Chances are that Blastitude regulars will already know about the SUBLIME FREQUENCIES imprint. For those who have yet to hear, it is a CD and DVD label spearheaded by Alan Bishop of the Sun City Girls with help from some of the usual unusual suspects. This new endeavor was referred to, ever-obliquely, in last issue's conversation with Dylan Nyoukis: "I keep having wheezing flatliner bozos muttering in my ear about the 100's of hours of film that SCG have made, what gives?" "We're gonna be flippin' DVDs like frisbees right quick now and I'll be damned if every hackysack fuckstick won't be inside watchin', it's better than a noose around the neck." "Hell, I just hope you stay true to betamax, Brother Ape."

I think we all assumed he meant they'd be frisbee-flippin' DVDs of the Sun City Girls performing, such as perhaps a reissue of the absolutely essential Cloaven Theatre VHS release, but no, Sublime Frequencies is an outlet for the massive amounts of audio and video the Bishops and crew have accumulated not as performers, but as world travelling ethnomusicologists. That word may make ya smart a little, Elizabeth, but we're all ethnomusicologists, so let 'er rip. Especially when this is your mission statement: "SUBLIME FREQUENCIES is a collective of explorers dedicated to 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."

Pretty much says it all, right? And in fact, one of the best things about this label is the way that it removes explanation and agenda and authority so that the music and culture can stand alone. Each release comes with a few introductory paragraphs and bare-bones song/artist/style track listings, but that's about it, because Bishop and co. know that you can explain things until you're blue in the face but you'll still never see the whole picture, and who needs to, when the human imagination has so much fun filling in the rest . . . . and with that I turn it over to Brother Bishop: "There are so many different cultures spread-out on these islands, that it would take several lifetimes to experience them all properly." . . . . . "Music thought NOT to exist is EVERYWHERE!" . . . . "As you know, we are not experts at this....there ARE no experts at anything. This music and sound/cultural phenomenon is NOT science and it cannot be captured or owned. It is interactive and its traditions are NOT sacred or defineable. These people ARE us. There is no separation other than the cancer of misunderstanding and categorization so malevolently put in place by the ruling elite in order to control thought and behavior." (most Alan Bishop quotes on this page come from this feature on the excellent Pataphysics Research Lab website)




To which I can only add three words (one in all-caps): "Right Motherfucking ON." And to hear and see some prime "sound/cultural phenomenon" that "cannot be captured or owned" and that is "NOT sacred or defineable," go no further than the Nat Pwe: Burma's Carnival of Spirit Soul DVD. One of its opening shots seems to encapsulate this thesis, a closeup of a mirror slowly spinning in a crowded marketplace, reflecting ever-changing blurred visions. I think it's the definitive release of the label. (It's also the one I checked out first, so that might have something to do with it.)

As for the back story, Burmese tradition recognizes a pantheon of 37 Nats, mythical figures that are a combination of ghost and deity. A Pwe is "a ceremony held to appease a Nat." The Nat Pwe festival documented on this DVD happens once a year in the Burmese village of Taungbyone, and the scope of the activity is almost impossible to do justice in a review like this one, although here is one sentence from the liner essay: "There are dozens of venues with ceremony, music, and dance happening simultaneously for an exhausting two days without interruption, all taking place in a maze of bamboo shelters constructed as a small, narrow-alley village for the purpose of this six day gathering."

Just to give you a taste, I'll add that the "ceremony, music, and dance" involve things like makeshift golden byzantine altars, marathon-dancing cross-dressers and transvestites gulping whiskey, money literally being thrown around, women singing / toasting / emceeing through booming portable sound-systems, and people of all shapes, sizes, genders, and ages getting WILD. All of this was also alluded to in last issue's conversation, thusly: "72 hours non-stop multiplied by the 60 simultaneous venues, thats what? 4500 hours of the greatest show on earth? Who's gonna read this?" "A handful of pot smoking grongos." "I should shut up. I only saw 3 white people there last year!" I had no idea what they were talking about then (except for the part about "pot smoking grongos") but now here's the DVD to give anyone a view. It should be noted that Rick Bishop is the sole camera operator credited, and he does a stunning job of becoming that pair of eyes you wish you had on every road trip you've ever taken.

  The other DVD released by Sublime Frequencies so far is called Jemaa El Fna, Morocco's Rendezvous of the Dead: Night Music of Marrakech, and it's a more low-key affair. The Nat Pwe is a daytime riot of color sound and motion, while the Jemaa El Fna is a late-night town-square jam session, in the remote mountain pass city of Marrakesh. The crowd is smaller and the spectacle is muted, and initially the audio portion is more exciting than the visual, but the images sneak up on you and become unforgettable. For example, I didn't know that they wore and played fiddles like guitars in Marrakesh, but now I do. There's also a totally fucked-up sequence in which a DJ plays records that literally look and sound like they were made in the 1700's (B.C., that is). There's also a great jam session in which a dapper blind man sits in a chair and jams on fiddle (he kinda looks like Uncle Jim!) while a stylish 20-something in a designer sweater and necklace (he looks like he could be talking on a cell phone in Brooklyn) jams on hand drum while a very expressive young girl (could this be three generations from one family?) steals the show as emcee, lead vocalist, and dancer.

And then there's the CDs. Yep, a lot of product, and Sublime Frequencies has no intention of slowing down, with talk of "20 or more titles after a year or so." Three discs so far, and they are all simply very, very good. My favorite is probably Folk and Pop Sounds of Sumatra Vol. 1 (SF001), which was assembled "from old cassette tapes received as gifts, in trade, or purchased from sources in Sumatra in 1989." Again there isn't a whole lot of information given, although you can learn that the island of Sumatra is roughly the size of California, and that it contains at least as much musical variety, which is suggested by the track listing's inclusion of "music style" for each number . . . any of y'all familiar with the Haroan Boru, Sumatran Dangdut, Tapanuli, Orkes Melayu Asli, and Saluang Dangdut styles? And really, when a song is as beautiful as "Indang Pariaman" by Samsimar, does it even matter? Seriously, you've gotta hear this one, 1980s pop rock production supporting the classic Southeast Asian female pop rock vocal style as she duels with a tranced-out wood flute part -- or is it a keyboard setting? Some say the SCG have done a cover version of this song. I don't think I've heard it, but I do know their song "Borungku Si Derita," from the double 7-inch of the same title (Majora, 1993), and this disc contains the rather glorious original version, as performed by the Marios Group.

Which brings me to my next point: not only is everything thus far in the Sublime Frequencies catalog as good as any of the classics I've heard from labels like Nonesuch, but they also have special interest for the Sun City Girls aficionado. Here I've spent all these years speculating about the SCG's music -- is it traditional? is it appropriation? is it a cover? an homage? is it in Esperanto? -- and now it's almost like they've handed me the goddamn fakebook. For example, on Night Recordings from BALI (SF003), there are sections where dervishes speak in tongues over gamelan chime that could come right off of Flute and Mask, as well as sounding like the roots of certain aspects of the SCG's Cloaven Theatre style. Explicit Cloaven roots are also revealed by the "Drama" style, as represented by a few unsettling examples on both the Sumatra disc and the Radio Java disc.

Radio Java (SF002), "a combination of random radio excerpts sequenced in collage form and assembled in the summer of 1989," is as dazzling and colorful and all over the place as the Sumatra disc, maybe more so. A lot of similar styles are on display ("from Dangdut and Keroncong to Hard Rock and Disco") but Java adds disc jockeys and commercials and general high-energy radio madness to the mix. The BALI disc is to these two as the Jemaa El Fna DVD is to the Nat Pwe DVD -- a more chilled-out and late-night affair, although not being able to see who's making the sounds makes it a little spookier too.

Then there's the self-titled Neung Phak (Mono Pause) CD. It's not on Sublime Frequencies, it's on Abduction, the longer-running in-house SCG label. It's still appropriate to include it here, because if the Sublime Frequencies lineup could be considered the syllabus for a fascinating course on musics of Southeast Asia, then Neung Phak would be the final class project. It would easily get an A, but my first impression was that, out of all these wallet-bombingly essential releases, it was the last one to get. Listening to their flawless renditions of Southeast Asian pop music (the credits say "All Music Written By NEUNG PHAK (Except 2-11 and 15)," and that's out of 15 tracks), I just couldn't help but want to use words like "appropriation" and "kitsch" -- and it's not the appropriation that bothers me, it's the kitsch, that big-city art-school knowingness that makes the style like a knick-knack or a gewgaw rather than something deeply felt. The Sun City Girls, perhaps because they stayed in the desert for so long, have always managed to avoid being kitschy. Even on Midnight Cowboys at Ipanema they avoid being kitschy. Even while being kitschy they avoid being kitschy.

But the more I listen to Neung Phak, the more I have to admit that these people are just plain REALLY GOOD. They sound like the best session players from the top film orchestra in [fill in any one of the 5-7 appropriate Pan-Asian nations here]. They're sort of like the Sun City Girls Orchestra or the Sun City Girls Big Band, and Alan Bishop does sing on this album, contributing some of his most delectable torch-singing yet to the song "Low Tide." (Don't let that "Aye Chan Nyein" credit fool you, and I'd keep a close eye on this "Hitman Kong Thep" character that appears on track fourteen, "Morlam Pee Bah," and makes it such a 12-minute tour de force in the aforementioned 'theater' style.) Really, these folks have put an untold amount of time and study in this -- their track listing actually uses the Asian alphabet. You can appropriate all you want if you do it this well.


And now, a bonus Sun City Girls review!

SUN CITY GIRLS: Bleach Has Feelings Too/To Cover Up Your Right To Live 2LP (ECLIPSE)
Well, already with the 2nd installment, the SCG are saying "Whoah, fans and friends, let's not take this 'all the cassettes being reissued on vinyl' thing TOO seriously. We're not gonna make it THAT easy for ya . . ." The diehards among us, as much as we loved that handsome God Is My Solar System / Superpower 2LP, were already noticing some discrepancies when compared to the original cassette track listings . . . and besides, how do ya reissue a C90 on one vinyl LP anyway? Well this one makes it even more plain -- right on the label of side C it says, handwritten, "completists -- give up now -- I'll not allow it! -- me," and "By the way, these LPs have additions/deletions." And the sounds could put off a few collector-types as well -- after two listens to the first rec, the one representing the Bleach Has Feelings Too CS, I'd say there's about 3 minutes of actual music on the whole thing! The rest is crudely edited radio collages, live radio interviews, prank phone calls, and porno, porno, porno! (For the record, the 3 minutes of actual music is REALLY GOOD.) To Cover Up Your Right To Live has more music, but it's no-rehearsal (?) cover-band irreverence in the style of Midnight Cowboys, which could also leave some peripheral listeners feeling a bit alienated. So this is the "difficult" second album in the series. I love it, and it makes #1 in the series (you know, God Is My Solar System/Superpower) look even better. As with that installment, Eclipse Records has put together a very handsome package with wonderful photos and more memorable liner notes. But as a reissue, it just makes me want the original cassettes more.