Sublime Frequencies co-founder Hisham Mayet and musicology pioneer Charles Duvelle curate word, image, and sound in layers of cultural insight.
In the wide world of record labels, Sublime Frequencies is essentially Ivy League. Every release is at a high level when it comes to concept and production, obscure sounds being pulled from everywhere you’ve never heard of based on themes you didn’t know an entire album could be based on. Each album is an A-plus student.
But that’s not good enough for Sublime Frequencies, and jumping right to the head of the class is the massive undertaking that is The Photographs of Charles Duvelle, an unparalleled collection of music, photos, and interviews that offer layer after layer of insight, both into cultural traditions spread across three continents and into the life of Charles Duvelle, prolific musicologist and founder of groundbreaking French record label Ocora, a label that specializes in field recordings.
An interview with Duvelle conducted by Sublime Frequencies co-founder Hisham Mayet makes up a substantial and fascinating portion of the 296-page book accompanying the album, as do the pictures that go with it. These offer beautiful detail of an array of performers who are then described in the booklet by Duvelle with respect accorded to each individual musician. On every topic, Duvelle has plenty to say, even with the content edited down to its most crucial points. Indeed, Duvelle tells exactly the stories he means to tell about his childhood, his contemporaries, and the influence of his recordings on the pop music world of the 1960s and '70s. He recounts being at Fela Kuti’s Kalakuta compound days before it was burned and discusses the fine line between cultural exchange and new colonialism, and it makes for a thought-provoking read.
The music contained in the two discs has all been curated by Duvelle, and listening to the quality and range of the music, it’s easy to understand why Carl Sagan drew upon Duvelle’s collection when deciding what music to send into space with the Voyager spacecraft. The selections are poignant ones, many of them examples of traditions that have lasted for millennia. The first disc focuses on a handful of traditions in sub-Saharan Africa before heading to the Indian Ocean and beyond, with highlights like: "Pili Pe", an impassioned courtship song from Papua New Guinea; "Samy Faly", a quick Malagasy string melody; and "Medzang Me Biang", a ten-minute burst of unceasing percussion from Gabon. For the second disc, three long and particularly hypnotic tracks take us to India and Laos. Every song is a worthwhile one, culturally significant not just from the perspective of its place of origin, but also from the point-of-view of anyone who wants to hear clear examples of Burkinabé woodwinds and Laotian mouth organs.
One final component of this multimedia volume is straight from the UNESCO Archives: "Eastern Music in Black Africa", an 18-page essay Duvelle prepared in 1970 that, in addition to technical details and observations on musical exchanges between Asia and Africa, contains some of Duvelle’s philosophies with regard to approaching musical study. He details what he terms "living knowledge": an understanding of something through living it, which he feels gives a deeper familiarity with music than simple observation.
The Photographs of Charles Duvelle is more than a book, more than an album, and more than pictures. This is a carefully curated portrait of one man’s professional life, but it is also a look, and a listen into the traditions of more than a dozen different cultures. Micro, macro, audible, and visual, The Photographs of Charles Duvelle covers a lot of ground. Sublime Frequencies is at its most thorough here, and none of the work goes to waste. Going through everything here is an experience to sink your teeth into -- and learn from.