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V/A - Radio Sumatra

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Artist: V/A

Album: Radio Sumatra

Label: Sublime Frequencies

Review date: Mar. 28, 2005

Radio Sumatra is the seventh Radio release from Sublime Frequencies, and Alan Bishop's recipe is by now well-known: 1) record snippets of song, studio banter and advertisement from a country's radio stations 2) throw into a blender 3) mix into a dense sonic soup 4) package with random images from the country and forego all scholarly liner notes. What emerges are disorienting audio documents that make no claim to comprehensiveness, leaving the listener to navigate the terrain without so much as a shitty tourist map.

Bishop shrewdly simulates the chaotic stream of information that radio – in any country – disseminates, showing how the medium acts as a kind of societal and cultural stream of consciousness. What we don’t get is the context to interpret this stream. So we have no idea what a young Indonesian thinks of the punkish anthem that opens "The MOST Radio," or the rap-metal track – absurdly mixed with a world music-lite song where "This is the music of my country" is sung, in English – on "Dangdut is the Music.”

Surreal moments abound on Radio Sumatra. "Karaoke Hit Parade" samples a show where callers get to sing over their favorite tracks, here a bouncy electro-pop tune mangled by a young girl. Child-like vocals also figure on "The Best New Music." Over a seductive bed of percussion, marimba and synthesizer wisps, a girl with a naifish voice bleats out a pleading melody. "Heavy Rotation" juxtaposes an Islamic call to prayer, a bubbly Latin-inflected female vocal piece and a hip-hop tune in Arabic.

Indonesia is the world's largest Islamic state, a fact addressed by the collages "Allah's Hit Explosion" and "The Islamic Experience in Frequency Modulation." The former includes a burning cut that features oud, zither, manic percussion and supplicating vocals. The latter starts with a news report about Iraq, jumps to an a cappella chant, moves to a woman speaking over a whining bowed instrument and concludes with a man talking over swirling electronic tones. One wonders how exactly they spin news about the war in a country nearly 90 percent Islamic.

It would be easy to conclude that the globalization of pop culture has corrupted much of the music here, but Indonesia has been absorbing musical traditions for centuries, including Chinese, Arabic, European (by way of Dutch and Portugese colonizers). It would be just as easy to conclude that these songs define the sound of a unified Indonesia, a position that Indonesian music scholar Phillip Yampolsky takes and Bishop echoes in his liner notes. I'm sure the Free Aech movement, responsible for a continuing rebellion in Sumatra's northern regions, would beg to differ.

Bishop, however, isn't concerned with analyzing this music too deeply. He subtitles the record The Indonesian FM Experience, and the album is a classic example of the sum being greater than its parts. There are no revelatory moments here or great undiscovered artists, but if you want an exotic, unsettling audio experience unmediated by the typical concerns of ethnomusicology, Radio Sumatra is a great choice.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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