Music is a constant across human cultures.
So are hospitality, parental pride, love of good food and the challenges of identity for those who don’t fit the norms of their society.
All these experiences are on vivid display in “Oulaya’s Wedding,” Libyan-American ethnomusicologist Hisham Mayet’s intimate and completely engaging documentary about a lavish five-day wedding festival in Dakhla, a coastal town in Western Sahara.
Mayet will be at the Speed Art Museum on Wednesday to introduce a screening of the 58-minute film, which he shot over a 10-day period in 2016. The festivities marked the wedding of the eldest daughter of Doueh and Halima, who together lead Group Doueh, one of the most popular musical entertainers at Sahraoui weddings.
The festivities themselves lasted five days, but the preparations took months, and it shows. You get the feeling that the planning engulfed the entire town, or at least all of Group Doueh’s neighbors (Dakhla is a city of about 100,000).
Mayet is a close personal friend of the family, and so he and collaborators Cyrus Moussavi and Brittany Nugent had near unlimited access to film celebrants and occasionally interview them about their relationship with the Doueh family and how music, dance and celebration express their culture, especially during an era of social change.
The result is engrossing. You’ll wish you were there, and not just to binge on the Moroccan chicken and olives (which look amazing).
“I learn something new every trip,” Mayet says of his frequent travels to the region. “That’s life, you learn something every day.”
Mayet met Doueh in 2006 after a three-week trek to find an artist unknown to him, whom he heard on the radio a year earlier while visiting Morocco (Western Sahara is currently a contested territory under the control of that nation).
After traversing the coast south to the border with Mauritania, the last place he visited was a music studio in Dakhla. The owner of the studio, almost unbelievably, turned out to be Doueh, who broke out his boom box and began playing his music. (According to Mayet’s website, Doueh’s music is a fusion of traditional and Western guitar-oriented pop that relies “as much on Hendrix as it does traditional Sahrawi music.”)
This began what Mayet calls an “insane relationship” with Doueh and Halima, which has led to five international tours and four albums released on Mayet’s Sublime Frequencies music label. Mayet is now considered family, he says, and has attended other family weddings.
But when the chance came to attend and film the wedding of the Doueh and Halima’s eldest daughter, Oulaya, he knew he wanted to document what was going to be an epic event.
One the biggest changes Mayet has seen during the last decade is the emerging prevalence of personal technology and social media.
“The first couple of weddings I shot, it was me on the camera and nothing else,” he tells Insider. “But now it’s a sea of cellphones recording everything and uploading to YouTube and Snapchat … All of a sudden I spent more time filming people filming the wedding on cellphones than I actually did filming the wedding.”
Smartphones are an ever-present visual theme in “Oulaya’s Wedding,” and Mayet says this new access to technology may well have contributed to another outstanding element of the film — the openness of a microculture of gay wedding performers in discussing their personal situations on film.
“It was really kind of exceptional to get the gay community within that scene to open up — that was pretty intense and cool,” Mayet says. “Within the context of technology, it’s given more freedom for people to maybe to try to come out. … Maybe marginalized people in this area who maybe felt alone several years ago now feel a part of a larger community, and maybe that’s given them some kind of inner strength.”
One performer describes how he had to deactivate a social media account after a video of him dancing went viral and caused strife in his own family. Two other performers, who say “God created us like women,” relate how their parents beat them in an attempt to stop their passion for performing, and how they hope for greater acceptance and freedom to pursue their creative passions.
“By no means are they accepted,” Mayet says. ‘The gay culture there is every bit as much maligned and subjugated as anywhere else in conservative America.”
Other brief interviews give additional glimpses into how tradition and change are melding in the daily life of Dakhla.
Halima describes husband Doueh as a “brother” — as children, they made their own instruments with junk they found around the neighborhood. She goes on to say that despite the pair’s success as entertainers, they choose to live in the older, “traditional” neighborhood where they were born. A young neighbor woman describes how her own mother worked sewing tents to support her education.
One of the best passages of the film tracks young women as they dance and laugh in a beauty parlor. One of Oulaya’s friends says she looks forward to her own wedding, as well as pursuing a law degree.
The music is amazing, the food looks intoxicating, and the celebrants all seem to be having an enormous amount of fun, despite (or maybe because of) the scale of the whole business. And Doueh appears to be the most chill father of the bride in history. At one point, he says of his daughter, “I wish I could buy her a plane instead of just a car.”
In addition to the film screening at Speed Cinema, Mayet will be at the Main Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library on Thursday to present a multimedia discussion of his new book “The Photographs of Charles Duvelle.”
Duvelle, founder of the ethno-graphic label Disques Ocora, was a leading musicologist of the 20th century whose recordings were selected for inclusion on the golden record sent on the Voyager deep-space probe. Mayet’s book includes an interview with Duvelle, as well as two discs of Duvelle’s recordings.
Mayet has screened several of his past works in Louisville, including events at the Speed Museum, and says he considers it one of his favorite cities to visit.
The book presentation is free at the LFPL Main Branch at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 1.
“Oulaya’s Wedding” screens at Speed Cinema on Wednesday, Feb. 28, at 7 p.m. In Arabic, with English subtitles. Tickets are $9, $7 for Speed members.
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Western Sahara.