Sublime Frequencies’ Burkina Faso box set
It’s difficult to reach through the knot of memory, laden heavy in a sea of sound. Not long ago came a rumble, largely ignored – the moment the first five releases by Sublime Frequencies quietly slipped into the world. Founded in 2003 – a collaboration between Hisham Mayet and Alan Bishop, the imprint has rewritten the terms, forever changing the character of our cultural landscape.
Record collectors are an unusually curious bunch. Strange covers and unknown sounds haunt us, nagging from the bins. There’s an inevitable point, reached by nearly all, when knowledge is exhausted, and we bow to the demand of our ears. For as long as I can remember, my friends and I followed this call into the “international” bins – usually buried in the furthest flung corner of a shop, or places most customers won’t bother to go. Over the years our thirst was rewarded, and curiosity grew. As we delved into the catalogs of Ocora, Lyrichord, Folkways, Arion, Le Chant Du Monde, Universo Folklore, Odeon, Bärenreiter-Musicaphon, we sculpted a different vision of the world – one more open, inclusive, and ready for approach. Our collections become simple vessels for the democracy of sound.
When facing the larger body of recordings, spanning the world’s many musical traditions, there are a few crucial factors which can’t be ignored. Historically, focus and distribution are highly segmented to geographies. Record companies have almost always sought to configure their output to what they see as a specific and localized demand. Until the creation of Rock & Roll, they made little to no effort to import or export music across cultural or geographic lines – and even then, among the major label industry, this practice still largely exists today – genres are divisional. Few albums are marketed to all.
The beginnings of our own paradigm of appreciation – one which actively recognizes and promotes the value of recorded music from beyond one’s own geography or culture, more or less begins with a single man (at least within the context and approach which will be discussed here). During 1920’s Hugh Tracy – an English amateur music enthusiast, arrived in South Africa and fell in love with local sounds. Feeling that they held far more value than was acknowledged (particularly in an era of racist and xenophobic Eurocentric colonialism), he began recording them at length – eventually spanning the entire continent, and leading to the founding of the field of ethnomusicology. It took another thirty years for the results to find a commercial release. When Tracy’s recordings began to come to light in the early 1950’s – on London and Decca, they sparked a revolution. Young ethnomusicologists soon spread across the world. Between their emergence and the early 80’s, there was a remarkable effort to document the world’s indigenous musical traditions. Releases ran into the hundreds, if not thousands, finding homes on the labels mentioned above, and countless more. It is an astounding body of work, with endless influence, but not without fault.
When surveying the last hundred years of recording, on a global scale, specifically those made beyond Western countries, we are faced with a great divide. There are recordings of popular music, made for domestic release, and there are those of traditional music (for the record, Hugh Tracy is one of the few who made an effort to document both) made for European and American audiences. The later were created largely for study and preservation, effectively a window for the outside to look within, and an allowance for these sounds and cultures to stand the tests of time. Though of profound value, and remarkable work (both as gesture, and for their contents) in and of themselves, these efforts are steeped in the colonial view. They are rarely an accurate (or attempt an inclusive) vision of the sonic reality of any given place, and were almost never framed to be appreciated on the same terms as one might approach American or European Jazz or Rock & Roll. I’m not sure why, but around the mid 80’s these releases began to disappear. Perhaps labels decided they had captured enough, or that in a changing climate of consumption, they were not a viable commercial aim. Regardless of cause, new recording of the world’s musical traditions remained largely inaccessible in the West, for roughly twenty years.
Through the 90’s and early 2000’s, when walking into any record shop, you were faced by any number of things – but a true representation of global diversity wasn’t one. There weren’t bins filled with African funk, South American Psych, or countless other sounds from around the world (both old and new), that you find today. In the last ten to fifteen years, there has been massive paradigm shift from whom and where, listeners seek their favored sounds. It has almost become an expectation, that serious fans of music have interests which span numerous cultural sources and times. Though noticed by only a few, this phenomena largely began with five initial releases creeping to life from a label based in the Pacific Northwest.
The contribution made by Sublime Frequencies is so broad, now extending far beyond its own efforts, it’s almost impossible to calculate or place. The diverse landscape of multicultural recording (and archival release), as we find it today, is so sprawling, it’s hard to remember the day when it wasn’t the case, or put a finger on how it all began. Context is everything, and it’s a multilayered thing. Like many of us, both Hisham Mayet and Alan Bishop come from the worlds of underground music and Punk. Though not immediately apparent, the ideas and legacies of this cultural proximity underscore and guide their label’s pursuits. It’s easy to cast Punk as a sound – to forget how diverse it was during its first twenty years, and that the glue and bond – its true definition, was a set of principles and ideals. More than anything else, it was a break with the hegemony of the single view – a willingness to recognize that arrangements of sound inherently had value, humanity, and range. They could come from any place, and take many forms. It wasn’t by accident, that when citing their greatest influence, Black Flag pointed to the Grateful Dead, not the Sex Pistols, Ramones, or the Damned. With almost universal effect, when picking through the collections of those of us who began our love of music with Punk, you find the genre only taking up a small space, while its legacies have endlessly sculpted the whole. This is important to recognize. Not only did Sublime Frequencies grow from the ethos of Punk (and other associated underground musics), its initial audience grew from there as well. Most of us who bought the label’s early releases were not fans of the sounds of Sumatra, had no idea what the radio in Java played, or what the music of villages in Bali sounded like. How could we have? Until then, they were nowhere to be found. We were fans of Alan’s band Sun City Girls, and approached his new label on that faith alone – guided by a shared and collective view.
In the current landscape, it’s fascinating to consider that Mayet and Bishop’s initial effort, like so many of Punk’s, began with a great fuck you. It was a breaking point, a rejection of the growing strength of a single view, a “god damn it, this has value too!” Like the movement from which they came, they changed everything. Over the course of thirteen years, they have brought us remarkable sounds from around the world – radio recordings, archival releases, field recordings, those made in makeshift studios in the heart of the Sahel, and the endless beyond. They have shattered the view of the West’s sonic singularity, and taught us all how little we know. They laid the groundwork for an entirely new context for the appreciation of sound. Like Hugh Tracy, they sent others scrambling down the path, the results of which have joined their efforts in the bins – now taking up a substantial portion of most record shops in the world. Importantly, Sublime Frequencies did something that no one before had attempted to do. They approached, released, and presented the world’s many musical traditions in a way which celebrated the things which make them distinct, but offered them equal footing with the rest. They helped us see that music from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and beyond, should exist in the same sonic and cultural landscape as Hip Hop, Jazz, and Rock & Roll, and offered equal equivalency and regard. Through sound, they embarked on democratizing the world.
Sublime Frequencies’ Burkina Faso box set
Today we celebrate a momentous event. Sublime Frequencies has reached their hundredth release. It’s arguably their most ambitious yet – a three LP box set of field recordings made by Hisham Mayet in Burkina Faso during three visits to the country in 2014 and 2015.
Burkina Faso is a country in the West African region of the Sahel. It has a fascinating, remarkable, and sometimes conflict ridden history. Unlike its neighbor’s Mali, Niger, Benin, and Ghana, few Westerners know its name – even less have heard its sounds. Like nearly all countries within the African continent, its borders were carved by European colonialism, with little regard for the cultures which reside within. The lands which now it make up, have long been defined by many distinct ethnic and cultural groups. The Mossi, Samo, and the Dogon people sculpted much of the area’s early social, cultural, and political life – with the Mossi being the dominant ruling force (they still remain as the countries largest body of people), ultimately creating the kingdoms of Tenkodogo, Yatenga, Gourma, Zandoma, and Ouagadougou, before being absorbed into the Songhai and Gwiriko Empire’s respectively – something which promoted the further diversification of its cultures over a number of centuries. During the 1890’s British, French, and German military forces began to make claims on these areas, before borders were drawn in favor of French rule. It remained a colony as such, known as Upper Volta, until 1958 when self-governance was enabled, before full interdependence was achieved in 1960. The period between its independence and 1983, is one of power grabs, unrest, and a number of civilian and military led coups. In 1983 Thomas Sankara came to power. He was a committed Marxist, changed the country’s name to Burkina Faso (meaning a homeland of honorable people), rejected the interference of the World Bank, the IMF, the agendas of the global oil industry, and set out on a massive infrastructure program of agricultural self-sufficiency, medical care, and land redistribution – the legacies of which still benefit the country today. He was killed in a French (see the silent hand of global Capitalism) backed coup in 1987 by his former colleague Blaise Compaoré, who remained Burkina Faso’s president until October 2014, when he was overthrown – since leaving the country in a less stable state.
Volume One of Sublime Frequencies’ Burkina Faso box set
Hisham Mayet first visited Brukina Faso in 2010 while making a cross country journey between Niger and Benin with Abdoulahi ‘Koutana’ Mohamed Van Loon (a remarkable Tuareg musician who played and recorded with Group Inerane, Koudede, Bombino, and tragically passed away this year at the untimely age of 38). Upon passing the border, Mayet discovered a country of more than 70 distinct ethnic groups, and one marked by a great deal more tolerance than its neighbors – a land defined by diversity, and independence from the outside world – where Muslim, Christian, and Anamist live as one, in mutual respect. He resolved to return, recorder in hand – a dream which was realized in 2014 during a period which saw three coups and the ultimate overthrow of the president Blaise Compaoré, not to mention a great of difficulty of travel to rural areas. These trips were not easily taken, but the results are a deeply worthy reward.
Volume Two of Sublime Frequencies’ Burkina Faso box set
Mayet’s recording are of profound value, on countless levels. Over the last decade, as interest in the music of Africa has grown, much of the gaze has rested on musics which represent a kind of hybridity, or share some relational esthetic with Western forms. Though celebrated for their distinction, even Gnawa and Tuareg music, which have no equivalents beyond the geographies from which they grow, are not radical challenges to most European and American ears. Our tastes and listening habits, guided by labels, with the shops which choose to stock these recordings, are dictated by external and internal (meaning our own) dispositions, agendas, and taste. All too often, without recognizing it, the music we have access to is placed before us to meet a presumption of existing demand, rather than democratically challenging and expanding our view. Though the current landscape of African recordings available in the West is undeniably a more accurate and inclusive than much of the historic cannon, Mayet’s efforts prove that they still fail to capture the whole. As it always has, Sublime Frequencies pushes the field to be better and more representational than it is.
When I first dove into Mayet’s recordings from Brukina Faso, the first thing I thought was “shit.. it still exists!” Most historic field recording of indigenous and local musics were largely rationalized as a gesture of preserving what, in the face of colonial forces and globalization, would inevitably prove to be dying forms. When surveying the recordings which have emerged from the African continent over the last decade or more, one might easily presume that this has proved to be true in most cases. This work tells another tale. At least in Brukina Faso, ancient traditions of local music are alive and well, constantly evolving and playing a role in everyday life.
Volume Three of Sublime Frequencies’ Burkina Faso box set
For those aware and versed in the music of the Sahel and North Africa, the set will inevitably offer both surprises and shadows of familiarity. The traditional musics of these regions are often the result of cross-pollination over the course of many centuries. With incredibly diverse populations, and history of migration, the music of Brukina Faso is equally one such case – but like in all regions in Africa, the result is singular and distinct. Mayet states early in his wonderful liner notes that he made no effort to make a complete document of the country’s many musical and cultural traditions – given the diversity, that would have been impossible with the time he had. He has simply attempted a survey of the major ethnic groups – the Mossi, Bissa, Fulani, Dioula, Bobo, Samo, Lobi, Senoufo, and Bwaba peoples. That he captured as much diversity as he did, is a remarkable feet in and of itself. The music represented is profoundly moving and engrossing. As the set progresses, we are wrapped within incredible rhythms, tonal arrangements, and gut wrenching vocals. Across many moments, they bring me close to tears. The songs were recorded across the entire country, which you can feel as you go – some feeling deeply connected to Griot traditions of the Sahel, other feeling far more linked to the music of the Ivory Coast and lower regions of the continent. What is crucial to recognize, is that Mayet’s recordings come from parts every day life. This is living sound, not something preserved as a cultural heritage or for show. These are people’s musics – recorded at festivals, cabarets, funerals, in the street and homes, drinking parties, and all other places that music finds a home. They are the sounds, worlds, and hearts of individuals whose lives and emotions, in the hands of powers beyond our control, are most often denied the company of our ears and eyes.
In the end, all I can say.. all I should have to say, it that within these recordings we find remarkable music upon remarkable music. There is emotion and a beating heart. Over the time I have owned the set, I have returned again and again – each listen offering new surprise, wonder, and a dropping jaw. It brings me close to tears, again and again. This is raw beauty and joy. The power of music, when unmediated by outside hands. Will I tell you exactly what it sounds like? Why would I deny you that surprise? The important thing to recognize is what this collection of songs is, and what it does. It is the voice a diverse people offered as one, and it is, as all of Sublime Frequencies efforts are, an intervention with (and expansion of) the history of recorded music. These recordings erode at long standing social policy and action which seek to divide the worlds populations from each other – to undermine access and regard. There is no spectacle here. This is the breaking of borders. This is the spirit of collectivism and mutual respect. This is the beauty of art and humanity, generously offered for us to take into our lives. With its help we sculpt a different world – one more open, inclusive, and democratic. The power is ours to share.
Please listen to the samples below. As short clips, they don’t begin to do the remarkable recordings justice, but they are the best we have. The Brukina Faso box set is only available directly from Sublime Frequencies in a limited edition of 350 copies. It’s accompanied by brilliant and descriptive texts by Mayet regarding the country and songs you hear, with the incredible photos he took over the course of his three journeys. I implore you to get it before it goes, while recognizing the profound value and action of what this label has brought into our lives.