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Pirate Radio International: The sounds of Sublime Frequencies

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Alexander Provan documents Alan Bishop's upstart Sublime Frequencies label, dedicated to preserving the cultural detritus of Middle and Southeast Asia.

Pirate Radio International: The sounds of Sublime Frequencies

Languages disappear at an astounding rate. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), ten languages die out every year. Records disappear even faster. And while efforts to preserve the environment, indigenous plants, and endangered animals gained a high degree of notoriety in the twentieth century, cultural preservation is a more diffuse, less easily championed cause. There is a difficult dichotomy between the desire of members of a certain culture to preserve their traditions and lifestyle and the desire of outsiders to preserve all traditional cultures – the former usually seems like an effort to hold onto a sense of identity while the latter can often resemble the collector’s desire to maintain artifacts and museum pieces, freezing a culture at a certain point in time.

So when do the collector’s urges become reconcilable with the ideal of cultural preservation, especially in a time when one almost necessitates the financial and political help of the other? The two co-exist well enough in Sublime Frequencies, a fairly new record label in the tradition of great ethnomusicological and folk preservation organizations such as Smithsonian Folkways, Nonesuch Explorer, Ocora, and Unesco. Sublime Frequencies (www.sublimefrequencies.com was founded last year by Alan Bishop, who also constitutes one-third of the legendary ethno-punk cult band Sun City Girls, and has since its inception released seven CDs and three DVDs documenting traditional music cultures of Bali, Java, Morocco, Burma/Myanmar, Palestine, Syria, Libya, and Sumatra.

The films released late last year, Nat Pwe: Burma's Carnival Of Spirit Soul and Jemaa El Fna: Morocco’s Rendezvous of the Dead, capture music performed at a festival in Burma and in a town square in Marrakech, respectively. (Another film, Folk Music of the Sahara: Among the Tuareg of Libya, was released in mid-February). The sole cinematographer walks around with a handheld camera, giving the viewer a fairly unadulterated view of the two places and the music being performed, or at least one that differs little from the cinematographer’s original experience. No expert comments on the cultures at hand – there are no voice-overs or interviews. The music itself is a curious mélange of old and new; in Burma, the carnival feels very much like the conscious performance of an ancient ritual. The costumed participants are fully engaged in the performance, dancing and drumming energetically – the music is mostly percussive and vocal – but there is a feeling of divorce between the ritual and those enacting it.

Jemaa El Fna, on the other hand, documents a performance that is interesting, even enchanting, but without the discomfiting marks of exoticism. Locals crowd the town square that marks the border between Marrakech and the western Sahara desert to play music, dance, and sing. The music is traditional, but the gathering seems more like a regular communal event than a conscious performance. Members of the crowd, dressed in street garb, occasionally pick up a drum and play it for a few minutes, then disappear toward the lit buildings beyond the square. An old man in a suit and Ray Charles sunglasses beats a drum and sings like another culture’s retired beat poet. Others play oud, banjo, and bowed instruments, weaving in and out of traditional songs and extended improvisations. A mustachioed man plays a collection of old 45’s on an archaic turntable, the music barely decipherable, like a golden vase rusted almost beyond recognition. A young girl sings and dances nonchalantly as the crowd, and the camera, look on.

In Jemaa El Fna, the documentarian is less conspicuous in relation to the environment, significantly and graciously reducing the sense of voyeurism. The dancing girl glances at the camera occasionally; the man is playing records for the cinematographer. Surprisingly, the feeling of the mundane, when compared to the theatrics of Nat Pwe, somehow enlivens the action – in this case, watching something living is perhaps more intriguing than watching the ritualistic resuscitation of something that is rare and dying.

While these documentaries make an attempt to preserve a sense of time and place, most of the CDs eschew this method in favor of one that relies more on the documentarian’s own sensibilities. Preservation is still a large part of the project, but the music becomes source material for sound collages by Alan Bishop, the man behind Sublime Frequencies. Radio Java is the most prominent example of the earlier batch of releases, and has recently been followed by Radio Palestine and Radio Morocco. Bishop pastes together traditional and pop music, movie dialogue, DJ chatter, field recordings, roosters crowing, soap operas, and other unidentifiable frequencies and sounds in an otherworldly tour. In Radio Java, some of the tracks sound vaguely Hawaiian, some resemble Bollywood soundtracks, some call to mind languorous electrified pop. All of it was recorded from various radio stations in Jakarta, Surabaya, Yokyakarta, and Bandung by Bishop and accomplice Manford Cain in 1989. The fact that this project could not be made and commercially released in America due to copyright law adds to its intrigue.

Of the ‘Radio’ titles, Radio Morocco, recorded by Bishop in the summer of 1983, is the most linear; Radio Java and especially Radio Palestine can at times resemble a frustratingly fast train ride through a country you’ve never seen. Buildings appear and quickly fall back, replaced by villages, deserts, town squares, and bazaars, allowing little time to focus on specifics. Though the rapid cycling of sounds in the ‘Radio’ recordings makes it difficult for the listener to gain a very concrete conception of the music or the culture itself, the releases are, to some extent, an effort to frustrate the desire to reduce a culture to a single document. Radio Morocco does this while also satisfying the desire to hear some of these beautiful, obscure songs uninterrupted.

Bishop recorded the discordant Radio Palestine in 1985 in Egypt and Israel, and he replaces careful edits in many places with jarring samples of radio washes. Few sounds are entirely comprehensible, and those that are quickly mutate before the listener can be put at ease. This frustrating aesthetic aptly represents the geography of a place in flux, denied the constancy or continuity of life enjoyed by those in less chaotic regions of the world. Radio Palestine is a series of torn pages from a hundred books pasted together.

The influence of documentary series like National Geographic Explorer is at the core of I Remember Syria, a double CD recorded by Mark Gergis (Monopause/Neung Phak) in 1998 and 2001. Closely resembling Bishop’s ‘Radio’ pieces, Gergis juxtaposes animals growling, trains, cars honking, music, and interviews in which Syrians discuss their political views, creating a document that is equal parts soundscape and a loose narrative of Gergis’ own travels. The whole record is like an audio analogue to Walter Ruttmann’s classic Berlin: Symphony of a City, a series of created environments that layer multiple times and places. Drums hang over hawkers bargaining at a street market; drums and ouds duet, occasionally joined by woodwind and brass instruments and vocal snippets.

Most recordings of ethnic music sold in America follow one of two paths: they attempt to appeal to Western audiences through high production values and fusion with American pop sounds, or they attempt to preserve the integrity and authenticity of the music by recording it on-site, presenting it as a sort of document, “An Exploration of the Musical Cultures of _______.”

The Sublime Frequencies label takes a different approach, showing traditional music that is dynamic and has the capacity to change. Unlike Dada and Pop art collages, these records use source material for which the author maintains an obvious reverence. But, unlike traditional recordings of ethnic music, Bishop eschews the desire to preserve something in its original state, treating the music as malleable.

Folk and Pop Sounds of Sumatra, which collects songs from cassettes acquired by Bishop while traveling through Sumatra in 1989, is like a great jigsaw puzzle in this way – traditional Arabic songs with interweaving vocal and flute melodies meet wrecked ’70’s electric organ riffs, gongs collide with electric bass lines and overdriven soul vocals. Princess Nicotine: Folk and Pop Sounds of Myanmar is also a collection of traditional and popular songs compiled by Bishop from tapes purchased in Myanmar. Originally released in a limited vinyl pressing on Majora Records in 1994, it also represents a more straightforward collision of various musical styles. Western pop influences meet traditional Burmese song structures; banjo-picking anchors scattered flutes on “Beautiful Town”; a man and a woman sing as if they are calling across a valley to one another. Princess Nicotine... and ...Sumatra are easily the most listenable and, in the end, the most musically engaging Sublime Frequencies records. Though both jump from Bollywood beats to free jazz clatter, all the songs here are anchored in an identifiable geographical sound. The overall effect is mesmerizing, if unavoidably weird; an abstracted map in which some pieces barely connect and others connect even if it doesn’t seem like they should. But it is wonderful when they do.

Sumatra is large, as big as California, and lies on the Western edge of the Indonesian archipelago. Despite its size, its music is not nearly as widely documented as that of Java and Bali, islands directly to the East. In Night Recordings from Bali, Bishop presents his own field recordings of gamelan music. Besides the insistent choral tones of the gamelan, Night Recordings captures clattering drumming that sounds almost like broken glass being shaken in a tin, and wails of people singing as if dancing on the shards. Howls reverberate in the distance; complex tapestries of sound unravel and are woven back together. The relatively poor quality of the recording distances the listener from the scene, and, combined with the occasional fits of monotony, can become grating at times, but the majority of the recording is ominously spellbinding.

I grew up in Tucson, Arizona. The last time I was there, I noticed a sign in front of Rillito Park, a few hundred square yards of grass near my house. It read, “Real Authentic Native American Powwow” and, sure enough, I could see a perimeter of pickup trucks circumscribing a band of tents. From a couple hundred yards away, I could even see some “Real Authentic Native Americans.” What were they doing here? A powwow is, traditionally, a meeting between leaders of different tribes in order to discuss matters in which they all have an investment; now, these have mostly been replaced by inter-tribal meetings that take place in hotels, not in teepees in city parks. After pulling into the park to ask a few questions, I was told that this was not an actual powwow, but a simulation of a powwow to educate local residents about traditional Native American culture and, in doing so, keep that culture alive. They were in the midst of deconstructing the temporary village, after a fairly successful weekend. In the center of the encampment was a campfire around which, someone told me, the participants had performed traditional Tohono O’odham music.

Upon hearing the Sublime Frequencies material, it’s difficult for me not to think of that scene; someone must have filmed or recorded the ‘simulated’ musical performances. Though the label’s material maintains a level of rawness necessary to discern it from commercially produced versions of traditional music, it’s possible that a recording of the music played at the fake powwow could be just as raw and, even, just as good, despite the degree to which it was removed from any concrete Native American community, despite the fact that its purpose was less ritual than performance. Maybe this possibility is what encouraged Puritan settlers, who originally coined the term powah—‘one who has visions’—to describe shamans associated in their minds with satanic invocation, to eventually adopt the term and, consequently, the performance, as their own. An 1812 issue of the Salem, Massachusetts, Gazette reads: “The Warriors of the Democratic Tribe will hold a powwow at Agawam on Tuesday next.”

Sublime Frequencies’ releases distance themselves from the cultural masquerades of the Sun City Girls and from the comprehensive (or even representative) “Music of…” documents released by many ethno labels. Bishop presents musical travelogues, audio scrapbooks firmly based in his own listening experiences, and, at the most broad, awe-inspired compendia of obscurities that have impressed him without holding – or maybe because they don’t hold – any special place in the world music canon. Listening to Princess Nicotine..., a collection with confounding, even schizophrenic diversity, leaves no doubt that you are exploring a single person’s mind as much as a single musical culture.

Bishop’s ethnomusicological mission is certainly deserving of its own documentary; his obvious, insatiable passion for these musical cultures and their living artifacts, along with his idiosyncratic tastes, imbues the Sublime Frequencies’ releases with a simple, even naïve, but always overpowering exuberance. But Bishop would rather “leave the over-analyzation to those who undoubtedly will suffocate the world music community with praise for this music in the future.”

By Alexander Provan

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