, impressionistic and wholly subjective ecstatic experience. I hope that the material translates that passion.

I gotta ask about this capsule review of Niger: Magic and Ecstasy in the Sahel that just ran in the Chicago Reader, by Peter Margasak. He uses the first couple sentences to praise the music that is documented, but then closes with this: "Aside from a vaguely anthropological explanation of possessions in the Bori cult, this could be the footage you shot with your videocam if you had wherewithal to travel this deep into north central Africa." How do you respond to that?
You know man, guys like Margasak and people from The Wire like Clive Bell ("cheap as chips" & "smash and grab") come from the point of view of the established old guard. These guys are looking at this stuff in such the wrong context. I think they believe that if you haven't spent 10 years in film school or studied in a musical conservatory that your art does not count. They have been trained to debunk any sort of independent moves from outsiders like us. Do you really think that if Joe Blow went out to Niger he would have gotten the same footage? And what is that trying to say about the accessibility of this stuff? I could go on forever on these guys but I don't have the time, I'm working on three new films that can be panned in the future! All of these DVDs combined have been produced on a budget that's less than a week's catering bill for any kind of Indy film or financed documentary, and that fact alone I think pisses off a lot of people. It's being done and we are breaking down these walls to this stuff and it's shaking the foundation and taking it out of the hands of academia, the corporate industry, and the bureaucracy of the funding agencies that prohibit this material being dealt with in the now! When it matters most! It's analogous in so many respects throughout the 20th century in all mediums of art. In Painting, the "fauves" or wild beasts, as they were known, broke from the "impressionistic" traditions and started a revolution in art, and were ridiculed for it. The same can be said about free jazz in the 60's, or the Punk rock movement that liberated the bloated corpse of R&R in the 70's. There was always antagonism toward these movements and only time and history can tell how they have and will change the landscape of the times.

Where's the next trip and is there a certain music you're looking for there?
I will be in Western Sahara and then overland to Mauritania for the month of February. I am specifically looking for a particular style, and from the research I hope to find it in all its electric glory!

Have you and the Sublime crew ever thought about turning the camera/microphone on America? Would that work with your agenda?
Speaking for myself, America seems to have a bit of oversaturation when it comes to recorded artifacts. Not to say that most of it is not worthy of release but places that I like to go seem much more deserving of my attention than America at the present time!

Algiers, Algeria

Si Sa Ket, Thailand

Jemaa El Fna: Morocco's Rendezvous of the Dead
Folk Music of the Sahara: Among the Tuareg of Libya
ISAN: Folk and Pop Music of Northeast Thailand
NIGER: Magic and Ecstasy in the Sahel
all available at sublimefrequencies.com

Berber Monkey Chants 2002
The Party (30 min.)2003
In Cold Blood 2003
Man Tit 2003
Sublime Latitudes 2003
Nostalgia 2004

Morocco: Musical Brotherhoods from the
Trans-Saharan Highway (60 minutes)
(premiere at Arthurball Feb 25 2006)