A Conversation with Mark Gergis, Part 3: Privilege, Psychedelia and the Other

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.

The third part of our four-part conversation with Mark Gergis sees us talking about ethics, exoticism and the intersections of psychedelia and otherness.

Let’s talk about ethics. The ethics and privilege of being able to come in and research and repackage this music, with things as vulgar as the exchange rate working in your favour. Carl Hamm managed to Kickstart his whole adventure into pop yeh yeh and a lot of people in other parts of the world probably wouldn’t have the time, or the luxury, of doing that, of getting that support. I don’t want to reduce it to a Marxist base-superstructure thing, but…

Mark Gergis: That’s just being real. There is an inherent privilege. And, just like I was saying earlier with these ethnomusicologists from the Smithsonian being funded big time to come out and do cultural research, there’s a lot of money in that. We were operating in a very different way, where we weren’t rich and had no funding whatsoever. I’ve been poor most of my life. But I’m not going to deny the privilege of being in California and having opportunities to get a job when wanted to, but I usually chose the artist and musician route.

I’ve lived rent to rent most of my life and sometimes I’ve kept hardcore jobs to fund the next phase of whatever I want to do, but that lifestyle is a choice, and the choice comes from living in a place where I can make that choice. I can make the choice to go “hey, I’m going to spend six months travelling in Southeast Asia,” while someone living in a more traditional way, even in the United States, would get absolutely killed by their parents for that; “where’s your career? What’s your education? What are you doing with your life?”

And I didn’t make that choice just once, I did that multiple times. And the rest of the time I’m working to make ends meet, practicing with my band and putting on experimental shows. What the hell kind of life is that? Who are you making happy? Where’s the success, right? It’s like the opposite of success, you know?

Sublime Frequencies has been operating on a paradigm that’s quite small budget, out of pocket, with no financers. But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t “privileged”; the privilege comes from where we’re from. There’s the financial advantage, but there’s also the fact that we can choose to not be tied down, to be able to decide that this is how we’re going to spend our money because we know we can come back and make more money and that it’ll all work out. Those choices can be seen as privileges, I guess. But In more traditional cultures, they might be viewed as the choices a mentally ill person would make.

There’s also the privilege of not understanding local music, actually. There’s a “privilege” in the misunderstanding of the culture, there’s a privilege in not knowing what lines are drawn between Malay and Chinese music in Malaysia, and learning as you go; turning on the radio and hearing something like Adnan Othman and focusing on that, when a Malaysian wouldn’t have.

I don’t know if you want to call it privilege, an advantage or just simply a different perspective, but I think that’s where it would take an outsider’s stupidity, in a charming way, about the whole thing. I walk in completely ignorant to a culture and say “wow, that sounds great, give me more of that,” and sure, the exchange rate says I can buy ten times more cassettes than the guy next to me, who’s buying his only cassette this year or something like that.

But I think all of that factors in to the end result of what we choose to release. The result or “privilege” of our ignorance. Of us coming in with a completely blind and different perspective, without someone saying that’s not the music you should be listening to, or someone who’s spent their whole life listening to some kind of music and pushing it away. There’s that too, there’s two sides to the coin.

You’ve got a lot of western and Japanese so-called record “diggers” coming in; the exchange rate is quite good for them as well and they have an endless buying budget. They’re going to buy everything, after P. Ramlee, they’ll just keep going. A lot of people worldwide are getting super into this music and have that privilege.

The ethics of that are in the eye of the beholder. But I think there’s positive and negative aspects. To me, it all boils down to is checking yourself, me checking myself and saying “where do I stand with this? Am I doing this out of passion and love for what I’ve heard? Do I really feel it? Do I love doing it? Or am I trying to do another record to make some money?” I think it comes down to how passionate you are about it.

I’m not collecting as much these days; there’s a lot of people doing that, and a lot of it’s been done and a lot of it’s been collected. I’ve said what I have to say in a lot of these departments, and now I’m trying to say something somewhere else, or find some other way, or whatever touches me next. Now there’s a lot of competition in it, which is a turn off, and what I feel to be a lack of genuineness, despite there being a lot of good in these international music releases; there’s an appreciation at the moment, but I don’t know how much they’re “feeling it”, or how much they’ve invested spiritually into it. The full immersion, and the respect for a culture. Is it there? I always check that.

I know Carl Hamm, for instance, is deeply invested in pop yeh yeh and the culture here, and that’s important. That’s important for any field that anybody’s in, no matter what you’re doing. The results of that can only be good.

What about that old chestnut, orientalism? The exotification of non-Western music. But thing is, it’s not exactly something you can avoid, is it? It’s part and parcel of the whole dynamic. But do you think there are ways to avoid the traditional pitfalls of exotifying and glorifying the “other”, so to speak?

MG: There’s so many ways to look at that. Obviously, it is a glorification of the other, we can’t deny that. And that’s what makes it interesting, the fact that it is “other”. What’s the opposite of “other”? “Same”? If I’m looking for the same thing over and over again, then personally I’m not interested. Let’s move away from “other” as the ultimate, ominous “Other”, but literally “other”; yes, I was always looking for the other, which is more interesting than the bland that I already know or things that I’m fully immersed in. I want the other to come blow me away; there’s an embracing of the exotic in that sense.

Aren’t we all intrigued by what we define as “exotic”? And who defines what is “exotic”? We’re in a globalised world now, but the terminology of orientalism and the fundamentals behind the problem of the other are talking about the privilege of the west, of colonising. There’s a lot behind that that has to be considered and cross checked. Obviously, you have to consider everything, but when you get down to it, ultimately, I really found comfort in things I didn’t understand and I found a beauty in the places I was travelling. And that’s because they were different from what I knew. And in that sense it’s a genuinely different “other”.

I think I touched upon this a bit earlier when I talked about the naive intentions of wanting to humanise a culture, right? That’s not my God complex coming out, it’s not me saying I want to save the world or save this culture, thinking that we can make the white man love this culture through music. That’s getting into the world music thing again; it’s not possible, even though I think those gateways are important when you have a culture that doesn’t think of the rest of the world—America—yet controls the world through its foreign policy. So you do need gateways and valves and windows into a different culture and turn on the youth into thinking about that, thinking outwardly for once.

But the other end of humanising something, the worst-case scenario, is where the music ends up at a disco with people mocking it. And that’s where I find a problem with exoticism, where it’s like “we don’t really want to know these people, but we like the music and if it has a funk beat to it, it’s all good.” It’s all good as long as it sells records, and there’s a million problems as a result of that.

I’ve always enjoyed global cinema, for instance, from the first time I was exposed to it, because it’s from the outside and completely otherworldly to me. Film, just like music, speaks a language, right? Subtitles help, of course, just like how translation helps with the lyrics of a song, but even without subtitles you can still sit through a three hour masterpiece of Persian cinema and enjoy it. It means something because it’s not coming from where you are; you’re being exposed frame by frame to a different culture, but speaking a universal language of film or music or art.

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This brings me to something that has only recently come to mind: the relationship between “otherness” and “psychedelia”. For instance, Carl Hamm’s pop yeh yeh compilation is subtitled Psychedelic Rock from Singapore and Malaysia, but to someone like me who is aware of that music, it’s not psychedelic in the least. Do you think there’s a link that exists between something being “other” and it coming across as “psychedelic”?

MG: What is “psychedelic”? What is “psychedelia”? One time I was asked by this Kurdish family in Turkey to define psychedelia, because I was with someone who was saying “oh, we’re collecting psychedelic Turkish music” or something. And we were stumped: how do you explain this to two elderly Turkish people?

The term “psychedelia” refers to something outside the mind, something that gets you to think differently, something that’s crazy sounding, so you find derivative psychedelia that mimics Jimi Hendrix, but then you find accidental psychedelia, situations where fans of psychedelia can detect it when it’s not really there.

In fact, in Omar Souleyman’s case, people in the car when we were travelling would sometimes try to play noise music or experimental music for them and ask their opinion. There was no context for it at all: they said “this sounds like you’re trying to kill insects but you can’t,” and that wasn’t meant to be a good thing. That’s not a good review in a zine! And then I remember watching Ariel Pink with Omar Souleyman’s saz player and, because everyone in the audience had dreadlocks, he was like “these people are sheep, they look like livestock, what are they doing?” There’s no context for the subculture, right, and why should there be?

The globalised world means that there should be a homogenised context for everything, but we’re not there yet and I hope we never are, really. There’s this overcontextualisation of everything and everybody’s supposed to know this and that. But if you want to take a rural villager from Syria or anywhere to a Marilyn Manson show and try to tell him that “this is reality, man,” what is that?

There’s also the inherent privilege of psychedelic record fans, you know? Calling things “psychedelic” that might just be everyday cultural displays within their original context. I go to watch something in Chinatown and then they start doing some “weird” opera and I’m thinking in my mind, “wow, this is pretty cool… pretty psychedelic,” which is a very western thing of me to think, right? It’s just a Chinese folk performance; why is it psychedelic? Because the organ’s distorting by accident? “Oh wow, cool, I’ll just put my microphone to that!”

How do we get around this stuff? We can’t help what turns us on, our proclivity towards things. It’s weird.

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 has been known to spend far too much money on computer keyboards.