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Friday, March 1, 2013

Saharan Frequencies

By George Mürer

Presented in conjunction with Mic Check at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, BAMcinématek’s Saharan Frequencies (Mar 4, 11 & 18) features seven rare gems that explore the sounds of North Africa. Influenced by the aesthetic of the pioneering film and record label Sublime Frequencies, the series will feature appearances by Byron Coley, Hisham Mayet, Olivia Wyatt, and Robert Gardner.

An ethnomusicology PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center and an experimental and documentary filmmaker, George Mürer contemplates the unique mission behind Sublime Frequencies’ catalogue.

Deep Hearts, screening Monday, March 11

Founded by Alan Bishop and Hisham Mayet in 2003, Sublime Frequencies is a record label and independent film distributor based in Seattle dedicated to foregrounding vibrant musical milieus around the world that are outside the scope of the global mainstream. The documentarians and independent archivists working with Sublime Frequencies differ from anthropologists and academic ethnographers in that they do not "study," interpret, or explicate cultural groups and their practices (you won't find much in the way of subtitles in a Sublime Frequencies film and frequently musicians go unidentified) but rather offer subjective, kaleidoscopic, and starkly immediate impressions of musicians and communities from Burma to Sumatra to Brazil, Syria, and Niger.

Unafraid to betray feelings of fascination and a sense of otherness and to assemble their recordings according to imaginative, intuitive rhythms, the auteurs behind Sublime Frequencies' capsules of sound and image demonstrate a desire to bridge creative energy and appetites for visceral experience across seemingly insurmountable geo-cultural divides.

One vast and expansive environment that has established a firm presence in the Sublime Frequencies catalogue is the Sahara/Sahel region. It extends as a zone of cultural interaction and diversity from Mauritania and the Western Sahara on the Atlantic Coast to Egypt, Sudan, and the Horn of Africa on the Red Sea. The Sahara is home to a host of ethnolinguistic groups, many nomadic—Tuareg, Sahrawi, Fulani, Hausa, Beduoin and Tubu among others—and gives way in the South to the semi-arid Sahel zone and in the East to the Habshi domain and its environs, depicted in  Staring into the Sun, Olivia Wyatt's wide-ranging cinematic survey of largely rural Ethiopian musical environments.

Staring into the Sun, screening Monday, March 11

Festivals have a longstanding presence in the Sahara. Traditionally, desert dwellers have amassed in great numbers to trade, negotiate, and in some cases to observe ritual marriage customs. The Wodaabe Fulani are famous for their annual courtship summit, in which hundreds of cosmetically beautified tribesmen present themselves in seemingly endless undulating rows for women to peruse nonchalantly—an event beautifully documented by filmmakers like Robert Gardner (Deep Hearts, shown in the series), Sandrine Loncke, Werner Herzog, and Michael Palin, among others.

Large gatherings in the Sahara have long been venues for music, dance, and pageantry, and today many have seamlessly elided with the growing trend of the large-scale music festival, which has taken hold not only in Europe but in Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt. The Sahara festival documented in Folk Music of the Sahara: Among the Tuareg of Libya is a major event drawing nomads and townspeople from the Saharan territory surrounding the confluence of the national borders of Libya, Algeria, and Tunisia to Ghadames, a town on the Libyan side. In the film we are treated to vignettes of traditional communal music-making alongside performing ensembles such as the riveting Tuareg group Chet Fewet, from Libya's Fezzan region, whose Tassilé album is a classic that everyone should check out.

Folk Music of the Sahara: Among the Tuareg of Libya, screening Monday, March 18

One quintessentially trans-Saharan North African music genre is the repertoire used in the trance ceremonies of the Gnawa brotherhood. Its adherents claim descent from Sub-Saharan Africans, and its spirit pantheon and possession rituals combine Arab-Islamic, Berber, and various sub-Saharan beliefs, techniques, and aesthetics. The rituals are typified by a rhythmically strummed baritone lute called a guimbri, frantically clacking metal castanets, and heavily repetitive body motion that ultimately builds into frenzied flailing. The cinematic allure of these ceremonies is clear in Ahmed El-Maanouni's 1981 Trances, which cuts between these gatherings and a performance by Morocco's iconic Gnawa-rock fusion group Nass el-Ghiwane.

Screening alongside Deep Hearts, Peter Kubelka's short Unsere Afrikareise ("Our Trip to Africa") is a spectacular example of the irreverent Austrian avant-garde filmmaker's tactic of getting commissioned to make some form of cine-portraiture.  In this case, the film was to be a record of the heroic safari vacation of a group of businessmen. But Kubelka ultimately went in another direction, delivering a scathing mockery of the brutality and cultural arrogance of the group, edited into an anarchic, disjointed sequence.

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