East Via Shortwave


Maverick ethnomusicologists Alan and Richard Bishop, two-thirds of magical-surrealist improvisers the Sun City Girls, have been wandering the third world with tape and video recorders in hand since 1983. A fraction of the brothers’ ear-popping esoteric gleanings—which exhibit much the same Ed Wood-meets-Alan Lomax mystique as Sun City Girls albums like Torch of the Mystics and 330,003 Crossdressers From Beyond the Rig Veda—have recently hit the beach in the form of seven albums and three DVDs released on the Bishops’ aptly named Sublime Frequencies label. Many more are promised.

This isn’t your dreadlocked Aunt Cloud Rider’s world music by a long shot. Obsessive, if attention deficient, Alan Bishop’s radio collages define a scratchy, off-the-cuff sort of shortwave pop where taste doubles as style. The several hundred audio verité bits and pieces that make up Radio Java, Radio Morocco, Radio Palestine: Sounds of the Eastern Mediterranean, and I Remember Syria bubble out of the ether like punky, fast-forward takes on Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 1966 ring-modulated shortwave-transmissions masterpiece, Telemusik. Stockhausen, lost in Tokyo, declared his attempt to compose “not ‘my’ music, but a music of the whole earth, of all countries and races” a raging success. The Bishop brothers, however, privilege freaky differences over the bland humanism Telemusik reflects in theory if not in practice. And usually, they do so with a twitchy pause-and-record finger that erases any semblance of unity. Radio Palestine in particular jumps from oud solos to oriental orchestras to wry BBC commentaries to ululating guitar rock in soundbites of 10 seconds or less, sculpting raw material into such vaguely thematic tracks as “Falafel Eastern” and “Exploding Briefcases of Cairo.” Thus the 37 discrete sources comprising the latter track include singing children, radio commercials, and various string orchestras, all sandwiched around a haunting interlude of (presumably) Cairo street sounds.

Sublime Frequencies’ less politically charged Indonesian and Asian releases dabble in spiritual (as on Night Recordings From Bali) and aesthetic mysteries. “How do they do it?” ponders Alan Bishop in his liner notes to Princess Nicotine: Folk and Pop Music of Myanmar (Burma) Vol. 1. “Are they smarter? Are they better? How can it be ignored or denied?” This album and the Hsaing Waing Ensemble’s performance at the Asia Society late last year suggest the answers to these questions are “yes,” “yes,” and “it can’t be.” Bishop neatly distills the beats-akimbo grace and reinvented piano and slide guitar techniques of Burmese pop on this compilation of well-used Indonesian vinyl, opening with a deafening blare of double-reed hne and never letting up.

December’s same amazing Asia Society show culminated in the transcendent camp of local Burmese master dancer U Win Maung and his nephew, who performed an abbreviated zat pwe, a Burmese musical event that usually extends from dusk till dawn. Their flamboyant cross-dressing is revisited through a mirror darkly in the Bishops’ fascinating and somewhat menacing DVD Nat Pwe: Burma’s Carnival of Spirit Soul. A nat is one of 37 officially acknowledged Burmese spirits who can be summoned at a pwe ceremony by forking over fistfuls of cash, bottles of whiskey, and handfuls of cigarettes to a transvestite celebrity kadaw. Drums explode in unpredictable volleys as the Bishop brothers stalk the kadaws during Burma’s “Woodstock of spirit possession” (devoted to two specific nats) held annually in the village of Taungbyone. See you there in August.

Another defining Frequencies moment arrives about a third of the way into Jemaa El Fna: Morocco’s Rendezvous of the Dead/ Night Music of Marrakech. Shot by Hisham Mayet and edited by Richard Bishop, this DVD documents an evening of casual music making in the central square of Marrakech. The Bishop touch is evident in long, lingering minutes spent hovering around a vendor dusting off and playing various distressed records on a dilapidated turntable with a broken speed control, which necessitates some supple thumb braking. One easily imagines an extended Sublime Frequencies DVD of similar primitive disc-jockeying.

Anyone interested in the domestic equivalent of the Bishops brothers’ brand of shortwave pop need look no further than the Asian bar band replications of Mono Pause’s Neung Phak, released on the Sun City Girls’ Abduction label (it’s a small world, after all). Mono Pause’s Mark and Erik Gergis are yet another pair of brothers inspired by travels in Southeast Asia. As their Asian bar-band alter ego, the Oakland art-pranksters cover Thai, Cambodian, and Vietnamese hits, country music, and jingles, sometimes adding their own somewhat inscrutable lyrics. The results are equally catchy and scratchy. Neung Phak, like the Bishop brothers’ Sublime Frequencies artifacts, the mainstream Cambodian rock of Los Angeles Asian American group Dengue Fever’s Mimicry Records debut, and bi-continental composer Carl Stone’s new sample-delic acoustic snapshots of Tokyo street life, Kamiya Bar, reflects a messy, unpredictable real world diametrically opposed to Peter Gabriel’s sonically sterilized Real World. Despite dubious production values and shaky documentation, the Bishop brothers’ recordings are a sublime response to globalization’s dirty business.

See also: Midnight at the Oasis of Haphazardly Looped Hallucinations by Geeta Dayal

Sidestage by Douglas Wolk