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Music Without a Map

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Nat Pwe: Burma's Carnival of Spirit Soul DVD
Jemaa el Fna: Morocco's Rendezvous of the Dead, Night Music of Marrakech DVD
Folk Music of the Sahara: Among the Tuareg of Libya DVD
and other releases on the Sublime Frequencies label

On my first visit to Turkey a decade ago my efforts to find the sort of music the locals listened to were usually met with funny looks followed by attempts to steer me toward belly dance music and other tourist fare. I eventually got wise and began writing down the names of the singers whose tapes were playing in the kofte joints where I ate my meals and on the buses I rode across the country. I soon found what I wanted: taverna music, a mongrel genre that marries lachrymose traditional melodies to drum machines and swelling synthesizers.

Most recordings marketed as world music tend to fall into one of two categories, the would-be pure (folkloric field recordings or attempts to simulate pristine traditional performances in studio settings) or the candidly profane (taverna and countless other Western-inflected hybrid forms the world over). Some of the latter are driven by the idiosyncratic creative impulses of highly self-conscious artists, as in the case of the Cuban-bred hip-hop group Orishas or the Spanish electronic flamenco outfit Ojos de Brujo; other hybrids result from performers' (or producers') naive efforts to achieve crossover success in foreign lands. Certain cultures are better borrowers than others: Brazil's musical output is nearly as rich and diverse as America's, and while much of it makes use of outside influences, the best rarely feels anything less than organic.

Of course it's almost impossible to keep abreast of all these global currents of cultural mutation, but the task has been made somewhat easier by Sublime Frequencies, a record label recently established by Alan and Rick Bishop of the Seattle world-rock-free jazz-noise ensemble Sun City Girls and their friend Hisham Mayet, a filmmaker. The trio's motto is "Music thought not to exist is everywhere," and indeed, some of the seven CDs and three DVDs they've released to date are genuinely revelatory. The label's agenda lies somewhere between DIY ethnography and piracy: CD releases like Princess Nicotine: Folk and Pop Music of Myanmar (Burma) and Folk and Pop Sounds of Sumatra Vol. 1 were culled from commercially produced cassettes the Bishop brothers collected on their travels in Southeast Asia and Indonesia. Some of these tapes are nearly 20 years old, and it would be difficult at this point to track down the artists and pay them royalties or reproduction fees.

Part of what separates Sublime Frequencies from other enthomusicological imprints is its bare-bones approach to matters of cultural context. Where other labels stuff their jewel cases with quasi-academic essays in eye-straining print, the liner notes to Sublime Frequencies CDs are skeletal, usually consisting of little more than a note on how the contents were collected or recorded. The DVDs feature vibrant performance footage but no narration or talking-head exposition. Alan Bishop recently justified the policy in a Seattle Weekly cover story. "I'm not an idiot," said Bishop. "I can figure out what's going on most of the time. Many other people are not idiots. They can make up their own mind about how to interpret non-narrated film. Why not completely superimpose yourself into [another] world without some schmuck--even if it's some well-intentioned schmuck--telling you what's going on?"

It's an interesting point, but the absence of cultural context tends to reduce the recorded performances to mere orientalist exotica. For example, Nat Pwe: Burma's Carnival of Spirit Soul is a fascinating DVD that captures highlights of an annual ritual festival held in honor of spirits called nats. This ceremony takes place in Taungbyon, a village just north of Mandalay, and consists of a long procession of transvestites dressed in colorful robes and headdresses dancing drunkenly--we see a lot of Johnny Walker Red consumed--to hypnotic percussion and vocal music. The action alternates between these bewitching dance performances, impromptu dancing by inebriated festivalgoers, and close-ups of beautiful women and children strolling the grounds and taking in the spectacle. An enclosed booklet provides a little background, but the 90 minutes of footage would be more interesting if we knew the meaning of specific ritual gestures--dancers smoking two cigarettes at a time and tossing money around, audience members pinning cash to their outfits.

Another of the DVDs, the colorful and exciting Jemaa el Fna: Morocco's Rendezvous of the Dead, Night Music of Marrakech, captures an evening of gnawan trance music performed in the huge public square in Marrakech. As musicians bang out hypnotic grooves on percussion and various stringed instruments, audience members and passersby get in on the action. A young girl with a strong, arresting voice hams it up for the camera, dancing and flirting.

The third DVD, Folk Music of the Sahara: Among the Tuareg of Libya, documents an unnamed festival in an old Saharan trading depot called Ghadames. Much of the music is similar to what the female Tuareg group Ensemble Tartit played last spring at the Old Town School of Folk Music--which raises the point that not everything on the label is equally unique or interesting. A lot of the woozy pop on the Sumatran CD is similar to what's on Indonesian Popular Music, the terrific second volume in Smithsonian Folkways' "Music of Indonesia" series. Likewise, the rough-hewn gamelan recordings on Night Recordings From Bali will sound familiar to anyone acquainted with Indonesian music, though they wouldn't be an ideal point of entry for newcomers.

The label's other CDs are more in an audio-documentary vein. Radio Morocco, Radio Java, and Radio Palestine are what Alan Bishop terms radio collages: while visiting each region he scanned the dials to record a cross section of what was available. Listening to them reminded me of listening to a Walkman receiver on a jet: stations come and go in minutes, the signals building and fading into static to be replaced by others. As often as not it's an exercise in frustration. The sounds on these CDs are varied and interesting--there's folk music, folk-pop hybrids, polyglot talk radio, rock, and Western classical--but we're not given time to settle into anything. Needless to say, the recordings don't really invite repeated listening.

More rewarding is the two-CD set I Remember Syria, which combines radio broadcasts, street noise, the sounds of a wedding, calls to prayer, pop songs, and conversations between the recordist, Mike Gergis, and assorted English-speaking Syrians. Less erratic than the radio collages, the recording functions as an evocative sonic portrait of the city of Damascus and neighboring towns.

There's no question that Sublime Frequencies is doing useful work in isolating and exposing traditions and sounds ignored by the entertainment and culture industries, but there's a thin line between their guerrilla ethos and outright laziness. For this material to really connect with interested listeners, the label needs to become less puritanical about providing some context. I appreciate what they've done so far, but I'd love to see what this operation could accomplish if only it took the time to explain.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Toby Dodds.

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