What Sahrawi Sounds and Looks Like

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The first of two documentaries presented by Sublime Frequencies on Sunday night at the Hollywood Theatre was Palace of the Winds, Hisham Mayet’s field recordings of the people, landscapes and music of the Western Sahara and Mauritania shot between 2006 and 2008.

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Hisham Mayet (photo via BROWNBOOK)

Mayet is a co-founder of Sublime Frequencies, a record label and media collective whos objective is understood by learning about what Mayet does and why. Since he was a boy growing up in Libya, he told the Portland Mercury in a 2011 interview, he’s loved music, film and anthropology. He was “fascinated by foreign and exotic cultures.” He moved a lot and collected field recordings, “so it just organically happened that I would travel and record this stuff and look for music at the same time.”

This is what Palace of the Winds is: a collection of every part of the field. The sounds, sights, the people who inhabit it, delivered with little interference. The field is Morocco, Mauritania and the Western Sahara. Sahawara music plays throughout. Each song starts a new chapter of visuals, the screen pausing briefly in black when a song ends. It is more an album with visuals, than a documentary with a soundtrack.

It opens with some chaos, with a view that puts us looking out a sand splattered windshield through a shaky camera lens. An electric guitar fills the theatre as we watch brown, orange and blue dessert go by. The guitar’s strings sound springy, violently so, like strings pop off with every pluck only to regenerate before the next one. Then a drum beat and a voice that matches the wind blowing in the dessert. The footage is grainy, unclear. The bright colors of the day-lit Sahara turn to purple at dusk, the dipping smooth sand looks like silk at night.

Songs and groups change. We shift frequently between footage of the land to inside where the music is made. In a room where the walls display nothing but the occasional shadow of a musician raising his hands to clap, men and woman sit on the floor and play. Men on the guitars or the tidbit (a traditional string Sahrawi instrument being replaced by the electric guitar) and singing, the women on drums and singing. Mayet stands and holds the camera, so that the audience towers above the musicians. A slender spouted tea pot sits on a small table in the middle, a big bowl of a green soup beside it. Sometimes there is a large group, then it is just a duo. It does not feel like performance, but social interaction.

The musicians featured are Group Doueh, Group Marwani, Sadoum Oueld Aida and Group Bab Sahara. Mayet has formed relationships with these groups, making multiple visits in his journeys to pick up sounds across the globe. The collection at Sublime Frequencies has a lot from Group Doueh, and the region altogether.

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Group Doueh

That opening feeling of chaos was quick to morph into the opposite feeling. I think it has something to do with repetition. There is a lot of repetition in Saharawi music. Its temper is constant, though I’m not sure what that temper is, but it doesn’t spike or drop or send you all over an emotional spectrum.

I found the cutting, springy guitar strings to reflect the sun-bleached, windblown dessert.

I could listen to both the music and the thoughts the images were putting in my mind. It reminds me of why I like traditional Irish music. It repeats. And the somber sound of bagpipes reflects that land like I found the cutting, springy guitar strings to reflect the sun-bleached, windblown dessert.

The camera is everywhere. Out in the remote stretches of dessert. Panning streets. When he rides in a car, he aims it out the window. A bird’s eye view captures a market where women buy traditional dresses. He captures a dance, women in long traditional dresses dancing for each other. The dresses fall and wrap on each woman with identical obscure subtle movements. The range of colors and patterns makes it a beautiful scene — I think Mayet is on the dance floor with them.

I felt like I occupied his eyes. When someone stared into the camera, it felt like they were looking at me. At the dance, he cast the camera downward to see the hands twirling beside cloaked hips. It’s a confidential view you are getting as if you’re deciding where to look.

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“A ship on a glassy surface at sunset.” From Palace of Winds.

The visuals are stand alone slices of time and place. A ship on a glassy surface at sunset. One song opens as a man cuts in half the blinding bulb of direct sun by walking towards the camera, revealing cream colored buildings on either side. He exits the shot to the right and we are left staring at the lowering hot sun in the crack of two buildings.

Children look into the camera and Mayet catches them as they are let to run around. They pose to pose. They vie for the center. They show some dance moves. Or they just stare, directed by instinct and curiosity. They smile and laugh. And so do most people in the audience.

Think about the sights you see everyday. The people you look at, the buildings, think about the pace of these sights, accelerated or slowed by your mood and motion. Think of the sounds, the traffic of the city, the max train, or the coyotes howling in the distance of your rural home. The music you play. This would be the material that Mayet would use for the story of you.

A dog is sleeping at my feet. I hear a few cars. I watch a blanket moving in the wind hanging on the line. I look down at a half-eaten sandwich. This collection of sights would probably give you a good sense of my life, the conditions of it. But even as I stare into the camera, make eye contact with you, you would not know what I am thinking or feeling if I didn’t tell you. 

There were no interviews in Palace of the Winds, no explaining or testimonials. The subject of the film is the culture at large and Mayet shows it solely via observation. He doesn’t prod. He doesn’t invent mystery or suspense. He gives you everything the ears and eyes can pick up. And it gives you a close look but a space is preserved. I enjoy that space, that way to tell a story. Leave space for nothing. There is only so much else to know.




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