Guitars of the Golden Triangle: Folk and Pop Music of Myanmar Vol. 2
Choubi Choubi! Folk and Pop Sounds from Iraq
Radio Pyongyang: Commie Funk and Agit Pop from the Hermit Kingdom
It's absolutely true that we're living in the golden age of recorded-music availability. Everything from obscure funk by bands that might've produced just one record, to reticent minimalists whose outputs were sorely neglected for 30 years, can now be found with the click of a button. The '70s-era back-catalogues of Ethiopian and Swahili soul can mingle with the complete outputs of the Stanley Brothers or The Stooges. It's almost disgusting.
Yet no one, perhaps, is even near the same sonic locality as the maverick Sublime Frequencies label when it comes to taking the dreaded term "world music" and applying it to such little-heard, long-forgotten or never-quite-known folk/pop hybrids as '70s-era Thai Molam, or the often-jittery semi-classical sounds of Burma.
Some of the label's discs are devoted wholly to radio collage from such ports as Morocco, Cambodia and India. Here traditional and pop forms collide, often interrupted at key moments by deejay commentary, snippets of news reports or static. The albums are an instant dose of culture -- and a snapshot of a certain place at a certain time -- but they also resonate as high art.
Elsewhere, the series highlights instantly gratifying grooves dubbed from poor-quality cassettes of Cambodian pop or from field tapes -- complete with street ambience -- from Tibet or Mali. And instead of extensive liner notes, track details or artist bios, the covers are splashed with postcards or pictures and drawings of musicians and anonymous characters dressed to the hilt in the regions' various splendor.
Alan Bishop, world traveler and, for the past 25 or so years, bassist for the protean, unpigeonhole-able trio Sun City Girls, started the Seattle-based label in 2003. He did so not only to provide an outlet for the recordings he and his brother (the Sun City Girls guitarist Rick Bishop) have collected on their travels over the past 20 years, but to provide a platform for non-ethnomusicologist expression and other intriguing not-so-traditional musical utterances.
"Starting the label allowed us the platform to release this stuff," Bishop explains. "Instead of just doing two or three a year, we had so many [of the discs] essentially done. This enabled us to release more [material] than the average label. We've also got friends and associates funneling material through the label, so there's an almost endless supply of music to last for years to come. It's a lot of work, and there's not enough money to make us any kind of a living."
No doubt Sublime Frequencies has been prolific; it's now on release No. 25. But one wonders just who the audience for say, strange Sumatran aural theater or a beautiful, albeit narrator-less DVD showcasing various music and performance styles of southern Niger, actually is.
"The public at large isn't necessarily knowledgeable, and we're hitting people with advanced material that's well beyond their grasp," says Bishop. "They might like it superficially, but they're often pretty clueless about what's going on in the world."
No doubt, with regard to Sumatra itself, traveling this island means being exposed to dozens of languages and cultures, each with its own set of ritual. Naturally, any collection of its music would seem a bit schizophrenic. "There's so much more to this," says Bishop. "To keep this music alive is more important than revisiting popular music through the West [that's] being magnified and exported and then regurgitated in a way that's not as venerable as some of the stuff we're presenting."
And one needs only a quick listen to either Guitars of the Golden Triangle or Choubi Choubi! Folk and Pop Sounds from Iraq to hear just how right Bishop is. The former, a batch of eerily Western-influenced guitar-based psych, folk and balladry dubbed off tragically worn reel-to-reels, shines new light on a nearly forgotten hybrid from a closed, mountainous and often politically treacherous region of northeast Burma. The latter release showcases unknown rhythmic styles recorded in Saddam-era Iraq, which, in Bishop's own words, "kicks ass." Yet to truly embrace what the label does as a project, notions of what is often self-righteously considered "good" get drawn into question. On what is perhaps the label's most wonderful release, Cambodian Cassette Archives Vol. 1, a collection of occasionally zany, but more often gorgeous tunes becomes less a random assortment -- and something closer to concept -- when digested as an album by Westerners.
Meanwhile, something as initially wretched as North Korean synth-balladry of the most syrupy sort has a sudden raison d'etre when packaged by a label so consistently successful in covering (and uncovering) such expansive terrain. Bishop adds perspective to North Korean collage.
"The disc represents what is musically happening in a closed country and, in general, it's a good thing for people to know what's going on, as music is often a better way to understand a culture than language. Things get so manipulated when it comes to words."
Perhaps that comment goes a long way toward explaining why the DVDs Sublime Frequencies releases have no narration, or why the CDs are decorated in photos that cloak as much as they reveal. And while there may very well be a few Iraqis snapping up Choubi Choubi to rediscover an old recording of Ja'afar Hassan, the label's mish-mashed aural onslaught of multifaceted sound culture is aimed at Americans. Aside from sometimes actually having the disposable income to buy these items, we desperately need to know about the rest of the world. If nothing else, Bishop and his label are doing their part to combat xenophobia and the misunderstandings that come with it.