Sunday, January 8, 2012

In Praise of Sublime Frequencies

I recently stumbled on this interview with Alan Bishop from the sadly now defunct Arthur Magazine.  Alan is probably best known for founding, along with his brother (guitar genius) Sir Richard Bishop and drummer Charles Gocher, the seminal group the Sun City Girls. The Sun City Girls were insufferable punks from Arizona who enjoyed taking the piss and played an unpredictable mixture Arabic, Asian, Gamelan, hardcore punk, and free jazz, (or occasionally incredibly sloppy covers of classic rock numbers) depending on how their modds.  The SCGs came to a sad end when the groups when Gocher died of a mysterious illness, leaving Richard to his solo career and allowing Alan to focus on his other love: recording other people's music.

Alan Bishop (along with his brother, Richard) founded the label Sublime Frequencies, which periodically issues what can best be called travel soundtracks.  They will record stuff they heard in markets, right of the radio and elsewhere and then walk around accosting the locals or anyone who will listen until they figure out who recorded what, and where they can find more.  The label has put out everything from Tuareg music from northern Niger to Burmese pop music to Syrian wedding music to North Korean radio.  Suffice it to say, they tend to capture stuff that no one else in the West is listening to. The labels' Group Inerane release: Guitars From Agadez Vol. 1 is a burst of seemingly impossibly loud guitars, hand clapping,  feedback and aggression that makes Black Flag sound like Pat Boone.

What I think is great about Sublime Frequencies is that they edit bizarre and  exotic stuff in a completely non-Orientalist way. The music is not treated as fetish properties or overly scholarly documents but rather as a collection of sounds presented within the context that they were (a) heard and (b) aspects of the culture they emerged from.  The label does this without losing its sense of humour.  When song names are unknown (which is frequently the case), the label invents their own, often irreverent but still descriptive English titles.  The liner notes also frequently make intuitive sense, though would never be the type of narrative expressed by ethno musicologists or most reissue labels.  For example, Alan Bishop's notes to Princess Nicotine: Folk And Pop Sounds Of Myanmar
How do they do it? Are they smarter? Are they better? How can it be ignored or denied? How is it possible that one of the most unique, perfectly composed and performed, intense and awe-inspiring musical legacies the world has ever known is looming north of the equator physically tucked-between world cultural giants India, China, and Thailand, without more than a whisper from ethnomusicologists or those who define themselves as “purveyors of world music”? Not only are the roots of this music unique, but so are the results after incorporating outside instrumentation from modern colonial and (unavoidable) international influence. What the Burmese have done with a piano is so precise in the adaptation to their existing form and melody that one would think they invented it. Burmese music has a very distinct sound and whatever instrument is assimilated into its core only seems to magnify the original intent without depending upon outside ideas relating to each component utilized.
And a clip from the music described below:

Or from the liner notes to the Folk and Pop Sounds of Sumatra compilation:
The equator runs through only ten countries on earth and I bet that you cannot name them all without consulting a map. Indonesia is one of them and the only nation in Asia with the equatorial stripe impaling it. There are so many different cultures spread-out on this chain of islands that it would take several lifetimes to experience them all properly. Within this umbrella of diversity is one of the world's richest and most dazzling sound museums.
In a way, what is being achieved with Sublime Frequencies is something very much akin to what Alan Lomax was trying to do: namely to document various musical forms, stemming from sources both folk and professional.  Like Lomax, Sublime Frequencies is a vehicle for exposure to new musical sounds and ideas from people who are genuine enthusiasts for the music.  The judgements are left to the listener.  Further, Alan Bishop appears to be well aware of the political dimensions that music can take on, and specifically the political dimensions behind many of the SF releases.

An example of this can be found in the quotation below.  Alan Bishop is discussing a couple of (then) recent compilations of music from North Korea and Iraq that the label had decided to release following Bush's 'Axis of Evil' Speech.  Where questioned about whether people would obviously add political anecdote to their discussions of these discs, Bishop responded: 
We don’t worry about that. It is what it is. Everybody plays the role of an unqualified judge, so all that is routine now. When people start worrying about what other people will say about their work, they are dead and successfully under hypnotic control. Most people are not qualified to even discuss politics because they mimic what any dolt could hear from pundits on television. They are mimics, not free thinkers.
We can see this continued engagement with representing aspects of musical culture from other Countries the US remains at odds with.  A recent SF release features surf pop instrumentals from Pakistan in the 60s and 70s:

The type of music that Sublime Frequencies releases is not necessarily going to appeal to everyone -  a lot of it has been released because it consciously sounds alien to Western audiences.  That aside, it is impossible to deny the quality of much of it and it is great to see these musical ideas made available.

The final clip, below is from the Syrian wedding singer Omar Souleyman's live album.  Souleyman plays a combination of traditional Syrian folk music and electronic music.  His long travelling group includes an electric Saz player (a middle eastern string instrument - sort of a compact Oud) a keyboardist with sampler, and a poet and writer who whispers poetry into Souleyman's ear (while in performance) which Souleyman then transposes into song lyrics live.

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