The cultural impact of the recent tsunami waves on the thousands of tiny distinct autonomous islands that comprised Indonesia is incalculable. In that brief geologic spasm, a wealth of cultural information vanished and is gone from the earth forever. How can you look for evidence of musical forms or pieces of art or literature that you never knew existed? In many cases, the people who did know what to look for are dead.
So it is critical to appreciate the information that is available in archives and libraries. For more than 20 years, brothers Alan and Rick Bishop of the Seattle-based band Sun City Girls have journeyed throughout the non-Western world, collecting music and trading songs with people they meet on the way. Some of the two-plus decades of home video and field recordings that inspired their own band's massive recorded output are now available on CD and DVD to the public via a new label dedicated to non-band releases, Sublime Frequencies.
So far, what's been released offers a revelatory, if disorienting, glimpse into Middle Eastern, North African, and Southeast Asian pop culture and daily life. It is vastly different from the impressions one might get from slicker, more cleanly produced "worldbeat" labels like Peter Gabriel's RealWorld or Putumayo. The Sublime Frequencies recordings append existing, more academic field recordings, such as those commissioned by the Library of Congress for Smithsonian Folkways, or those on labels like Lyrichord, Ocora and UNESCO.
While those recordings are often brilliant, and offer fresh insight into what constitutes music and/or musical performance, their focus tends to be on finding examples of the primitive to contrast with our modern societyprobably with the goal of preserving indigenous cultural expressions on the wane. They're recorded with a specific agenda in mind. Take ethnomusicologist David Lewiston's classic recordings of music from Bali and Java for the Nonesuch Explorer Series, for example. These focus almost entirely on documenting different subgenres of gamelan music. Some of its subgenresfor example, "kecak," a fast, aggressive melodic style that resembles Slayer performing Steve Reich on metallophonesare relatively recent (i.e., early 20th century) developments. But they don't necessarily reflect what's being played on Indonesian radio or what's happening in the youth culture.
The Bishops, on the other hand, have no institutional ties or formal academic agendas. That leaves them free to present music you won't hear anywhere else (from Burmese murder ballads to Indonesian heavy metal to Khmer pop) unless you're a shortwave radio enthusiast, an obsessive fan of Bollywood film soundtracks, or an ad-copy writer for the J. Peterman catalog. By having no specific purpose other than to satisfy their own curiosityand by traveling as people first and nationals secondthe Bishops have gained access to breathtaking performances that would be forbidden to outsiders with "official" ambitions.
Thus Sublime Frequencies has released wondrous mixes edited from radio broadcasts and shortwave transmissions taped during the Bishops' travels. The sound from the radio is masterfully sequenced: it casts a wide net which pulls in folk music along with crazy indigenous pop, radio drama, and talk-show snippetseven a few American rock 'n' roll covers. Sublime Frequencies' series of essential digital mixtapes covers different countries and regions, from Sumatra, Bali and India to Morocco, Syria, and the Khmer diaspora. Other discs in their radio series offer themed mixes gathered from Java, Syria, Sumatra, Morocco, Palestine and more. Each provides an introduction to various folk and pop genres in a dreamlike continuous mix, often leaving commercials, radio ID spots and DJ talk-breaks intact as auditory landmarks.
There are occasional snatches of English language in some of these segments. In general, though, the English-speaking listener will have the sensual advantage of being immersed in this exotic world with no substantial guidepost. The exceptions that prove the rule include a snippet of Maxi Priest's version of Cat Stevens' "Wild World," a tonally skewed orchestral version of Europe's "The Final Countdown," and the testimony of a visiting Englishman offering his impressions of Calcutta's endless exotica: "There really is so much to take in in one night."
As Americans, we tend to take things in as a large unit. Which is to say, we apprehend India, for instance, as one thing, one people, when in reality it is an enormous set of regions with divergent cultural traditions spanning thousands of years. Some of this diversity is captured on Sublime's Radio India: The Eternal Dream of Sound, a 2-disc set that suggests the incredible breadth of cultural expression contained within the Indian subcontinent's endless subcultures. It sequences '60s psych guitar into sitar breaks into the tonal percolation of an electronic sruti box. While those pitches pool inward, their center is whisked away with the rough splice of a warbling Bollywood tape reel.
No less revelatory is Cambodian Cassette Archives: Khmer Folk and Pop
Music Vol. 1, first in a three-volume series curated for Sublime Frequencies by Mark Gergis. According to Gergis' essay, "When the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, 90 percent of Cambodia's musicians were subsequently killed for the music they producedalong with most of the artists, teachers, and intellectuals in the country. Venerable traditions of storytelling, classical music and dance vanished along with their masters." This explains the compilation's mostly anonymous track listings. (It also explains the vexing lack of informative liner notes on another indispensable release: the 2000 CD reissue Cambodian Rocks, a compilation of Khmer pop and rock released in the late '90s on Parallel Worlds.)
Consequently, the music contained on this disc is a range of hybridized styles, from lite rock to heavy metal to hornbacked xylophonic soul to psychedelic acid funkand that's Eddie Hazel acid, not Roy Ayers acid. This strange cultural residue resulted from a variety of factors, including the United States' military policies, Cambodia's own civil war and genocide, and simple survival economics. Just the presence of U.S. soldiers in the area created opportunities for Cambodian singers to make money performing cover versions of American radio hits. As the Khmer people resettled around the world, they assumed the task of resurrecting their nearly extinct musical heritage and adapting it to current technology, musical trends and economic circumstancese.g., singers are more likely to perform solo with a keyboard workstation.
Sublime Frequencies means to provide an aural travelogue, a sonic guidepost that erases the tourist's itinerary and forces an adaptive surrender to the unique geography encountered. In this regard, perhaps the best example is Brokenhearted Dragonflies: Insect Electronica From Southeast Asia, a selection of untreated field recordings of insect sounds taped in Laos, Burma and Thailand. According to legend, male dragonflies emit tones during courtship rituals that become ear-splitting screams. Males unsuccessful in attracting mates eventually scream so violently that their chests burst open and their carcasses fall to the earth.
The sound, recorded by Sun City Girls associate Tucker Martine, has a shimmering, pulsing effectthe sonic equivalent of staring at a Rothko canvas until it erupts into waves of color. The subtitle "insect electronica" is an apt one, as the subtle textural shifts in sound create a palpable sense of physical space (as in a sound installation). In fact, you'd swear that the screaming insects' movement simulates swooping shifts in pitch that sound like oscillators or tone generators. By not editing or treating the sounds at all, Martine offers the opportunity for us to be armchair tourists, and to approximate the disorienting sonic thrill he experienced when he first heard the insects.
Sun City Girls are known for their uncompromising attitudes as much as their prolific output and discipleship of clandestine genres and hidden traditions. But the Bishops are not on the hunt for an "authentic" experience; they don't seek to romanticize folk culture over popular culture. They simply exist in a reality where their cultural options aren't limited to what seems saleable to major labelscompanies that are owned by holding companies, which also own the magazines that write about them and the radio stations that play them. To me, the Bishops' rigorous politics of involvement and cultural immersion are both radical and rewarding. But whether you fall on the left or right of the political spectrum, the value of appreciating human expression is universal.
(Sublime Frequencies CDs and DVDs are available through their web site at www.sublimefrequencies.com. Anyone interested in finding out more about the nascent Khmer pop scene in America is encouraged to seek out recordings by Mark Gergis' excellent Oakland-based group, Neung Phak, and the Los Angeles-based Dengue Fever. Those seeking information on original Khmer pop recordings should look here: http://ez9.ez-web-hosting.com/~cambodia/.)