Radio Algeria/Radio Thailand/Ethnic Minority Music of Northeast Cambodia
xperts say that the best way to learn a language is through immersion. Immersion is also how you fry things or drown them. And it’s probably fair to say that these three experiences—of learning, drowning, or being submerged in bubbling oil—are essentially intensive, chaotic, and confusing. Music, of course, is a language. So why should we get the feeling that we can understand—or even begin to understand, really—something like Bhangra by buying a Rough Guide? Why should we, as Sublime Frequencies founder and Sun City Girls guitarist Alan Bishop, think that we can “Google it, read a paragraph on three websites, BINGO! [Be] an expert”?
All culture is mediated. You knew that. But while the “world music” market essentially trivializes and reduces, Sublime Frequencies constantly expands, reinforcing the impossibility of digesting the sounds it documents. Their most recent releases include two discs of radio recordings from Thailand (one made by Bishop in the early 90s, one by Mark Gergis between 2000-2004), one from Algeria made by Bishop in the past couple of years, and field recordings of small ethnic groups inhabiting Ratanakiri (the northeast corner of Cambodia) made by Laureant Jeanneau. Whenever I listen to a SF compilation, I get bent. I come away from them understanding less with every listen; better said, the more I hear, the more I realize there is to understand.
People—PR people, I guess; critics, too—are fond of saying things like “Raymond Quizzle’s new album is like nothing you’ve ever heard before.” It is a good trick and a bad lie. Sublime Frequencies compilations are like things you’ve heard before, but just barely, and that’s part of what makes them incredible. Of course, there’s a tension in the overall effect of the sound: you recognize things—say, a guitar style—but you’re forced to realize that you have no true understanding of its context, its syntax. Cultural difference bangs hard against the will to find cultural similarities, to identify. In another interview, Bishop has said that “These people are us. There is no separation. . . . People are crazy and weird everywhere.” But drives are different and so is circumstance; anyway, it’s ironic that the only human similarity Bishop wants to point out is that we’re all fucked-up.
The compilations are sparsely annotated and often bear bootleg-like art quality, seemingly designed to disorient before you even get the disc in your player. After that, it’s merciless. On the radio collages, you might hear a snatch of an announcer’s voice sliding into static before a distant ballad wafts through the band; stations change without warning, nothing seems to stick; the juxtaposition seems sour, impossible, and dazzling. Emphasizing the confusion and playing to the subtle, wry politics of the label, Radio Thailand includes a British voice saying “Ayatollah Ali Sistani has secured a peace deal in the holy city of Najaf. And in global news, Shiite leader (trails off hesitantly)...weeee’ve got some news on him!”
The field recording-type affairs aren’t terribly different, though in a way, they’re almost more challenging: instead of flying through a crowded city of sound, you’re invited to sit, reverent, in a single room and witness a single thing you have little foundation to understand. Voices on Ethnic Minority Music of Northeast Cambodia croak, gongs resonate with serene indifference. These compilations are extremely difficult to write about not because so little happens, but because it’s not music with “ideas” to discuss. There’s no guidance and there’s little context. It’s not an experience for everyone, and I’d sooner recommend one of the “radio” compilations to a listener new to the label.
Sublime Frequencies is my favorite label putting out music right now. They have a stunning philosophy, which, regardless of whether you think philosophies are hackneyed or not, makes them consistent. Coming down, or back from these compilations—and they are, in a lot of ways, like drugs or traveling, right down to the fact that sometimes on psychedelics, language stops making sense—reminds me of my own boundaries and environment. Of course, those experiences change you because you’ve immersed yourself; you’ve been in a place that exists in a foreign tongue and had no recourse; you’ve been disoriented. I want to say that they fascinate me, so I will. I just looked up “fascinate” in the Online Etymology Dictionary: “The Gk. word may be from a Thracian equivalent of Gk. phaskein ‘to say.’”