A Conversation with Mark Gergis, Part 2: “World Music”

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By Azzief Khaliq. Photos courtesy of Mark Gergis.

Anyone interested in international music, particularly from regions such as Asia and the Middle East, has probably at least heard of the label Sublime Frequencies. For the unfamiliar, Sublime Frequencies is, in their own words, “a collective of explorers dedicated to acquiring and exposing obscure sights and sounds from modern and traditional urban and rural frontiers via film and video, field recordings, radio and short wave transmissions, international folk and pop music, sound anomalies, and other forms of human and natural expression.”

From early radio compilations such as Radio Morocco and Radio Java, to launching the international career of Omar Souleyman, to more recent releases such as the Pop Yeh Yeh and Adnan Othman compilations, Sublime Frequencies has played a huge role in popularising rawer folk and pop music from all across the planet.

We sat down with Sublime Frequencies’ Mark Gergis after a screening of some in-progress (and as yet unreleased) short films to talk about a number of topics related to Sublime Frequencies, including a bit about the label’s history, world music, issues of ethics and privilege, otherness and much more besides.

In this second of four parts, Mark offers his thoughts on world music and shares some interesting anecdotes from his time researching and compiling compilations for Sublime Frequencies.

How do you feel about the term “world music” in relation to Sublime Frequencies? Because I always hesitate when someone asks me whether Sublime Frequencies releases “world music”.

Mark Gergis: Because world music had a stigma, didn’t it?

It did, and it probably still does.

MG: It does. In the beginning, it was just a way to describe international music, but what it ended up being was that 80s fusion, glossy world music that was really overproduced for a western market. They’d bring some Africans into a studio to do their chanting and totally mix it like an 80s album and all it “world music”. And it did really well, thanks to Peter Gabriel and other people.

But that’s probably still gateway stuff or a lot of people. By the time we were operating as Sublime Frequencies, it seemed the state of “world music” was horrible, with only a few exceptions. And the term “world music” carried this stigma.

Technically, Sublime Frequencies releases world music; it’s music from the world, but in the beginning I refused to call it “world music”. I hear all sorts of names, like “global grooves” and so on. Whatever title we give it usually sounds terrible. Why not just call the music what it is? Like “Thai music”, or “Syrian music”? But if you had to use an umbrella genre, “international music” is what I generally refer to it as.

We were diametrically opposed to how music from these places was being represented. That was a big motive behind putting this stuff out, making sure that the raw stuff gets heard too. Because when you travel to these places, you don’t get that polished “world music” vibe, you hear whatever people are really listening to.

So the representation of the rawer stuff seemed important to me, because that was what I would hear when I was travelling, as opposed to the stuff that was being dished out in the west. There’s a lot of reasons for that though, it’s not some evil plot to give people that cliched “world music” sound. It’s a bit like how you can’t find good Indian food in Germany because nobody can eat spicy food, right? So it’s taming it down and selling it as some remnant of Indian food, “the essence of India” or something. And then everyone’s happy, everyone eats Indian food and does yoga after and says “this is amazing!”

Also, another reason for “world music” as it was, was that you had a lot of well-intentioned ethnomusicologists who would go to some of these countries and be referred, by the state department or the Smithsonian, to whoever was deemed to be culturally apt: a “proper” cultural representative who would hook them up with “proper” cultural representation. This would not include anything they felt embarrassed by, anything they considered low class. Instead, they’re thinking “oh wow, we’re giving the Smithsonian the best of our culture,” or whatever met the general criteria for “culture” as export.

As a result, for years, we only had that representation. At the same time though, you had mavericks like Paul Bowles in Morocco or Charles Duvelle of Ocora Records, recording real stuff in the 50s and 60s, really intense, raw recordings. So it’s not like it didn’t exist, but it was a very niche market. Usually when the western institutions asked for these big cultural handouts, they would receive really sanctioned material. It’s when that is all bypassed is where I think it becomes more interesting, and a much truer representation of a culture.

Mark Gergis in Damascus

You mention “sanctioned” music, sanctioned representations of a country’s music. Any stories about how locals have reacted to the music you and Sublime Frequencies have been interested in? Differences between what they value and what you value, for instance?

MG: There are particularly interesting anecdotes or stories about my experiences with Thai, Syrian and Cambodian music. Let’s start with Thai molam for instance, which is really popular in Bangkok right now in a revival sort of way: it sells quite well, there’s a lot of people DJing it and it’s really well-loved, as it should have always been. But it was always a “lower class” music, and we had the toughest time convincing our friends and contacts in Bangkok that there was any value in it. They were constantly laughing at us, and even the people that made the molam were laughing at us: “why would people from another place like our music?”

But mostly we were getting told that it was “taxi driver music”, and while I guess that’s still being told to people who are collecting the music, molam music was so much more available in the record shops back in 2001 to 2004 when we were getting solid into it. Nobody would touch it, and we would just go through them one by one and pick what we like, maybe take a whole stack home, then come back next year and do it again.

The local disdain for it was so intense that we wanted to make a t-shirt in Bangkok that said, in Thai, “molam is cooler than you think it is.” We even came up with a preliminary design for the shirt, because we couldn’t believe how much people hated it.

In Syria, I started working with a singer called Omar Souleyman, whose cassettes I’d heard the first time I travelled there. After loving these tapes for nine years, I finally tracked him down, and he agreed to a compilation issued on the label. That compilation, Highway to Hassake, blew up, then we ended up doing more records with him, worked with him for a long time, toured with him and so on.

But the people in Damascus’ art scene, and my contacts in Damascus, all hated it so much. Again, because it’s a low class music, embarrassing to them. They were saying things like “look, please hear me out: Syria does not have a good reputation in the world, we are not on the world stage. And so, we’re trying to project what we are to the world, and it’s not Omar Souleyman,” which is a very valid plea, right?

To them, it wasn’t the high art of Damascus and Aleppo, that chanting and beautiful oud music, which I also love. I would tell them that I also love all of the great Syrian singers, but then they’d ask why I’m putting Omar Souleyman out, or say that it’s “impossible” to like both Sabah Fakhri and Omar Souleyman.

But I’d say that being an outsider did make it possible, really, because of my ignorance and my lack of local stigmas. If the tables were turned and someone was doing the same about American “culture” and America was a developing country with a terrible reputation—instead of a first world country with a terrible reputation—I’d probably react the same way, so I understand where the conversations come from. I can’t deny them, and I can’t argue with them. I only try and argue my case, and why I like it or see merit in it, to somebody with those grievances.

For instance, two friends of mine in Damascus were really begging me to not do this, to not release Omar Souleyman, and long conversations followed in order to explain that there is interest in the west for this sort of music. I would show them interviews I’d done about it and show them some of the other similar work I’d done elsewhere. Eventually, I think there was some understanding, but still an almost total lack of belief.

Two more examples. Most of the music on Cambodian Cassette Archives, much of which consisted of Cambodian diaspora music from the 80s, was probably also a little bit embarrassing for the culture itself, because it was done at a time when things were a bit more naive, a bit more ephemeral. They were rebuilding after the Khmer Rouge and a lot of the songs were copies of the greats who had been killed. It was so ephemeral, they were literally throwing this music away the next day.

It was made to fill a gap, and then when it was filled, they just threw it away.

MG: That’s right. Exactly. That’s what pop music is, in a lot of ways, isn’t it? So not much of that music is held in high regard now, and for someone like me to come along and to hold it in such high regard probably seems really abstract and surreal. I don’t know how else it’s seen, but while people in the Cambodian community and the people I’ve worked with have questioned it, or maybe have said that they aren’t interested in it or are embarrassed by it, nobody’s said that it’s a bad thing to represent. In my experience, they find it interesting, at least.

The last example I’ll bring up is Vietnam. We released Saigon Rock & Soul, which has gotten the biggest reaction from within the culture itself, more than any other release I’ve done. It’s really been interesting, because that compilation seems to have somehow validated Vietnamese culture for a lot of young people who’ve been really embarrassed by their parents’ music or were under the impression that Vietnamese music was just ballads and soft stuff, really loping stuff that they couldn’t be proud of.

But then Saigon Rock & Soul came along, which had this rock music that they’d never heard before. In fact, we were surprised at finding it too, since it existed only for a short window of time, and it’s a music that was essentially brought to Saigon by the American GIs. That sort of music is still illegal in Hanoi, actually; they’ll turn me down when I DJ it sometimes.

Anyway, I’ve received the most mail form young Vietnamese people who say that the compilation “changed everything” for them, which is a very strong reaction compared to any other Sublime Frequencies release I’ve been a part of.

How about in Malaysia? I know Sublime has done the Pop Yeh Yeh and Adnan Othman compilations, both Carl Hamm productions. I know he’s very detail-oriented and very in love with the music here, and has done a great job compiling it and putting it together. How do Malaysians see that?

Well, I guess you could say that pop yeh yeh and so on is part of the the popular consciousness, without being held in particularly high institutional regard. You’ll go to a Malay wedding, for instance, and there’ll be this one song out of nowhere with the most insane delay-laden surf lead line, but that’s just one song, and nobody bats an eyelid. And then it’s back to some sappy ballad or Maher Zain or whatever.

It’s there, sure, but these musicians don’t get the recognition that P. Ramlee gets, because they weren’t harnessed in quite the same way for nation building as P. Ramlee was. It’s probably also due to how overtly western the music is, which is very much influenced by The Shadows and so on.

I think Sublime Frequencies’ Pop Yeh Yeh compilation and Grey Past Records’ Steam Kodok really played a big part in getting younger listeners, including myself, interested in the sound of 60s Malaysia and Singapore. We’d all heard some of this music before, but we never really knew who recorded it, when it was from, or what else these musicians did. That sort of thing.

And there’s also probably a disconnect between our parents’ generation, who know this stuff, and ours: the knowledge hasn’t been transferred, so to say. You put it on and they’ll go “oh yeah, I know this song” but they don’t own any of it, they don’t listen to it, they don’t really have anything much to offer, so it sort of ends there. But then I grew up in a somewhat Anglo-centric household so I can’t say with any confidence that my experience is the definitive Malaysian experience, but it is an experience that many people I know share.

MG: So do you think it took an outsider to actually make people aware of it?

Yeah, definitely.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Azzief KhaliqAzzief Khaliq mostly spends his days thinking about, buying or listening to music. He used to play music too, but finds that it’s something he’s not all that interested in doing anymore. He never asked for this.