of SUBLIME FREQUENCIES
Old Medina, Tripoli, Libya
(all photos by Hisham Mayet)
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.
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.
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!
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
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.
you always shoot in DV?
For the last 6 years yes!
you call what you do video? Or something else?
I haven't labeled what I do yet.
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.
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.
can certainly attest to the man's inner truth (be it ecstatic
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.
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
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
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.
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!
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
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.
the story behind the scene from the Tuareg DVD with
the young girls singing in the room who start breaking into
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!
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!
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 . . .")
you gotten many criticisms, or should I say "critical
readings," that accuse you of imperialist or colonialist
tendencies? How do you respond?
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.
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?
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.
the next trip and is there a certain music you're looking
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!
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
Si Sa Ket, Thailand
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
Morocco: Musical Brotherhoods from the
Trans-Saharan Highway (60 minutes)
(premiere at Arthurball
Feb 25 2006)