Sublime Frequencies, a Seattle-based label run by Alan Bishop of the experimental rock band Sun City Girls, takes a non-academic approach to musical ethnography. There are no thick books of liner notes here, which may unduly mediate the experience between listener and music. Bishop is directly involved in two of these three new releases: Radio Thailand and Radio Algeria. He recorded and edited one of Radio Thailand’s two discs (Mark Gergis did the other), and all of Radio Algeria. Both collections are composed of sound collages made from songs and announcements recorded from the radio, and from cassettes bought from vendors. The artists on each disc are not identified, nor is much other information offered. The beguiling result is a listening experience similar to flipping through the stations in a country in which you have just arrived. The Thailand discs throw together ethnic styles, Thai funk, rock, novelty tunes, and radio announcements in BBC-style English on subjects including news from the Iraq war and the current agricultural reports. Radio Algeria, recorded by Bishop in 2005, is a pastiche of Berber folk, Arabic pop, Touareg music, rai and more.
It can be disorienting listening, and probably works better if you have a short attention span and haven’t taken your Ritalin. By definition, the style of assembly draws a lot of attention to the person who makes the mixes, which doesn’t seem to be the aim of the label. An academically oriented person could probably write a thesis on these mixes, something about modernity, the loss of tradition and Western co-optation of local cultures. Simply as sound collages, these offer a lot of small pleasures: Berlitz-type English lessons bleeding into Thai-style rumba to synth pop to Laotian folk music, or classic rai drifting into chugging wah-wah guitar.
Ethnic Minority Music Of Northeast Cambodia more closely resembles traditional ethnography, including notes on the performers and when each track was recorded. Laurent Jeanneau traveled throughout Northeast Cambodia between 2003 and 2005 to capture these 16 tracks of ceremonial animist songs from various tribes. It is plaintive, meditative music, with haunting vocals accompanied variously by gongs, bamboo flute, lute, guitar and handclaps. There is a strong sense of place. Jeanneau tapes the artists as they perform for village audiences, letting the sounds of crickets, babies crying, and women chattering float through the recordings. As a result, the emotional connection to this powerful collection feels even more immediate.