Sublime Frequencies Carries the World’s Music Across the Critical Divide

Brazilian gang funk, Arab dance jams, and African acid rock.

Since Sublime Frequencies' first release, 2003's Folk and Pop Sounds of Sumatra, Vol. 1, the Seattle-based label and loose-knit collective of sound explorers has become pop music's most adventurous and diverse source of world music—far more so than the "guaranteed to make you feel good!" sounds of the slick global juggernaut that is the Putumayo brand. This is utterly mind-blowing considering Sublime Frequencies is a maverick independent operating on a shoestring budget (each release is normally limited to 1,000 copies, though most sell out). Co-founders Hisham Mayet and Sun City Girl Alan Bishop have no extra cash to produce arty coffee mugs or hemp tote bags. "One release funds another. Al and I take home no paychecks from this," says Mayet while en route to the East Coast to screen his new SF-funded film, Palace of the Winds, a "look at the culture and music of the Saharawis from the Western Sahara and Mauritania." Sublime Frequencies' rapidly growing catalog (40 releases and counting) can be divided into six basic groupings: traditional field recordings, collagelike collections of foreign radio, documentary films, environmental sounds, featured artists, and archival compilations of exotic pop music. In the past year or so, those last two categories have really taken off with such releases as Thai Pop Spectacular 1960s–1980s and the label's two most recent discs, Latinamericarpet: Exploring the Vinyl Warp of Latin American Psychedelia and the relentlessly primitive PROIBIDÃO C.V: Forbidden Gang Funk From Rio de Janeiro. Even more exciting is a full-length by Group Inerane, raw desert funk-rock masters from Niger in Africa, and a platter of ridiculously aggressive Arab dance jams from a cool-ass Syrian pop star in shades who calls himself—are you read for this?—Omar Souleyman. His disc, Highway to Hassake, is the surprise hit of SF's catalog (you can even soak up Souleyman's utter hipness on YouTube). Although the bulk of Sublime Frequencies' entire catalog is ace, I've been digging those latter jams the most. There's a reason for this: By boldly fusing indigenous folk sounds and electronic dance music, funk, and rock from the West, artists like Souleyman and Group Inerane are doing far more exciting things with Western pop music than just about any musician actually from the West. American mainstream radio in 2007 sounds utterly exhausted compared to this stuff. Then again, there are those who wouldn't consider Group Inerane's funk (replete with a chorus of female backup singers) or the fuzzy bubblegum of Thai Pop as authentic as world music not touched by Western rock and its love for distorted amplification. Case in point: Earlier this fall, while wandering the Midwest, I somehow struck up a conversation with a Jehovah's Witness who was living with two Nigerian immigrants. We started talking music, and he asked if I had ever heard any Nigerian music. I mentioned Fela Kuti and Afrobeat. One of the Nigerians also liked Fela, but that was lost as the Jehovah's Witness replied, "But Afrobeat is influenced by Western music. Have you heard any real Nigerian music?" Now, granted, this guy was a missionary douche bag, but there are a lot of world music fans out there who share his opinion—that American pop can only taint the purity of the planet's folk sounds. It's a view that fits into a larger, liberal-based critique of American corporate culture as the great destroyer. But Mayet doesn't buy it. "The idea of pure folk art doesn't fucking exist," he explains. "Even in a place like the Sahara or Nigeria or Niger or Mauritania, all of them have these elements of influence that have come from trade caravans for thousands and thousands of years. There's no such thing as pure music, as if someone was in a cave for 3,000 years. Whether it's traditional folk music or your standard rock band with guitars playing African rhythms, they're all folk forms in essence." No other Sublime Frequencies release proves this point more than Group Doueh's Guitar Music From the Western Sahara. Doueh, like Inerane, are deeply influenced by funk. But the group also loves cacophonous acid rock, especially Jimi Hendrix. There isn't a single American noise-rock act that can fuse exotic vibrations and scorching feedback like Group Doueh. And yet they create fiery political music meant for their own people before all else. We're just witnesses, and that sounds just great. The United States' commercial imperialism is indeed one evil fucking virus. But dismissing Group Inerane or Souleyman or a Thai babe playing guitar in a bikini as nothing more than infected victims plays into the "noble savage" myth. It ignores their power as artists to appropriate and reshape our music into something new, bold, and, most important, their own. For more information, visit

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