Like the CIA or the NSA, Sublime Frequencies is an institution that thrives on secrecy. The Seattle-based global-pop label issues albums with minimal fanfare, conducts bare-bones promotion, and eschews the limelight. Penetrate that first layer of defenses, and previously unseen, completely impenetrable walls spring up. “Yes, of course, many would like to know,” co-founder Alan Bishop answers, in response to a question about how these discs get made. “Each release has a very distinct story behind it and a unique set of variables. And I won’t take you through the process because that’s going to be reserved for our massive self-made documentary about the label and accompanying book. Sorry.”
Fortunately for worldly audiophiles, SF opens more doors than it closes. Founded in 2003 by Bishop (of the world-inspired Phoenix group Sun City Girls) and Hisham Mayet, the imprint has released more than three dozen albums of music from around the globe, with a particular emphasis on the previously untapped regions of Southeast Asia, South America, and the Middle East. “I could make the argument that the world has hardly been explored at all musically,” Bishop says. “There are lifetimes of work to be done in many countries. Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Central and South America have too much music that has never been seriously explored.”
As a consequence, a sense of mystery pervades these discs. Artist information and background detail is spotty. Some albums, like the favela-funk of Proibidão C.V., lack artist and track listings entirely, credited as a whole to “anonymous MCs and DJs in different bailes along the favelas of Zona Sul, Rio de Janeiro.” Many of the songs on compilations like the astounding Choubi Choubi! Folk and Pop Sounds From Iraq are ripped from expats’ worn cassettes, so documentation (and sound quality) is often in short supply. This only adds to the sense of SF albums being works of art in their own right: teleportation machines that fling listeners, with no warning and little preparation, into a wholly unfamiliar world.
Not every disc promises what it delivers. Some are intended more for completists and explorers than music fans; few casual listeners will give the ragged recordings of megaphone chants and repetitive Casio beats (sprayed with occasional bursts of machine-gun fire) on Proibidão C.V. a second listen. Likewise, the Burmese folk of Nat Pwe: Folk and Pop Music of Myanmar Vol. 3
is too jarringly atonal to sound palatable, at least on the first listen. At their best, though, SF comps make jaws drop and music snobs’ heads hang in dismay: How did I not know about this? The brilliant Thai Pop Spectacular documents 20 years of Bangkok’s Top 40, with homegrown musicians doing their utmost to parrot musical developments in the West and failing in magnificent fashion. The chicken-scratch funk guitar on the Generation’s “Nan Nan Pob Gan Tee (Long Time No See)” sizzles like blaxploitation-era Curtis Mayfield, while other tracks ape late-Beatles psychedelia or Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti-western horns. Notwithstanding all the sonic pirating, everything on Thai Pop Spectacular can’t help but sound otherworldly, like listening to the greatest hits of a planet similar to, but not quite the same as, our own.
Thailand, in particular, has proven a bonanza for Sublime Frequencies, with the two volumes of Molam: Thai Country Groove From Isan offering entrée into the centuries-old tradition of molam, or “expert song.” Volume 2 captures molam as the form first tangles with modernity, guitars and organs joining the bamboo mouth-organ and Thai lute as sources of the groove. The results are like demented show tunes or fairground ditties, with keening vocals welded to modern rhythms: Pairin Pongpiboon’s “Ja Leun Jai (Singing to Entertain the Ladies)” rides an otherworldly, haunting organ riff, while Ka Kaw’s “Nam Jai Fan (The Generosity of Our Fans)” rocks a distorted, Hendrix-ian guitar line. Even well-thumbed areas of the globe are invigorated by the SF touch. The vinyl-only Group Inerane: Guitars From Agadez explores the electric assault emanating from the Sahara region; Latinamericarpet documents the forgotten psychedelia of late-’60s/early-’70s Latin America, Mozart’s “Turkish March” mutating, under the watchful eye of Tia Leonor y Sus Sobrinos, into a groovy double-time jog, with stately piano music weathering a rear-guard assault from thick, burbling bass and drums.
Much as the label itself might be loath to admit it, there is a political side to Sublime Frequencies’ work—how could it be otherwise, given that it frequently spotlights the music of North Korea, Syria, and Iraq? “Am I being political if I eat Iraqi or Syrian food?” Bishop asks. Indeed, bringing this music to light is an act of defiance to a political culture that seeks only to demonize. Of all the label’s releases, the ones most frequently lauded by critics and treasured by fans are Middle Eastern in origin: the Choubi Choubi Iraq comp and Omar Souleyman’s Highway to Hassake. Souleyman’s tinny, wailing dance music has made him a folk hero in his native Syria; he blows through his lyrics like a Damascene Ghostface Killah, backed by alluring, high-pitched keyboard whines.
Choubi Choubi, recently brought back into print after selling out the initial run, and named for a pulsating dance music with ear-piercing rhythms that became the dominant sound of the Saddam era, sparkles even more brightly, sharing time here with a number of cuts from legendary socialist folk-rocker Ja’afar Hassan’s pre-Saddam album Let’s Sing Together. The cumulative sound is both surging and touchingly pedestrian: The anonymous “Oh Mother, the Handsome Man Tortures Me” wails like 10,000 tinny Casio keyboards surging in unison outside 10,000 wedding halls. The whole packageis a remarkable document of Iraqi culture during its darkest years.
“We are content doing things the way we do them,” Bishop says, “and feel no need to announce, hype, or overstate what we may or may not do.” With bewildering oddities and releases of this high a quality, though, hype may inevitably follow in their wake.