Radio India: The Eternal dream of Sound
Radio Palestine: Sounds of the Eastern Mediterranean
Sublime Frequencies PO Box 17971 Seattle WA 98127 USA
When we think of documentary world music recordings, we usually conjure up the kind of ideal academic purism of the ethnomusicological “songcatchers,” from the rugged pioneer preservationists like Alice Fletcher and Frances Densmore to the miraculously polished studio-in-the-field recordings produced by hundreds of scholars working today. The basic concept being to capture authenticity through a balance between eliminating any taint of the colonialist documentarian’s mediating presence and creating the most acoustically pristine, musically accurate encoding of the musical event contemporary sound recording technology can provide. This approach has produced many wonderful recordings, but has deafened as many to the brilliant hybrid world recordings by artists like Aisha Kandisha’s Jarring Effects, Wimme with RinneRadio, Deep Forest, and Ondar. Not to mention “Wimboweh” by The Tokens.
Similarly, when we think of electroacoustic recording artists, there is a sort of presumption of sonic continuity – like you’re in that thunderstorm or heart-stirring 5AM morning chorus in real time for 6 or 8 or 73 minutes before smoothly segueing into another soundscape – that casts a certain exotic shade on the recordings, at least for the urban-bound ADD working stiffs (self included) that buy this stuff in surprising if unspectacular quantity. The real-sound information environment of the average 21st century industrialized urban consciousness is fragmentary, discontinuous, and leaky -- and it’s only fair that documentary soundscape recordings should be able to represent such subjective sound experiences as emphatically as they do the objectivity of the songcatchers.
The Sun City Girls began in the very early 80s as a postpunk ethno-psychedelic band out of Arizona. Through energetic touring and a massive independent recording output consisting of innumerable limited edition vinyl, CD, VHS, and cassette releases, the SCG built up an improbable following among the indie and hardcore undergrounds, in spite of the fact that they were as likely to play a half hour of free-jazz inflected middle eastern improv as they were to sing an actual song. But their global eclecticism is more than a shtick: Brothers Alan and Rick Bishop, who comprise two-thirds of the group, are half-Lebanese, and their grandfather was an accomplished oud player. In spite of its considerable novelty value in the context of a sweaty punk club, one aspect of the Girls’ mission has been the sincere desire to awaken listeners to the complexity and richness of Middle Eastern and Asian musics.
In the last couple of years, they’ve expanded their pedagogical activities by starting a remarkable CD and DVD label called Sublime Frequencies, whose mandate consists of “acquiring and exposing obscure sights and sounds from modern and traditional urban and rural frontiers via film and video, field recordings, radio and short wave transmissions, international folk and pop music, sound anomalies, and other forms of human and natural expression not documented sufficiently through all channels of academic research, the modern recording industry, media, or corporate foundations." That’s a pretty wide net, but their catalog is already brimming with an amazingly eclectic range of subjects and strategies, from the Cambodian Cassette Archives of ephemeral Khmer folk and pop recordings culled from the Oakland Public Library’s Asian Branch by Bay Area musician Mark Gergis to the ear-boggling field recordings of Southeast Asian “insect electronica” – pulsing high pitched drones of cicadas and other insects – documented by Tucker Martine on Broken Hearted Dragonflies.
The core group of recordings, though, are the radio collage series compiled by label head Alan Bishop himself, beginning with Radio Palestine: Sounds of the Eastern Mediterranean, pieced together from broadcasts recorded in Egypt and Jerusalem in the summer of 1985. Owing as much to William Burroughs vision of electronic cut-up subversion as it does to Alan Lomax, Bishop’s soundscapes veer wildly and abruptly in tone and content, mixing gorgeous shards of traditional and pop forms of local music with advertising babble, English language news broadcasts, strange eruptions of western classical and easy listening music, street ambience, and a rainbow of shortwave radio noise. Within the track entitled Beirut Cocktail/Khartoum Entrée for example, I counted 31 edits (some less than a second in length), beginning with some sort of French piano chanteuse, who is interrupted by some bombastic western film score type music over which an announcer begins speaking, but whom is quickly supplanted by some sort of hammered dulcimer – a Greek sandouri maybe? Too late, it’s switched to some kind of Bollywood ballad, another announcer, some bouncy synthesizer adverting jingle, and so on, through traffic noise, echoey drum solos, beeping time codes, pulsing between-frequency mixtures of music and speech, koranic chanting, and Arabic pop songs. And that’s just 6 minutes worth!
The subsequent volumes in the series – Radio Java, Radio Morocco, and the 2-disc Radio India (as well as the non-Bishop compilations Bush Taxi Mali and I Remember Syria) are edited in a slightly less rapid-fire manner, but essentially follow the same template. The result, although not without precedent, is a unique conflation of ethnomusical documentation and subjective creative editing. Acting as much as snapshot maps of the ever-shifting sonic geography of radiospace as diaristic records of Bishop’s singular interaction with a series of complex musical, sound and information environments, the Sublime Frequencies’ radio collage series offers the listener a new experiential definition of “authenticity” that, while the polar opposite of the pristine accuracy of academic recordings, offers as many moments of musical pleasure and infinitely more surprises. Tune in.
Published in Musicworks Winter 2004