It’s safe to say the majority of music available on CD, or any of the other formats now available, has been produced with the aim of achieving some sort of commercial success. Whether it’s just a matter of increasing a band’s visibility in the market place or a deliberate attempt to generate a hit, both are commercial goals. When we listen to them, we judge them by comparing them to other releases similar in nature and intent. Based on how they stand up to the competition, and our own personal tastes and ideals, we form an opinion of their worth and decide whether or not to “like” them.
A great deal of that evaluation process depends on our expectations of music. It only makes sense that our opinion is shaped by how well a piece of music fulfills whatever personal need we each have for it. Most of us have more than one reason for listening to music, and so might well listen to a variety of music in order to meet our needs. How we decide which bands or individuals we listen to would naturally enough follow the same criteria.
There are universal expectations of the music we listen to in terms of the quality of the sound. Long past are the days when any of us will tolerate any extraneous noise interfering with our listening pleasure. Any record produced with commercial intent is now expected to be free of the hisses, clicks, squeals, and distortions that were accepted as normal in the past. What about music produced for non-commercial reasons?
Like documentary movies, there are some recordings produced these days whose goal is not simply to entertain, but to educate and inform. Field recordings from remote areas of the earth that bring us the music of peoples we might otherwise never hear are invariably made with equipment that results in a product inferior in quality compared to what we are accustomed to. In some cases, the producers of the material may even deliberately leave the material in its original, raw state in order to recreate the atmosphere where the music was first heard.
Hisham Mayet is a documentarian with the Seattle, Washington based Sublime Frequencies. He is known for his immediate and intimate documentary movies of musicians from North Africa and beyond. One of the hallmarks of his work is his ability to recreate what he sees and hears with his eyes and ears on film in such a way that the separation between viewer and subject that the camera normally causes is almost non-existent. As he has used minimal equipment in order to be as unobtrusive as possible, there is sometimes a significant reduction in the quality of both the audio and video.
Although a great deal of his work is on camera, one of his most recent projects was strictly comprised of audio. Originally released as a limited edition 12-inch vinyl record, Guitar Music From The Western Sahara, by Group Doueh, is now being made available as a CD this coming May. The eight tracks contained on this disc are the first recordings of Group Doueh to be made available to audiences outside of West Africa, maybe even outside of Morocco. The band is comprised of Doueh on electric guitar and Tinidit (a traditional Mauritanian stringed instrument, his wife Halima on Vocals and Tbal (drum), another female vocalist Bashiri, and his son Jamal on Keyboards.
All of their songs are sung in the Hassania language of the Sahrawis people who are indigenous to the Western Sahara. In his extensive liner notes for the disc, Hisham Mayet supplies us with the background behind the music and the people. The area known as the Western Sahara is a stretch of desert land the size of California along the Atlantic coast of Africa between Morocco and Mauritania. Both countries had laid claim to the territory, but in spite of the inhabitants being from the same ethnic background as Mauritanians, it was the Moroccans (with American aid) that won control of the area.
The last 30 years have seen an endless round of defeats for the Sahrawis people of the West Sahara that has resulted in their exile. Their struggle for independence and autonomy has been ignored by the world, and their people have been scattered as far from home as Cuba. Thematically, the songs on Guitar Music From The Western Sahara by Group Doueh have been influenced by the circumstances of their people. The songs talks of life in refugee camps, the desire for independence, the need for solidarity, and the pain of war.
Like their neighbours in the Northern Sahara, the Tuareg, one of Doueh’s main influences was Jimi Hendrix. Aside from the Hendrix influences, he had also made a serious study of his own people’s music. While he has been playing music professionally since the 1970’s, the current incarnation of Group Doueh only dates back to the late 1990’s.
Hisham recounts how, while traveling in Morocco, he first heard Doueh’s music over the radio, and how it was his guitar work that grabbed his attention. He made a hasty recording of one of the group’s songs via the speaker of the radio and then tried and track down the band by playing the tape to local music vendors. All they were able to find out was that it was music from the Western Sahara in the Hassania language. Nobody knew who the group was or recognized the song.
It wasn’t until they traveled to Dakhla and started to canvass Sahrawis shop owners that they got lucky. One of them called a small boy over who led them to a studio where they might find out some information. It was there they finally met Doueh.
While they might share Hendrix as an influence with the Tuareg groups, the results are quite different. This is a rawer, more aggressive sound that is reflective of their ongoing struggle for survival. Unlike the Tuareg, who have gained some support from both government of Mali and the international community, the Sahrawis are alone in their struggle, and it comes through in Goup Doueh’s music.
Some of the songs contain rhythmic elements that we in the West have come to associate with the Arab world, and some of the vocal patterns seem to be in a similar vein, but they have an element of discordance I’ve not heard before in music from this part of the world. Doueh himself will on occasion use his guitar like a blunt instrument; harsh chords struck in counterpoint to a lyric. On other occasions the guitar becomes almost a third background vocalist, adding its high notes to the women’s high, wailed lyrics.
From song to song you can hear the influences change and perhaps the intent as well. Track six, “Wazan Samat,” is maybe the most Western sounding of them all, and also the most playful. The women lead a call and response vocal, which has definite pop elements to it. The very next track, “Sabah Lala,” is far more intense, with Doueh singing and playing fast and furious over the steady beat. His voice is chocked with emotion that sounds like a mixture of anger and grief.
The production values are of an almost universally poor quality. Hisham Mayet recorded two of the eight songs in Doueh’s studio. While they are the cleanest, it sounds like they used just one microphone to record the whole group because the vocals sound like they are being sung from far away. The other six tracks are taken from Doueh’s archives, and they were either recorded without anyone monitoring levels or by someone who didn’t know how to control them. Volumes on vocals are pushed so loud they distort something awful, as does the guitar. While feedback and distortion can be effective when used deliberately, they just sound bad when they are the result of carelessness.
There is a case to be made for maintaining the raw integrity of the music in order to preserve its authenticity, but there also comes a point when it becomes a disservice to both the music and the musicians. If this had been a video recording of the performers, a case could have been made to excuse the distortion. In this instance, though, it crosses the line from authentic to annoying. Recording them properly, or at least making an attempt to clean up the recordings, would have better served the musicians and the music.
Guitar Music From The Western Sahara, featuring Group Doueh, is a tantalizing introduction to a unique and exciting sound. In the past I’ve appreciated the work of Hisham Mayet and his ability to capture moments on film that I’ve not seen others capable of reproducing. In this case, his desire for authenticity works against the music. Instead of giving the listener the impression they are part of something special, the recording leaves one wishing a better job had been done with sound quality.
I look forward to the day when a proper recording of Group Doueh is released and the world can hear them as they deserve to be heard.