By Azzief Khaliq. Photo 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 final part of our conversation with Mark Gergis touches on a number of miscellaneous topics, from the work that gets put into a Sublime Frequencies release, to what makes something worth collecting, as well as some of countries he hopes to visit in the future.
What makes a Sublime Frequencies release? Is there something you look for or is it just something to do with “feel”?
Mark Gergis: I think that the people involved with the label and the passion that’s behind it has made it what it is. We all bring something different, with our individual and collective aesthetics and politics and tastes, and they meet in some places and differ in other places. I think it has been about how the releases are curated and assembled and the aesthetic choices made throughout the discography.
While all the releases are unique, you can say that there has been a certain Sublime Frequencies sound, and a certain look to the design and so on. But I think it’s what the individual personalities in the label have brought to the table. The collective has widened a bit now, so things are a bit more diverse now; but maybe there was, for a decade, a very specific Sublime Frequencies way of doing things.
Something I’ve been thinking about is how much work gets put into releases, at least the ones that you’ve worked on? The time, the money, the research; the experience of putting something like Saigon Rock & Soul together?
MG: Each one is very intense, actually. There’s the initial seed that’s planted, the initial full immersion getting into it, and then trying to find out more about it, researching (with very little to find on these subjects online in previous years), collecting more, traveling to the place in question, and also talking with people in diaspora communities. That’s a whole process.
I went through hundreds and hundreds of tapes for Saigon Rock & Soul, but those hundreds of cassettes yielded mostly ballads, and each cassette is probably an hour and thirty minutes long, almost the longest a cassette can possibly be. One out of twenty or thirty tapes would have a track I that would choose, because I’m so particular about these compilations. The quality or the power of it and the sequencing has to be pretty specific; they have to move you, in order to get somebody into it. Picking those tracks was not easy.
None of it’s really that easy to compile, or research, or translate, or notate, or restore, or master: the air tickets aren’t cheap, collecting isn’t cheap, and each release has a different backstory. There’s also having to get artist permission, work with the artist and having to deal with inter-community drama. I won’t name this particular community, but questions such as “who else is on the compilation?” and “is his track before mine or after mine? Because mine has to be before his,” have been asked. So you get into these personal politics; the weirdest stuff comes up and you never know what you’re getting into.
So there’s all of that to consider, and we didn’t even think about the amount of time spent. It was just something we wanted to do. The idea was just to get a good release out of it. Especially with the things that mattered to me the most at the time, which included Iraqi choubi, dabke, Thai molam and the Cambodian stuff. The idea was that “I hope people love this stuff as much as I do,” and compiling it to make it that good. So whatever it took to make that release, whether it was three trips and hundreds of hours of mastering and restoring stuff, it’s impossible to measure what actually went into it.
Some are easier than others, but I think they’re all quite a total investment, in a way.
What do you look for when you’re buying stuff on these trips? What makes you want to add something to your collection? Is there something that plays a central role in your decision to add or not add something to your collection?
MG: Yeah, money!
Beyond that, though, if you have a set amount of money and have to decide what goes and what doesn’t go into the pile that you’re bringing back to America, is there something that helps you decide?
MG: If I see it as an act of preservation, like with the Syrian and Iraqi music I collected outside of Syria and Iraq. I felt like I should acquire almost everything, so that I can have a library at home I can go through. But I was more selective in Thailand, where I’d be sitting in these record shops listening to each record, while Alan Bishop was throwing down for the entire collection, saying “come on man, let’s go!” He didn’t have a giant budget, but he’s just saying “come on, let’s do this, let’s go to the next shop.”
A lot of it was restricted by budget; some of these people knew what they had and charged a lot of money. But what is the real keeper, you mean? I don’t know. I know what it is, but it’s hard to explain. Sometimes it can be something, anything that turns you on. Or maybe it’s the art that’s cooler than the records.
And then with the cassettes, the Thai cassettes and the Cambodian cassettes, I’d get as many of them as possible to learn about it.
I keep a storage space in America because I can’t get rid of my archives; they’re all just sitting there. I’ve digitised maybe 60 percent of them. They’re important and a lot of them have become more important over the years, like with the Syrian archives, which have become national treasures, although I wish I didn’t have to say that. I wish that wasn’t true. That cheap dabke tape that so-and-so hated in Damascus is still a piece of history; it’s archeology at this point and I wish I had ten times more. You end up having these accidental treasures, unfortunately, because of the tragedy that’s happened there.
What would you say are the most essential Sublime Frequencies releases for someone that’s looking to get to know the label and what it’s all about?
MG: Every one that I did, naturally. But I think the radio collage discs are really unique, and I think that those are something that set the label apart, especially in the early days. And the compilations of field recordings mixed with radio recordings, those are nice, really nice for me. They’re like audio documents, and that’s what I love; they’re also historical documents too. Like Radio Thailand, which came out in 2005 but which I recorded between 2000 and 2005 and Alan recorded in the 80s; Radio Thailand will never sound like that again. And if you had someone else recording radio in the next hotel room, they’d still make a different sounding disc, so it’s really unique.
As far as compilations go, it’s hard to choose. It’s really hard to choose. Obviously I know my own releases the best, and I got really into making those, the Iraqi choubi and Cambodian Cassette Archives, but I like a lot of the North African stuff, music from the Sahel, as well as the folk and pop compilations from places like Myanmar, which are windows into time.
It’s really hard to pick one or five, even. Now there’s a hundred and ten or something.
What does the future hold for Sublime Frequencies? Any particular styles of music or regions that you’re particularly interested in investigating and releasing music from?
MG: We all still have so much in our archives from our travels in those times, and new travels and submissions are always happening. Now that my wife Ayesha and I have been living in Asia for the past three years, the question becomes “what’s even exotic or ‘other’ anymore?” My ears are still open to everything, I’m shooting film a lot, more than I was ever before, and I’m still going through my archives. There’s a lot of projects we can’t talk about because we’ve always tried to keep tight-lipped, because someone will immediately try and do it too.
It’s a lot more competitive now.
MG: Actually, it is. But even ten years ago, you know, if we felt like we had a very special project, we’d keep it to ourselves, because we felt that if someone else caught wind of it and tried to do it, they might be able to do it first, but worse, they might also really end up cheapening and dampening the whole experience. We believed in our own compiling and presentation abilities and worked hard to build our connections with people and musicians abroad, so we preferred to keep quiet and release the good version first and let someone else’s cheap one come out later. Or hopefully they’d put out a nice one too.
But anyway, to return to your question, there are some Sublime Frequencies projects that are unrealised as of yet due to some roadblocks, let’s say.
Any countries in particular you’d love to visit and maybe release music from?
MG: Oh, I’d love to go to Iraq. I always had to go around Iraq, you know? So I’ve never been able to go to Iraq. People do go there, there are safe areas, and I know people who do travel to Iraq, whether they’re Iraqi or not. But with my style of digging into Iraqi music and everything else, I’d love to be able to go to Iraq and do that.
I’d love to go to Iran, myself. I’d like to go to Myanmar again, I hear it’s changed a lot since the last time I was there 17 years ago. I’d also love to go to Mongolia, some of the -stan countries, and I’d love to go to Georgia too. I’ve never been to South America, which is a crime.
But who has the money and the time? And also life gets complicated and expensive. The world’s in a mess right now, everything’s upside down. There’s a reason everybody’s so competitive, right? Because it’s a desperate time.
Hopefully I can see at least five percent of what I just said, you know? I’d love to be able to listen to the radio, dig for tapes and meet people in all those countries I mentioned. I still get a thrill out of that. I don’t get a thrill out of the competition of record digging; I don’t find it attractive and I find it repellant. I do respect that people are into collecting records, but when it comes to competition or one-upmanship, it’s a little bit of a turn-off.
Anyway, I still find magic in the travel and that’s important.
Azzief 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. His favourite album of all time might be The Holy Bible by Manic Street Preachers.