• Watch the trailers for Musical Brotherhoods from the Trans-Saharan Highway and Palace of the Winds on YouTube.
Archivist Hisham Mayet jams himself, his audio recorder and his camera into remote places. In what his label, Sublime Frequencies, calls “folk cinema,” Mayet aims to capture the personal essence and rituals of cultures, from the Bori cult dance ceremony to the ancient mystical gatherings formed around centuries-old Moroccan trade caravans. His work straddles the line between straight documentary and hand-held intimate home movies; often, the mesmerizing footage is its own narrator.
Mayet’s stateside distribution of recordings of performers whose names he sometimes does not know raises as many salient ethical questions as it does musical ones. The Independent asked Mayet about his processes and purposes in an e-mail interview as he toured with two of his recent films. One week after he speaks in Carrboro, he will travel to West Africa to work on a project dealing with spirit possession.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: How did your relationship with Alan Bishop and the Sublime Frequencies projects first start?
HISHAM MAYET: My first contact with Alan and the Sun City Girls was in the mid-’90s. In 2000, I moved to Seattle, and shortly thereafter, a close friendship developed with Alan. After a couple of years, I approached Alan about starting a label that dealt with our respective archives of recorded material from the many years of travel. A group of us had been informally getting together on weekends showing different material. We then started doing public screenings around Seattle. After some enthusiastic responses, we decided to go on a suicide mission and start a label dealing with obscure and esoteric music and video from the far reaches of the globe.
You had a close relationship with Alan’s group, Sun City Girls, often noted as much for its individual sound as for its sense of mystery and privacy. It was quite a blow when band member Charles Gocher passed away in February. Is there a favorite memory you have of him or his work?
I basically lived with Charles at the Sublime Frequencies/ Sun City Girls compound for the last three years of his life. Charles was a giant among men. His life was his art. He is a true “American” original. Charles’ corpus is as far reaching as any artist that I know. He was the very definition of a polymath. His film work is some of the most original and thought-provoking that I have ever seen. His writing will need decades of decoding to be fully appreciated. His music was as multifaceted as his wardrobe, ranging from vaudevillian theater, bebop jazz, avant classical music, Fugs-like satire and his own inimitable styles that still have no marketable tag. He was, and is, a true inspiration. He is sorely missed.
When you first plan a trip for one of your films, what preparations are made?
Every trip has its banal procedures that need to be dealt with: visas, booking of flights, certain vaccines for certain locations, getting all the gear together, making sure all the equipment is ready to go, etc. Each trip also has its own particularities, depending on what country I’m going to. It depends on if I have been there before, if I’m in the middle of a project or starting a new one. Getting contacts on the ground there ready for my arrival, making sure there is a base of operations set up when I get there. These are just some of the preparations.
Are there still unknown factors that may put you in danger or in uncertain situations?
Unknown factors that may put you in danger are always a possibility on any of these excursions. However, I am always diligent in preparing myself to not put myself or anyone else that I’m with in a situation that even remotely has the scent of danger. Being in some of these locations is difficult enough, so you try to be as careful as you can.
Where do you think your work fits in with the school of fieldwork by folklorists or establishment documentarians?
I suppose I am the current manifestation of some of the first phonographers that were lugging huge wire recorders with giant gramophones back 100 years ago. I’d be honored to be in the same company as some of the Immortals in the field: Francis Densmore, Harry Smith, Alan Lomax, Alain Daniélou (Unesco), Charles Duvelle (Ocora records), Deben Bhattacharya, and countless others who have been doing this type of documentation for the last century.
I suppose with the visual angle, I am trying to present a sense of wonderment that is sometimes lacking within the confines of a purely academic approach. This is where one of my main inspirations, Werner Herzog’s mantra of Ecstatic Truth, resonates loudest. As much as I see this work as part of the archival process, I would like the material to manifest into the realm of poetic and ecstatic truth.
You make an effort to include background information on the performers, but sometimes, you say, it is unavailable. Have there been situations where you have done research and then decided against recording or releasing something because of a lack of information to credit the performers? How much does this matter in your work?
The most important part of including anything is always the intensity of the performance. That is what I am always looking for. Again, my approach is very much a subjective one as opposed to an objective one. If the information is available within the context of an ecstatic performance, then the information will be available in the credits or liner notes of a particular release.
Do you think any of the performers in your films expect that they will have some kind of international career or become “stars” outside their own country after you document them?
The situation varies from musician to musician. I have recorded street musicians that are happy enough to eat after being paid, and I have recorded musicians who are famous throughout their respective countries. There are some who hope the exposure will get their music out to the masses, and most of the time it does just that. There are some examples of that happening right now. Group Doueh, Group Inerane, Omar Souleyman are now recognized here in the USA due to their Sublime Frequencies releases.
In the interview you did with Blastitude, you mentioned being from the “Gulf Coast of the Southern USA.” Can you talk more about where exactly you grew up, what it was like, and how it may have informed your desire to document remote cultures and their music and traditions? After all, some say that part of the country is as close as you can get to living in another country in the continental States.
I was born in Tripoli, Libya, lived in London, England, and then moved to Pensacola, Fla., when I was 10 years old. If you think about how disparate those locales are, then you can imagine how I am able to adapt to pretty much any location on the planet. As far as being reared along the Gulf Coast, it will always be a big part of who I am. Pensacola and the core group of people from that past are still very much a part of my life in the present. They are a huge part of my personality and how I interact with people now. One of the most important/ inspirational people from that past is responsible for setting up the Open Eye Café screening happening on Sunday.
As far as my desire to document, it really comes from an early age. 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 by-product and logical extension of that interest in different places and people.
Hisham Mayet appears at the Open Eye Café Sunday, Dec. 9, for screenings of two of his films, Musical Brotherhoods from the Trans-Saharan Highway and Palace of the Winds, which explore the Western Sahara and Mauritania. The event starts at 7 p.m. To see trailers for both films, click the links at the top of the page.