David Fanshawe, field recording practitioner, is enthusiastic, hyperbolic, deceased, and partly Edwardian by temperament. He wrote copiously, wrote fulsomely, and presented his field recordings with romantic enthusiasm – a romance that Sublime Frequency shares, but its romance is not talkative, not wordy. The idea that the Other can seem exciting because it is Other has been scruitinised and criticised, and shamed, and a label nowadays would probably ask Fanshawe to rewrite some of his older notes, and someone reading them would wonder if bursting into a funeral with a microphone so that he could record the corpse’s singing widow was really, what’s the word – fair? Kind? And maybe he should have given her an IOU offering to let her burst into his. Here’s a plane ticket. See you there in thirty years.
Sublime Frequencies is modern. It steps back, it does not commit, its presentation prefers not to speak at all, instead relying on the romance of intuition. Its films do not have voice-overs, the liner notes its producers write are sometimes misspelled, sometimes vague. Not in this case. But let’s backtrack to the backstory. The photographer Olivia Wyatt, who is American, came to Ethiopia in 2009 thinking that she would make a film at a festival where musicians from different villages had been scheduled to gather and perform, but the event was cancelled by the government. “So,” she writes, “I decided to travel into the bush to document the music and rituals of the tribes in the places they call home.”
She tells this story in the album book, which is a real book for once — not a booklet but a full-on hardback book, pocket-sized and durable, with 135 photographs and a set of notes on subjects like “Coffee Ceremonies” and Zar spirit possession, and a DVD movie tucked in the back and a smell of fresh new paper when you open it.
As usual the film has no voice-over, and we are mediated by the editing and the camera. This removes one source of focus and we’re left to wander over the pictures with our eyes as the director holds us up against the sight of people dancing or dragging goats by their legs. We are in a state of uneasy half-freedom. We’re not completely free, because we have the frame reminding us that we’re separated from this place by distance and time, but we’re not earthed by the confident assertions of a conventional documentary. We don’t have mastery and we can’t submit with grace to actuality. So we stare. Do we look at the man’s topknot or the woman’s body paint, and what are we supposed to make of it, and why is he whipping her with that stick?
And what would the whipper and the victim think of us if they knew we were watching? Is it right that they should have been filmed in this way, when they couldn’t have known what strange or worshipful or judgemental thoughts would go through the heads of the people who were looking at them — of course they couldn’t, no one is a mind-reader, and I don’t know what’s going through your head either, come to think of it — and isn’t right an inadequate word here anyway? And does it matter, and if it does, then how?
Their shapes go past, the sunlight gleams on the blood, the old whip-scars look like shoelaces pressed into the skin of the back, and they are gone, enigmatic, a puzzle which can be only dishonestly solved.
The songs on the CD are the same songs that appear on the film, although some are CD-only. The sound has a different quality once the pictures have been removed. Incidental noises adopt an independent life when they’re not illustrating the movement of a visible object. The rhythm of the sloshing buckets on “Borana Singing Wells” becomes a clear accompaniment to the singing of the people. On the film it’s only a component of the sight of water. You notice that a rooster in “Gedeo Vocals” inserts a crow in the track just after a human voice has stopped. A certain noise one woman makes, a sort of cheow cheow cheow cheow, comes out in pure sweetness against the denser sound of massing men. A singer roaring in “Habesha Traditional Song 2” sounds as stylised and exaggerated as kabuki. The staggered overlap of the “Dirashe Syncopated Panpipes” becomes more singularly of itself when you’re not distracted by the sight of a musician hopping on one leg. The pipes go hooting past one another like cogwheels slipping in and out of whack, or as if they’re being played to a mathematical formula, as if this has been composed by Iannis Xenakis. And the distance between the man hopping on one leg and a concert hall where musicians in eveningwear were sitting on a stage of yellow wood seemed strangely, and in an instant, annihilated.