by carl wilson

Everything Infects Everything

Cambodiancass.jpg palestine.jpg princessnicotine.jpg
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In today's Overtones column in The Globe and Mail, a consideration of the post-exotica of the Sublime Frequencies international found-sound, radio-collage and field-recording record label, including an interview with label head Alan Bishop (of the Sun City Girls) and a celebratory head-trip to Beirut in the thick of the Cedar Revolution. Relevance to MIA debates and much else: Paul Gilroy's notion of "Demotic Cosmopolitanism" - cosmopolis from below, not rootless.

World music that scares Starbucks

Maverick micro-label Sublime Frequencies interrupts the ubiquitous smoothed-out Global Café Groove with a shrill needle scratch

5 March 2005
The Globe and Mail

You wake to the clock radio's blare at dawn in your rented room in Beirut, hung over from toasting the collapse of the Syria-backed cabinet, the seedling of the Cedar Revolution. You hear the party continue outside, a clatter of flag poles, bootfalls and laughter — as tinny Egyptian disco from a passing car drowns out the tape by Lebanese diva Fairuz that your landlady bought during the protests, at the big Virgin Megastore facing Martyrs' Square. Upstairs your neighbour, the Syrian gypsy, is wailing away on his buzuq.

You won't find this sound sequence in the Sublime Frequencies CD series. But among the nearly two dozen transcultural releases so far from the maverick Seattle music operation, there is I Remember Syria — a ragtag tapestry of Arabic nightclub pop, militant broadcasts, “duelling cassette kiosks” in Damascus, a chat with a closeted gay in Aleppo — so why not I Remember Syria's Puppet State?

Frankly, the topic would be too tidy. Sublime Frequencies prefers to duck certified news and sanctioned culture, taking back alleys into the global fray and spying through the painted-over peepholes: “Sounds that are not supposed to exist,” they testify, “are everywhere.”

Beginning with Radio Morocco in 2003, this micro-label has issued heat-treated shortwave and FM fallout from India, Java, Sumatra and Morocco; combined folk tunes and boogaloo from pre-and-post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia; and made cut-and-paste audio triptychs of Tibetan streets or the bumpy itinerary of a Malian bush taxi. It's also released four DVDs including Burmese spirit rites, Thai country fairs and burlesque shows, and remote Tuareg nomads dancing in the deserts of Libya. For a start.

“Hopefully our releases inspire people to . . . not continue to be dependent upon so-called experts for definitions and analysis of events and cultures,” Alan Bishop, who runs SF with his brother Richard, tells me by e-mail. “Most experts have an agenda that is not always apparent” — sometimes even to themselves — “therefore expert opinions should never be trusted.”

Field recordings of site sounds and “ethnic” music go back to wax recording cylinders, but it's a checkered past. It enabled, for instance, white rock rip-offs of rural black bluesmen. (Not to mention: Moby.) So ethnomusicologists, like anthropologists in general, now tread gingerly around issues of consent and representation.

By comparison the Bishops come on like a guerrilla faction. They are, after all, two-thirds of the cultish underground band, Sun City Girls. Since the early 1980s, in over 100 recordings and much rarer live manifestations, the Girls have become notorious for dressing in masks and shrouds as they improvise ersatz-ethnic ecstasies.

Compulsive travellers, they began collecting sound souvenirs way back — Radio Morocco was based on tapes Bishop made in 1983. They harvested capriciously, sometimes clandestinely, and that hasn't changed now.

Their discs, such as Princess Nicotine: Folk and Pop Music of Myanmar (Burma), are packaged between lurid, colour-copied covers, without many program notes, little bundles of wild sensation. The DVDs likewise roll without narration or other guidelines to moor the viewer.

“It removes the predictability and familiarity of the experience,” Bishop says. “It stimulates thought that may not be possible without disorientation. That's always a good thing. The opposite is too available.”

At that very moment I get a message from a PR firm proclaiming “Bob Marley Travel Package Launched In Jamaica” — Island Records' guided tours to “funky” landmarks of the rebel musician's life, such as where he once lay recuperating from an assassination attempt, now conveniently serviced by Aveda spas and boutique hotels. Nothing's too good for Babylon's weary, ganja-deprived overlords.

“World music” has come to mean such gilded reverence for genius (lionized apart from his otherwise-disposable culture), or else using “ethnic” sounds to ornament dance beats suitable for hair salons and Starbucks. Sublime Frequencies interrupts this smoothed-out Global Café Groove with a shrill needle scratch. It eschews hero-worship in omitting biographies, and depersonalizes the music itself via a jump-cutting psyche-haze of styles, an electrified collective tech-gnosis. It puts culture first, yet does not prefer village to metropole, old to new, live to tape, ecology to politics or even talent to fever. All sounds are created equal. Everything infects everything. Other labels edit out arrhythmia, obscenity, violence; the Bishops may well edit them in. Alan's radio edits, especially, are somehow both immersive and jarring — an ambient music of spastic noise, a warm bath in liquid ammonia.

Though it uses genuine sources, Sublime Frequencies' perverse élan nudges a lineage of phony exotica. Westerners from Gauguin and Debussy, to 1950s orchestrators Les Baxter and Martin Denny (who died this week at 94), to the latest ethno-techno DJs have long used trumped-up tropical stylings to conjure up Shangri-La, mostly in terms of sexual licence. (Dig the whole trip in David Toop's far-out history, Exotica.)

Bishop's liner notes can indeed get hot and bothered about the “rawness” of a song. He's apt to say things like, “I want music that's baked in seductive ovens and served on a crumbling colonial mattress of swirling cobras distilled under a thousand consecutive moons of drone-erotic hip swivel.”

Well, who doesn't? But the Bishops don't mistake developing nations for lost Edens of a more authentic humanity. Rather they love catching culture when it's changing, adapting in some kookily unforeseen way, faking its way through. Instead of fetishizing roots, they find sound en route, between cities, between tongues, between media. “These people are us,” Alan insists. “There is no separation. . . . People are crazy and weird everywhere,” America more than included.

“People all over the world are being socially engineered to trivialize those who are different from them. The price is paid in stacks of human corpses.”

The Bishops' passion for hybrid and heteronym might be illuminated by the fact that they themselves are half-Lebanese, raised in the Arab 'burbs of Detroit. Collaborator Mark Gergis, who recorded I Remember Syria, is half-Iraqi. Between them, they joke, they make one whole Arab. It's a short trip from that border state to realizing everyone is exotic. An act of observation, like taping, can also be autobiography.

That doesn't explain away the ethical considerations. (Bishop says the label has people researching credits, but the task may never be complete.) But at least with all the marks on these audio maps smudged out, westerners can't use them to claim ownership and mastery of the territory.

Many of these recordings come from tsunami-hit countries. While Sublime Frequencies is not preservationist in intention, its jaggedness foregrounds a sense of jeopardy — that anything can be swept away, that everything is ephemeral, let alone any one listener's sense-memories. But these tapes skip forward more than they loop back.

When Bishop was taping his way across the Middle East, a man named Muhammad encouraged him to call them Radio Palestine in hopes of some day having a similar regional network — one partly intelligible across localities, but equally compelling when it isn't.

British race theorist Paul Gilroy could have been describing this week's events in Beirut when he wrote of “the challenge of being in the same present, of synchronizing difference and articulating cosmopolitan hope upward from below, rather than imposing it downward from on high . . . [conceptions of humanity that] go beyond [tolerance] to a more active engagement with the irreducible value of diversity within sameness.”

Gilroy calls it “demotic cosmopolitanism.” But you could call it a sublime frequency.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, March 05 at 3:40 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)



ID'ing David Toop and Paul Gilroy in the same column -- I'm like, dude! Rock on!

Funny thing is, had to read a rag from Eastern Canada to learn about a label in my own Western U.S. town. Though I had heard OF Sun City Girls.

You make the records sound very appealing, and some day we gonna get to an demotic exoticism of everyday Norteamericano soundworld life.

Posted by John S. on March 7, 2005 12:10 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson