Folk Traditions

Ethnomusicology Legend Charles Duvelle Shows His Snapshots From Around the Globe

His recordings were included on Carl Sagan’s Golden Record, but this week his photos are in Seattle.

Launched 40 years ago this month, the Voyager One satellite carries The Golden Record—Carl Sagan’s love letter to the universe. It serves as a snapshot of humanity, featuring the images and sounds of life on Earth. Included are two minutes of Senegalese percussion recorded by Charles Duvelle. He was a multifaceted man—a musicologist, composer, and founder of Ocora Records, one of the world’s most renowned ethnomusicology labels, specializing in field recordings of folk traditions from all over the planet.

Around the same time Voyager One was being shot into space, a young Hisham Mayet was living in Tripoli, Libya, immersed in the rich musical heritage of North Africa. Now, Mayet is half of the Portland-based field-recording label Sublime Frequencies—home to an impressive collection of folk traditions, street music, and rituals, and responsible for introducing the West to incredible musicians like charismatic Syrian vocalist Omar Souleyman and droney Nigerian band Group Inerane.

On Thursday, Mayet will present a limited-edition run of the label’s new book The Photographs of Charles Duvelle: Disques OCORA and Collection PROPHET. The massive volume, nearly 300 pages, brings together Duvelle’s iconic photography, field recordings, and stories.

Encouraged by Pierre Schaeffer, founder of the musique concrète movement, Duvelle created Ocora in 1957, traveling the planet and recording everything he saw and heard. His photography and distinct graphic-design aesthetic set the label apart. His recordings became so ubiquitous in back catalogues that by the early ’80s, the “Burundi Beat,” a sample based on one of Duvelle’s clips, had found its way from the dusty shelves of connoisseurs onto the backing tracks of bands like Bow Wow Wow and Adam and the Ants.

Covering nearly 20 years of Duvelle’s 40-year career, the luxurious volume includes hundreds of photographs and a lengthy interview of Duvelle by Mayet. The two men scrutinized Duvelle’s experiences founding the label, his recording techniques, and other details from his life’s work. The book also includes two full-length CDs, curated by Duvelle, of archival recordings, some of which have never been heard.

The release will be held at Mortlake & Company, a stately affair located in Pioneer Square. Half bookstore, half gallery, it specializes in philosophical, occult, and esoteric literature with a heavy emphasis on art and folklore, and is owned by William Kiesel, the man behind the Esoteric Book Conference. The event is an uncommon opportunity to immerse yourself in images, sounds, and stories from some of the world’s great folk traditions.

Hurtling away from Earth at approximately 38,000 miles per hour, Voyager One and the Golden Record within is a tiny message in a bottle floating on a stellar sea—proof that life on Earth wasn’t all bad. Ocora Records, taking on the duty of objectively recording and cataloguing the sounds of life on this planet, turned into a snapshot of Earth in the late 20th century in its own right. In 40,000 years, when Voyager One reaches our nearest neighboring star, whether we survived as a species or not, at least they’ll know we could get down.

Photographs of Charles Duvelle book launch with Hisham Mayet. Mortlake & Company, 121 Prefontaine Pl. S. Free. All ages. 7 p.m. Thurs., Aug. 17.

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