As co-founder of a cult record label, Hisham Mayet is responsible for unleashing Iraqi Choubi, Palestinian psyche-rock and Omar Souleyman on the world
‘If you don’t like gettin’ your ears pierced, then clear the path now,’ blare the liner notes of ‘Radio Palestine’ – a ‘cerebral smashing’ aural collage of lo-fi field recordings from the eastern Mediterranean, compiled by Sublime Frequencies.
Taped off the radio, chopped up and rearranged, ‘Radio Palestine’, like most Sublime Frequencies compilations, presents the region’s soundscapes as a traveller would experience them; radio voxpops, snatched street stereo broadcasts and unknown anthems, all caught on the go.
From Iraq’s choubi music to rapid-fire Syrian dabke and cheesy North Korean pop, the Portland-based record label has been plunging listeners into the sounds of Middle Eastern, North African and South East Asian cultures they consider musically underrepresented for over a decade.
‘My main criteria is music that creates a sense of wonder for me,’ says Hisham Mayet, the label’s co-founder, on how tracks make the cut to the label’s now 80-something releases. ‘Mystery can be liberating in such a spiritual way. It creates whole other universes that the mind can get lost in.’
Born and raised during the early 1970s in Libya, where his father, brother and extended family still live (‘I’m always planning an imminent return’), the region, for Mayet, is not a universe he feels lost in. ‘I lived a block away from the Mediterranean sea in a lovely villa, surrounded by a large extended family and all the love and nurturing any child could ever hope for. I still remember going to swim and play on the beach on a daily basis,’ he recalls.
‘An intense memory is that we had this neighbour from Germany who had a wild baboon as a pet in his garden. It was always in a large cage, but one day it escaped and climbed over a fence separating our villa from his. My little brother was playing in the garden that day and was almost mauled to death by this wild baboon. I remember coming home from school and seeing all the scar marks on my brother’s back and realising how feral the universe can be.’
Mayet came to settle, years later, in Portland’s Montavilla district, which he describes as ‘a very diverse neighbourhood in a very homogenous city.’ From here, he co-runs the label at long-distance with Alan Bishop – the American-Lebanese musician of prickly punk trio Sun City Girls fame, who is now based in Cairo as part of Egyptian psych-folk band The Invisible Hands.
Despite the long distance and respective side projects, the label endures. ‘Sublime Frequencies floats along in its own inimitable way. We’ve managed to keep it interesting and within a certain framework that doesn’t compromise any integrity – that was a foundation from the start,’ he explains. ‘We really aren’t so much about growth in the traditional sense of a record label, but more about sustainability and commitment to why we started this.’
That said, Sublime Frequencies has seen its share of traditional growth, however, being largely responsible for picking up and circulating the albums of Syrian artist Omar Souleyman and fuelling his crossover from workaday wedding singer to hero of the American avant-garde. ‘We had a few years where Omar Souleyman and Group Doueh brought the label some international exposure, but we generally try to avoid the trappings of the “industry” machinations that create situations like that.’
‘Omar’s parabolic ascent to stardom was something none of us were expecting. I feel like it was the right moment for an Arabic musician to be accepted by such a diverse audience. Once people could grasp a human element from the region and see that culture from the Middle East is really more about joy and inclusion, then they connected with that,’ he says. ‘It helped that the music and live shows were ecstatic affairs that hypnotised people and rocked hard.’
Mayet has just returned to Portland after a two-month expedition to Burkina Faso and Niger. ‘I’m always travelling and will continue to do that until I am physically unable or dead,’ he says. ‘Right now, my work is focused in West Africa, where I’ve been working for the last 10 years. Niger, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso and Benin are the areas I’ve travelled and recorded material in. In that specific geographic region, a whole lifetime of research and documentation is needed. I’m always wanting to dig deeper.’
His latest project, he explains, is a perfect example of how the label works. Mayet set out looking for sounds that could put the different musical styles from neighbouring countries into context. ‘I have very narrow aesthetic parameters and that generally guides the trajectory of what I’m looking for,’ he says. Once on the ground, Mayet sets up recording situations with local communities, gathering as much material as possible via as many recording techniques as available. As well as collecting tracks, there is a heavy focus on capturing the ambience of a place through its own organic soundtrack.
‘There is an undeniable regionalism to radio in these locales,’ he explains. ‘Radio in the countries we travel to is still an independent affair. It’s improvised and dynamic. It incorporates so much of the community in regards to call-in shows and talk show guests – storytellers and griots are given an incredible platform to transmit their craft. Street sounds and field recordings evoke a deep sense of that space. It creates context without over-intellectualising a foreign place.’
Once back in Portland, and after tending to the garden of his 1917 craftsman bungalow (‘I have an obsession with gardening. I find it to be meditative and relaxing’), the collected recordings are archived and the selection process starts. ‘There is no particular set of rules governing my decision for selection. I generally know when I’m recording something if it will make the final cut on a release. You can feel it right there on the spot.’
After a decade spent combing the region, there are still stones left unturned: his dream expedition is to explore the Republic of Chad. ‘I’d love to be financed to drive from north to south on an expedition that could document the current state of culture there. I’m sure locals on the ground are archiving a lot due to the proliferation of modern technology, but I’d love to experience it first hand and document it myself.’
But for all of the years spent ‘traversing the arid wilds of West Africa,’ Mayet still manages to take small pleasures in his Portland life. ‘One of the main attractions for me here is that I have lots of longtime friends and it’s a lovely community to be in between my expeditions. It’s always wonderful to get back to my home – it’s where my collection of records, books and films are stored and where I can be surrounded with all the familiar nuances of my life.’
Having spent so much time in the region, though, and with Bishop in Cairo, would he ever consider moving back? ‘I’ve always loved Morocco. Possibly one day in my old age, I will ruminate my accomplishments there.’