By Azzief Khaliq. Photos by Ayesha Keshani 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 first of four parts, we talk to Mark about history. More specifically, the history of Sublime Frequencies but also his own personal history and what led him to becoming so invested in music from all across the globe.
The most logical place to start would probably be a brief history of Sublime Frequencies. How did the label start and how did you end up getting involved?
Mark Gergis: Sublime Frequencies started in 2003. It was started by Alan and Richard Bishop from the group Sun City Girls as well as Hisham Mayet. I had been hanging out with them and we’d been friends for a couple few years before that. Robert Millis from Climax Golden Twins has also been a part of the Sublime Frequencies family of friends and key contributors since the beginning.
We were all musicians, and people who had spent the last decade travelling – some of us since the 1980s, especially throughout the Arab world and Southeast Asia. We had all amassed a large amount of music on vinyl, tapes, radio recordings, plus video footage, and hadn’t really done anything with it except enjoy it amongst ourselves and a few friends who cared. Although, in America, you’d find that a lot of your friends don’t care if you come back from a foreign place; they’re not thinking globally, they’re just asking politely, “what did you go do?”
But if you bring back some of this music from a region, and play it for them, sometimes they might say “wow, I’ve never thought of that place in this way.” That’s actually been an incentive for sharing this kind of music from the beginning – those couple of friends whose mouths hang open like yours did when you first heard it in one of these countries. That can become a gateway to the rest of the world, especially for a country that’s quite insular like America. For a country that knows how to dominate the world and exploit the world, most people there don’t really want to think about the rest of the world so much.
Why think about the world when other countries have to think about you instead, right?
MG: Right. They like that position, I guess. That privilege.
But back to the origins of Sublime Frequencies. When we started hanging out, We would watch all of this footage, listen to the music and marvel at it. We didn’t know much about it, but we knew that when we travelled we, as musicians, had our ears open to any kind of music—street music, recorded music, shortwave radio—and we were really getting excited about it. And that excitement led to wanting to put it out and share it with people.
So the Bishops and Hisham Mayet formed the label, jumping off from the Sun City Girls’ underground fame, the myriad other projects they were involved in and the distribution network available to them. It was great because the label could immediately get some sort of distribution and recognition without having to start from scratch, because it was basically founded on their legacy. So that was cool that the network was already there, so it was a guarantee that you could get the music out to an audience. A niche audience, but an audience nonetheless.
What sort of music did the label focus on back in the early days?
MG: A lot of the early Sublime Frequencies compilations were based on folk and pop compilations that we put together and curated and amassed from our previous travels, plus field and radio recordings. The reception was really nice, people were into it and the reviews were surprising. At first the label was releasing tons of releases at once, hitting people over the head with three to five releases at a time during 2003 to 2005, plus the radio discs, and it was all a bit confusing for people, especially because we were focusing on music that hadn’t been exposed in a pre-YouTube world.
So there was music from Thailand, namely molam, pop music from 60s to 80s Cambodia, music from Syria, music from Myanmar, and radio recordings from Palestine and throughout the Middle East. All of this stuff, including the choubi music from Iraq, hadn’t had a showcase previous to that, even within academic ethnomusicology. Maybe they would focus on molam as a folk music made by the northeastern people of Isan, but never as a hybrid folk-pop music. So it was quite unique, in that all of a sudden we were putting out all these releases of stuff that people, including some ethnomusicologists and students, had never heard of. That was a bizarre time, since we were also learning about the music as we were issuing it.
How has the whole “ethno music” scene changed since the label was founded?
MG: The label’s been going since the middle of 2003, and there was almost no “competition” at the time. Actually, it was never about competition. There have been labels that have started in the last five to seven years that have done a fantastic job of archiving, preserving and showcasing more of this music, but the room was empty back in those days. And in that sense, it was a very new thing and I don’t remember being able to share it with friends much.
There were people interested in it but it’s not like now, where every DJ in Europe is all over it. I guess it’s a good thing that the music did get exposure, but there are also troubles with that come with it, existential troubles.
Before we get into that, though, let’s talk about how you yourself got into this music. What sparked the interest?
MG: I was raised in both urban and suburban California with an Iraqi father and an American mother. My dad had moved to America in 1964 and he kept most of his Arabic music and was still listening to a lot of it into the 1970s. I would also hear and see all of that stuff at Iraqi weddings, too.
But as a teenager I ran away from that stuff. It was embarrassing to me. Because America has such a culture of assimilation, I really didn’t want to be affiliated with anything but typical American values growing up. I got into a lot of punk, post-punk and new wave stuff when I was a teenager, and I think after about five or six years of full immersion in subculture, I started to check out stuff from the library like Indian music, Thai music and some documentaries that were interesting. I started to reach out beyond my own subcultural scene, which is something I recommend to anybody who’s in a scene.
Being super into a scene and subscribing to a lifestyle is a great feeling, but expanding and reaching outside of my own circle started becoming a great feeling too. I’m pretty obsessive about my music, so when I get into something I tend to go too far, and I did that with Arabic music and music of the world on all fronts, including Southeast Asian music. It all became really fascinating to me in my early 20s, but I couldn’t afford to travel outside of America, and I didn’t even have a passport until the late 90s.
So when I was in my late 20s, I decided to make my first trip out, to Syria. I chose Syria because Syria was one of the last sovereign nations in the Middle East – it hadn’t been taken down like Iraq and it wasn’t like Jordan or Egypt, who had accepted Israel and the United States. It was standing alone and doing its own thing. I also chose Syria because it was close to Iraqi culture, my roots which I couldn’t visit myself, and I fell in love with it.
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Going back to California, specifically the Oakland area, there were a lot of Southeast Asian refugees who ended up there during the 1980s, and in these communities were shops with tons of music. Vietnamese and Cambodian music, for example. I would just check this stuff out endlessly, and ended up buying a lot of it and getting to know the people who ran the stores.
And then, when I travelled, I would always listen to the radio and get a feel for what the local music was. At that time, before the internet explosion, radio was serving a bigger function, people relied on it more. You’d even have local musicians come in, perform live in the studio, and it would get beamed out via radio; you don’t get as much of that now. I’ve noticed that most of the AM stations have disappeared in Thailand, maybe here too?
I don’t think AM’s even a thing here anymore. Maybe a handful of stations, if that.
MG: Let’s face it, they can listen to their own music on phones now. You don’t need radio, there’s no reliance on it. The combination of the corporate influence on radio and the reduced need for radio has resulted in a less interesting radio world. But back then you could learn a lot about a country just by listening to the radio.
We were all also simultaneously keeping up with our own musical projects back home – all the crazy experimental stuff, but for us there was something inherently refreshing and spiritual about listening and discovering this music from elsewhere.
Speaking for myself, the politics of it, especially the destruction of Iraq—which happened at the same time as when the label started—made it all feel very urgent to preserve, especially the Iraqi and Syrian CDs. Those felt very urgent politically, like it was a race against time to humanise a culture by showcasing their music.
Someone asked me last year, “well, how did that work out? Are people now thinking about these other cultures?” And honestly, when I hear how some collectors discuss their finds, and sometimes when I attend parties where they’re playing international music, my reaction is that I don’t think there’s a real passion here, it’s something ephemeral and trendy: “let’s suck the funk out of this track, let’s dress like an Arab tonight.” It’s like cha cha cha of the 50s, or you can look at how Perez Prado in the 50s grabbed hold of America and everyone went “rhumba” or “mambo” for a spell. It seems kind of a revival of that sometimes.
And now it’s even coming full circle into the fusion world music that we hated so much when Sublime Frequencies began. Everything goes full circle. What can you do about it? You just do your part and you do what you can do.
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.