The maverick Sublime Frequencies world music label describes itself as “a collective of explorers dedicated to acquiring and exposing obscure sights and sounds from modern and traditional urban and rural frontiers”. The collective seeks to populate a space it sees as being under-represented by “academic research, the modern recording industry, media, or corporate foundations”, aligning itself with adventurous recording labels of the past such as Folkways, Topic, Ocora, Nonesuch Explorer, and Chant du Monde. The label’s releases fall into four broad categories: regional radio collages, field recordings, folk and pop music compilations, and video/film documentaries.
More recently, however, Sublime Frequencies has branched out into the promotion of recordings and tours by particular artists. In 2009 they brought the Syrian dabke star Omar Souleyman and the Western Saharan Group Doueh to Europe for a set of visceral and original concerts (Souleyman is due to return to the UK in May, this time paired with Congolese legends Konono No. 1). The label has also issued vinyl and CD single-artist albums devoted to Souleyman, Group Doueh, and Groups Inerane and Bombino from Niger.
Treeg Salaam (Streets of Peace) is the second release by the group led by Salmou “Doueh” Baamar, a guitarist influenced as much by Jimi Hendrix and James Brown as the trance musics of his Western Saharan heritage. Doueh sought creative ways to mix his varied interests while growing up in Dakhla, a town in the Western Sahara that is claimed by Morocco and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, eventually forming a group that blends Sahrawi (Saharan) songs in the Hassania language with distorted electric guitar that alternates, in true Hendrix style, between infectious riffing and exploratory soloing. An international audience was introduced to Doueh’s visceral music via his first release for Sublime Frequencies, Guitar Music from the Western Sahara. The album was initially released as a limited vinyl edition and, when that sold out, was reissued as a CD. Having also been given an initial vinyl pressing, Treeg Salaam was made more widely available via a CD issue in late 2009.
Like its predecessor, Treeg Salaam comes on loud and scratchy and immediate. The five tracks—one an epic 20-minute affair—have been compiled and edited by Hisham Mayet from Doueh’s personal archive of cassette recordings made between 1989 and 1996. It is perhaps not surprising, then, to find the finished products lacking in 21st century technological gloss. But rather than see this as a deficiency, the quarried nature of the sound recordings provides absolute fidelity to what makes Doueh’s music so inviting. It has been claimed that the power of Group Doueh comes through despite the poor quality of the recordings, but that “despite” should really be replaced with “because” in the case of tracks such as “Ragsa Jaguar” and “Nabi El Mohamed”. Nor is this one of those felicitous occasions when “despite” and “because” are interchangeable. We should not be hearing this as an “authentic” music whose authenticity is proved via its overcoming of the limitations of recording technology. We have no access to that authenticity we imagine “beyond” the shield of tape hiss. Our presumption of it relies on a longstanding imagination of otherness that seeks to project authenticity onto musicians from cultures with which we may not be familiar. Instead, what we, as listeners, have in our possession is a musical text containing all kinds of sonic textures.
One of the many pleasures of this music is the way it alternates between the mellow and the raucous, one minute pulling us into the mysterious comforts of the trance, the next attacking our sense of what constitutes the sonorously comfortable via the tinny register of the vocals or the fuzz of the guitar. The album opener, “Min Binat Omum”, engages immediately with its snaking guitar line and its invitation to join in the call-and-response vocals. The lineup listed on the CD is that of the 2009 tour, with Doueh accompanied by his wife Halima Jakani on vocals and tbal (drum), his son Jamal on keyboards, and Bashiri Touballi on vocals. Whether this same lineup is in operation on all the recordings collected here is less clear, but “Min Binat Omum” is certainly characterized by the dynamics of the male and female vocals and insistent tbal.
In contrast to this well-recorded opener, “Ragsa Jaguar” tears from the speakers with the insurgent anarchy of a bootleg punk recording, all tinny guitar riffing and what sounds like a combination of tbal and drum machine. There are no vocals on this track, just exuberant whooping from the crowd that attests to how thrilling it must have been to witness Doueh’s extemporization in the flesh. But, as mentioned before, this album shouldn’t be listened to as a transcription, but rather a prescription, a fresh text that sets off all kinds of new imaginings for the listener who, after all, has only this sonic document of those lost Saharan nights.
Intertextuality abounds on “Beatte Harab”, a weird mixture of competing vocals and time-slipping string work. But, while the track may well appeal to fans of psychedelic music (as indeed the whole album should), it is clearly a more traditional number, a reminder of the Mauritanian influence on Doueh’s sound. In addition to electric guitar, Doueh regularly plays the tidinit (here, “tinidit”), a four-stringed spike lute associated with Tuareg music. “Nabi El Mohamed”, meanwhile, is another scratchy, fuzzy party piece with wah-wah guitar fighting against the accumulating vocals and the sudden entry, midway through, of some chunky synthesized beats. Towards the end it’s as though the guitar is trying to frantically escape the stranglehold Doueh has over it, its mesmerizing life force sizzling out into spasmodic death throes. This is guitar playing at its most possessed.
The extended piece “Tazit Kalifa” finds Touballi chanting over slowly bubbling guitar and droning keyboards. The track allows us to witness the calmer moments of Group Doueh, at least for its first seven minutes or so. Then a drum machine starts up and we seem to be occupying two sonic spaces simultaneously, that of the reflective “Tazit Kalifa”, and that of a noisy neighbor. Except that, of course, it’s all part of the same textual space and gradually we learn to reconcile the two worlds, helped by the gradual meshing of the guitar and keyboards with the beat. Just as we are getting used to this fascinating sonic palimpsest, the beats cut out and we are left with Touballi’s vocal, the swirling keyboard, and occasional barbs of sound from Doueh’s guitar runs.
To present a collection like Treeg Salaam as a sonic text is to situate it at the heart of the debate over what constitutes an ethnomusicological recording and what passes for contemporary “world music”. This is one of the great benefits of the work that Sublime Frequencies is engaged in and the fact that the label has moved from solely presenting compilations—occasionally with little or no accreditation of the original recording artists—to “albums” by established performers has only served to further their intervention in this debate.