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Various Artists: Radio Algeria, Radio Thailand, Ethnic Minority Music of Cambodia

Various Artists: Radio Algeria, Radio Thailand, Ethnic Minority Music of Cambodia

Label:Sublime Frequencies
Release Date:2006

By Jess Harvell | Posted 6/21/2006

For two years now, Alan Bishop of outsider-rock heroes the Sun City Girls has been running Sublime Frequencies out of his Seattle home. Itís a place stuffed with Indian religious bric-a-brac, bootleg Thai pop cassettes, and ancient stringed instruments. Both home and label are monuments to Bishopís insatiable appetite for traveling to places your Fodorís guide forgot. SF discs are culled from field recordings, radio transmissions, and tapes purchased in Kasbahs and souks and shopping malls. They range from crusty South Asian takes on Western pop to crudely stitched surrealist sound documentaries and the kind of traditional ethnographic music you might hear on a legit world-music label like Earthworks.

Packaged in color-saturated collages and mostly free of explanatory liner notes, the CDs are world music for an era when concepts like "first world" and "third world" have become jumbled, if not meaningless. No oneís getting paid, of course, and attribution varies from to disc to disc, so if you want to know who that amazing singer is halfway through track five for 30 seconds you might be shit out of luck. (Bishop has pledged to track down all parties, however, once his Frequencies begin selling as well as Britney Spears.) Warts and all, it might be the most exciting catalog any record label has assembled in the 21st century so far.

Bordering both the Mediterranean and the Sahara and long open to--or infected by, depending on oneís point of view--outside influence, modern Algeria has always had a syncretic culture, at least in the cities. It also has a strong musical underground, owing to the repressive streak of the Marxist government that took control following liberation from the French in the early í60s. Radio Algeria, compiled off the Algerian airwaves in 2005 by Bishop, is staggering in its range of musical quotation: schmaltzy Western pop, almost karaoke-quality in its badness; the rough bagpipes and flutes of Berber folk feel like a hair shirt in comparison. Thereís classical schlock and chanson that sounds like a hangover from colonial days, and the soupy electronics and chest-beating masculinity of rai, the modern form of Algerian pop thatís best known by Westerners, if at all. And, of course, thereís some really rickety rock íní roll. Like the other installments in SFís Radio series, edits are abrupt, continuity nonexistent, and the overall effect is like a stoned pair of ears speed-dialing across Arabic radio.

The two-disc Radio Thailand, compiled by Bishop and Mark Gergis, is even more disorienting, if thatís possible. In contrast to Radio Algeria, recordings from a country where English is as rare on the radio as Algerian is on 98 Rock, the station IDs, bumpers, and advertisements on Radio Thailand sound suspiciously BBC-esque. Presented chronologically, the two CDs are like Westernization blooming in stop-motion time. Thai pop starts to tumble to the beat of American R&B; the slick sounds of modern Thai rock rub uncomfortably against molam, a Thai folk music characterized by a mouth organ called the khaen and a keening singing style. Neon manga comics scream from the cover.

Ethnic Minority Music of Cambodia is a collection of untreated recordings of ceremonial music made by Laurent Jeanneau between 2003 and í05, and itís worlds away from the manic energy of the two Radio compilations. Cambodia is slow, smoky, and dark, as if the tape started rolling just after dusk and was left to unfurl until late into the next morning. Gongs shimmer under torchlight, and lonely, reedy flute melodies waft through the air like the cigarette smoke of the weather-beaten old men squinting at you from the cover. Itís the voices of these old men--groaning, guttural, hypnotic--that captivate most about Cambodia. American pop feels as distant as a satellite to this music as America itself must feel to these singers.

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