Subverting World Music the Sublime Frequencies Label

By Bertsch, Charlie | Tikkun, May/June 2006 | Go to article overview

Subverting World Music the Sublime Frequencies Label

Bertsch, Charlie, Tikkun


THERE ARE MOMENTS, LIStening to Sublime Frequencies compilations such as Radio Sumatra: The Indonesian FM Experience, Choubi Choubi!: Folk and Pop Sounds From Iraq, and I Remember Syria, when listeners lose their place. Instead of feeling transported to the faraway lands of their dreams, they hear this music as the mental wallpaper that it is: colorful, flat, and prone to misalignment. The sensation of being there gives way to the confusion of "Where am I?" And that's precisely the effect label founder Alan Bishop and his collaborators are seeking to achieve.

A member of the long-lived band Sun City Girls, for whom the terms "alternative" and "independent" are more than empty record-store categories, Bishop has carved out an intriguing side career as a purveyor of nation- and region-specific anthologies that defy categorization by genre. Indeed, were Sublime Frequencies' releases not given geographic titles, most Westerners would be hardpressed to describe them at all. Atypical release for the label, like the double album Radio India, encompasses everything from news report sound bites to saccharine pop numbers. Some stay with a particular selection for several minutes at a time. Others, such as the ear-opening Radio Palestine: Sounds of the Eastern Mediterranean or Radio Morocco, consist largely of short segments, with the emphasis placed less on the bits and pieces themselves than on the cuts between them.

In a recent interview with Ryan Brown for ( 4)-Bishop explains that the Sublime Frequencies catalogue represents "our private collection in full regalia." This outwardly paradoxical formulation goes a long way toward capturing the label's aesthetic. Its compilations often sound like a stream of consciousness, the record of a particular person's stroll along the radio dial. But, like the interior monologues of a modern novel, this sonic landscape is too dense with interesting content to feel like a raw feed. The hand of the artist reveals itself in the arrangement of material. Although the sounds we hear may come from a private collection, they have clearly been prepared for public consumption. When Bishop speaks of "full regalia," he doesn't mean that the individual recordings in a compilation have been substantially altered, but that they have been selected with each other in mind. In this respect, he and his collaborators at Sublime Frequencies are like documentary filmmakers who piece together found footage. The end result is a work whose originality is purely a function of montage.

Most fans of so-called "world music" fall into one of two categories: Either they seek a non-threatening experience of the exotic, on par with a familiar meal in an ethnic restaurant, or they truly wish to be educated. Sublime Frequencies is a label for the latter. Yet unlike overtly pedagogic projects-Rough Guide's music releases are a prime example-Sublime Frequencies releases carefully avoid invoking a teacher-student relationship. Records like Folk and Pop Songs of Sumatra: Volume 1 and Bush Taxi Mali: Field Recordings From Mali are not presented as scholarly endeavors. Even on the liner notes for the atypical Broken-Hearted Dragonflies, which captures the noises made by in sects in Myanmar, Bishop goes out of his way to avoid the posture of the objective researcher. After relating a folk legend that, "when the male is finished mating, they make this crazy sound and their chests explode and they drop dead to the ground," he confesses that he has found "no documentation of this story anywhere," but adds that, he is "not concerned with appropriate documentation or scientific evidence. The idea is amazing."

Indeed, the label seems happy to promote its collections as an alternative to the scholarly approach. On the liner notes for Streets of Lhasa, for example, Steve Barker compares the music on the record to the American artists Harry Smith featured in his famous anthology of folk music. …

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