Unlike popular music of the big cities, these ballads and field songs remained pretty much the same for hundreds of years, offering direct access to history. And while our country's industrial march forward ultimately devoured this archaic culture, these "sound explorers" managed to preserve the music that would go on to spawn blues, bluegrass, jazz, country, rock, and protest music. Even today, their work is stored in the U.S. Government's Archive of Folk Culture, which houses more than three million recordings of roots music -- a huge chunk of which can be purchased and downloaded into your iPod.
Alan Bishop and Hisham Mayet are modern-day sound explorers who crisscross the globe, documenting other countries' roots music traditions. Over the past several years, these two, along with a collective of multimedia archivists called Sublime Frequencies, have released a couple dozen CDs and DVDs chronicling their work. Unlike its predecessors, whose records were rather academic and really dry, Sublime Frequencies seeks to invoke mystery -- but more on that in a moment.
This month, the duo is promoting two new documentaries, snaking their way through independent movie houses: Mayet's Musical Brotherhoods From the Trans-Saharan Highway and Bishop's Sumatran Folk Cinema. The latter of the two, filmed in 2004, captures an Indonesia rapidly shedding old ways.
"When I was there [in 1989], there seemed to be a lot more street music," says Bishop. "It seems to be the curse of colonial export. Bands are disappearing or turning into workstation guys with a microphone, singing and playing all their music on a fuckin' keyboard . . . Even the shamans and the [medicine men] seem to have disappeared from the marketplaces and towns."
In a way, the same can be said of Cleveland. Raise your hand if you can recall the day Top 40 DJs and karaoke competitions started replacing local bar bands. But unlike the Indonesians, we weren't wiped from the face of the earth by the tsunami of 2004. "The entire cityscape that you see in the film is completely annihilated now," Bishop explains.
A year after Bishop's Sumatran adventure, Mayet infiltrated the eastern tip of North Africa, "where the trade caravans have gathered from their long journeys across the Trans-Saharan Highway." These get-togethers yielded "some of the last great street music on earth," he says -- psychedelic desert jams crackling with ecstatic chanting and quasi-Middle Eastern grooves. Think of them as the original hippies, invoking deep trance states Phish could never pull off.
Unlike your standard National Geographic program, Bishop and Mayet never employ narrators. Like lost tourists whose guide took the cash and split, you'll meander down bizarre streets and scramble over jagged rocks, inevitably stumbling into strange-looking dudes playing stranger-looking instruments.
"We're in your face with our cameras," says Bishop. "We're in situations that are sort of hard to film any other way."
Then how does anybody know what's going on?
"How much do you need to know?" counters Bishop. "Do we really have to analyze this shit until it doesn't mean anything?"
Mayet puts it another way. "These films are about the music. Having a narrator takes away from the immediate experience that these films convey. Threading in a voice-over would be a major distraction. The viewer is allowed to experience the sounds uninterrupted with the magic and mystery still intact."
Think of the last time you heard some mind-blowing tune, but had not a clue who made it. With the radio cranked, did you need to know right then and there? Hell no -- the lack of backstory made it hit that much harder. Like some folklorist wandering into a Louisiana prison and encountering Lead Belly's 12-string for the first time, you meet the music on its terms; you figure it out, with no one telling you what to think and how to listen.