When Mark Gergis was nine, his ham-radio-enthusiast uncle would take him to his basement studio, where among the consoles, dials, and speakers sat a large globe, encased in glass and fixed with a metal pointer. "Now, where do you want to listen to?" his uncle would ask the young Iraqi American, and the boy would pick a far-off, exotic-sounding country like Mongolia or Chad. They would then move the pointer across the globe to the desired region, and as the huge antenna on his uncle's roof turned to the right coordinates, strange languages and sounds would fill the boy's ears.
Later, the fledgling aural explorer developed a more focused method: Local telephone operators could connect a listener to foreign countries. The now-eleven-year-old living in the Bay Area suburbs would call the operator and put on a sad voice, claiming to need desperately to speak with an uncle named Ahmed who lived in Baghdad. Or Cousin Ajay on holiday in Mumbai. Or Aunt Sophia in Bucharest. Once the operator had put the connection through, young Mark would listen, fascinated, to the traffic sounds, household noises, and background conversation that went on while the confused residents of cities halfway around the world sorted out the misunderstanding.
Flash forward to Gergis at 35, the kid from the hills having grown up and discovered Berkeley, Amoeba Records, and the Bay Area avant-garde music scene. The musician, audio engineer, and self-described "nonacademic ethnomusicologist" has now traveled in person to some of the locales he listened to as a child. He also compiles eclectic assortments of rare sounds and songs from around the globe, as well as playing in several East Bay experimental rock bands like Mono Pause, Porest, and Neung Phak.
In January of this year Mark released Molam: Thai Country Groove from Isan, a wild collection of electrified folk-pop scrounged from record stores in Northern Thailand, and his third compilation disc on the Sublime Frequencies label. The CD has the label's trademark bright, almost garish cover art collaged from cassette packages, album photos, and other ephemera, which gives every Sublime Frequencies release the intriguing look of a found musical gem. And for good reason.
To compile the record, Gergis traveled to Bangkok and Northeast Thailand, home of molam music, scouring record shops and searching through drawers for old tapes and the occasional vinyl that the owners had often forgotten existed. ("Molam is considered 'hick' music over there," he explains.) After purchasing around two hundred recordings, he returned to his West Oakland apartment and began poring over the tapes, listening to every track of every recording, culling only the best material.
Before the Molam record, Gergis worked a similar magic on 2004's Sublime Frequencies project Cambodian Cassette Archives: Volume One, featuring Cambodian ethno-rock music from the 1970s and '80s, the majority of which he found on aging cassette tapes all but forgotten in the basement of the Oakland Public Library. "A couple of times, I watched a librarian erase a tape by swiping it over the magnetic checkout device!" he groans. "But after I explained what was happening, they stopped."
Both compilations maintain the Sublime Frequencies ethos of a "raw folk" or "hybrid traditional" sound, a point in the musical history of a region when traditional songs and rhythms were being played for the first time on the "modern" instruments of the '70s and '80s. It was a brief two decades of rich audio mongrelization, before MIDI programs and the almighty computer changed music production forever. And so, for a short while not so very long ago, recordings were made of Anatolian folk riffs played on an electric saz backed by a drum kit, or a traditional Cambodian violin/fiddle wailing alongside an electric organ, or a Sumatran saluang (long bamboo flute) jamming with an electric guitar. Sublime Frequencies, founded by Seattle's Alan Bishop (better known as the bassist for longstanding experimental rock outfit the Sun City Girls), exists to root through mountains of cassettes and salvage as many examples of this musical epoch as possible.
Mark's most experimental project for the label was his first: last year's I Remember Syria, a two-disc set that serves as a kind of audio documentary, incorporating field recordings, interviews, found music, and more into a sort of "sound voyeurism" that works like the soundtrack to an imaginary film. The filmic aspect in his work has led to other endeavors as well: He recently returned from two months in Sumatra, where he videotaped bands and musicians, generating footage he is now editing into a "sound-based ethnographic film" about the island and its multitude of musical styles -- Sublime Frequencies does DVDs, too.
But first he has one other project to complete: A collection of Iraqi chouby songs, culled from -- you guessed it -- cassette tapes from the '70s up until the present day. Naturally, this one will get a little political, an arena he doesn't exactly shy away from. "Two words for the US government: Fuck off!" he declares. "No, really. Anyone who picks up and listens to an Iraqi music disc I hope would know that the culture that produced this music is being destroyed. The music industry in Iraq was flourishing, and now it has no opportunity. There were chouby records being produced right up until Saddam fell! That's why I do what I do -- to try and get this music out there so it won't be lost forever."
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