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Mark Gergis (Porest)
Photo: PorestPorest

Mark Gergis interview

We speak to the Arab American musician and sometime music archivist

Written by
Nadia Rosli

Mark Gergis might not make the rounds in Billboard, Rolling Stones or even Pitchfork, but he has over the years collected music and sounds from all over the world, particularly the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Through record labels Sublime Frequencies and Sham Palace he publishes ethnographic releases – listening to it is a bit like taking your ears for a walk in a completely different country, think Vietnam and Syria. Besides these, he also has an experimental music project and plays live under the moniker Porest. His latest album ‘Modern Journal of Popular Savagery’ is due for release this June.

How did you start collecting sounds?
I was making music and films, playing in groups, recording sounds, and always looking for inspiration. Somehow that eventually led to searching for sounds outside of the ‘scene’ I was in. Growing up, I was exposed to a lot of Iraqi and Arabic music at home and at family events. It was all in the background to me, and not something I jumped into willingly at the time. But it was definitely an advantage to have it in my consciousness, because later in life after becoming somewhat tired of Western music options, it was the first type of music I began rediscovering. In my late 20s, I made my first trip to the Middle East, which took things to the next level and the collecting became more specialised. I would listen to local radio, then bring recordings of the music I heard to local cassette merchants and ask them what it was. I learned a lot this way, and by following my ears.

Is there a reason why you make the music that you do now?
The lack of understanding in America about other cultures is huge, and lends to so much ignorance. I always hoped (no matter how naïve that hope has been or how effective the results have been), that through the exposure to music from these places, a measure of ‘humanising’ these cultures could be possible. Sharing my music with a wider audience, especially from countries the West demonises or misunderstands such as Syria and Iraq, has felt especially urgent.

What are some of the most memorable sounds you’ve acquired?
One of the most memorable sounds was from a Bedouin Arab wedding in the Jordanian desert of Wadi Rum that we found in the middle of the night. It was surreal. My travel partners and I could hear a distant echo of incredible vocal chanting, and we followed it into the night. We didn’t even have flashlights, but we were determined to walk towards it. As we got closer we could see two bright lights – they were from a car with its engine off and its headlights on. This car was providing the light for the wedding, and all around there were women and men dancing, chanting and singing a very traditional wedding song. They were firing AK-47s into the air and having a great time. They immediately welcomed us into the circle when they saw us approaching, giving us chairs and endless sweets and tea. We had front row seats to one of the most spirited weddings or musical performances I’ve ever witnessed.

'There’s a reason for pop music. It’s necessary. It moves us for a moment. It’s like eating ice cream – it’s good or bad and then it’s gone.'

What do you think of pop music?
I like it when it’s good. There’s a reason for pop music. It’s necessary. It moves us for a moment. It’s like eating ice cream – it’s good or bad and then it’s gone. It’s unfortunate that pop music is the only music some people know how to tune in to. They can’t get beyond it – and it sets extreme commercial standards that are hard to undo or get past. Pop music is such a broad term now, not just related to Top 40 tunes. It’s important to remember that most subcultures are commercialised pop music now too. I like pop music in different languages, where I can’t understand the lyrics. And I like pop music from some places better than other places.

You have been noted for introducing the Syrian musician Omar Souleyman to the West. He has since work with renowned musicians such as Four Tet and Björk. Do you still keep in touch with Omar?
I’m not currently in touch with Omar. He’s busy with new management and projects, but I’m in contact with some of his other musicians and many other people I have worked with or befriended in Syria over the years. They’re now spread throughout the globe as they try to get away from the trouble in their country.

Have there been any interesting reactions to your music?
There have been myriad reactions. The Porest project can be difficult for people because sometimes they latch onto one thing I do – such as a pop song, or a political record, or noisy experimental material, or something quite comedic or mellow – and then they try looking for a similar sound in the rest of the catalogue and not find it. This might seem like inconsistency to some but for me, it’s almost designed that way. Porest can be anything, and I like to make it as many things as possible. Porest also delves into radical sound art and politics sometimes, and in America that hasn't always been easy.

For the ‘Saigon Rock and Soul’ compilation from Sublime Frequencies, I’ve had second generation Vietnamese folks writing in to tell me how surprised they were to hear this music, and that they had never really respected the music from their own culture before hearing these tracks. Reactions like these make it worthwhile for me. These days there are plenty of tracks uploaded on YouTube and elsewhere, so the availability is changing quickly. But there are still unearthed treasures on tapes and records, and I’m glad to have had the chance to compile the items I’ve found in a way that presents well for these releases over the years.

What do you think of politics in music?
Politics in music is rarely done in a way that isn’t pedantic or unappealing. It’s mostly seen as a vehicle for specific punk bands, and even then I think it was a specific time when music and politics married well and were actually expected to at least be the undertone of a progressive music project. In times like we’ve had in the past ten to 15 years, I’m really surprised we haven’t come full circle back to that. Instead, political material is stigmatised and quickly turns people off. I think you have to make it differently than it’s been done before to speak to people, and that’s the real challenge. Also, people aren’t really asking to be challenged a lot of the time, so what can be done? Make work that has integrity, challenge yourself, and send a signal out there that will potentially get picked up!

Mark Gergis at Live Fact in 2015
Photo: Manjii Hwang

You’ve talked about not trusting Western media coverage of Syria on other interviews. Has this ever gotten you in trouble?
Not in any real trouble that I know of. Too many people in the West like to trust sources that are biased and are essentially propaganda. The problem is that Syria, Iraq and other countries that weren’t completely obeying the US and the West were considered ‘rogue countries’, and the American propaganda machine worked overtime to demonise them and illegally subvert them. Actually, anything the US ever tried to criticise Syria for, it’s guilty of doing as well. Another very real problem in America is that a lot of people, no matter how educated or liberal they are or aren’t, have a very limited way of thinking about the rest of the world. This allows American foreign policies to continue acting with such impunity. We don’t have to look too far back in history to find endless examples of the US meddling in South and Central America, Iran and anywhere else considered a rogue state.

You were in Malaysia for some time. Did you find any good sounds when you were here?
I have spent a good deal of time in Malaysia over the past few years, and spent a lot of time listening to and recording Malaysian radio. I love the Malaysian music from the 1960s to the 1980s. Very special. Sublime Frequencies has released a couple nice releases related to pop yeh yeh and Malaysian music from the era. Carl Hamm, who is a contributor to the label, is a Malaysian music expert and has been responsible for those releases (including the recent Adnan Othman release).

I really enjoyed your set the last time you played in KL at Live Fact. Do you play a lot of DJ sets when you travel?
I don’t do so many DJ sets, but if someone asks, I will. I like to keep them special. I enjoy playing exclusive music from the archives. Dance sets can be fun – but it’s even more gratifying when I get the opportunity to do ‘listening sets’ in which the emphasis isn’t just on dancing. That’s rare, but it’s my favourite.

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