It appears that Alan Bishop is doing a marvelous job of turning himself from a guitarist in an avant-garde rock band (Sun City Girls) into a 21st-century Alan Lomax. Every few months, another batch of new releases issues forth from his Sublime Frequencies label, and every time that happens, a window is opened into faraway corners of the world.
Except that, unlike Lomax, Rich seems to be completely unconcerned with documenting anything other than a particular country's place in time right now, with the help of a "collective of explorers" who gather up musical bits from all over. Thus, all of the Sublime Frequencies discs are imbued with a trashy immediacy that's as much fuzz guitars and crappy keyboards as it is plastic bags and dirty streets. There's no delicacy or preciousness to these releases, nor is there any pretense of cultural comprehensiveness; each disc is just an explosively loud snapshot of the real sounds of the streets. And they're completely incredible.
The most recent clutch of discs lives up to SF's high standards of low tourism. The no-budget documentary DVD filmed just eight months ago in Niger is a stunning piece of seat-of-the-pants filmmaking that's as much about music as it is about the wrenching poverty that's rampant in that country; but it's also funny.
Politics obviously get tied up in some of these releases, but not in the way that you might think. Radio Pyongyang is filled with snippets of music so saccharine and catchy (and, yes, bizarrely funky) that it's impossible to believe how much of it is propaganda. On the other hand, the music found on the Iraq disc is seemingly fraught with political import ("Oh Mother, the Handsome Man Tortures Me"), yet the disc is giddy and good fun, containing multiple styles of Iraqi music: choubi, bezikh, basta and, of course, "socialist folk-rock."
It's the twangy garage-pop blast of Guitars of the Golden Triangle that's the most amazing of these four releases. The disc beautifully demonstrates the unusual pleasures that can be drawn from listening to the translation of rock & roll into a local dialect. When a performer like Lashio Thien Aung actually deserves a nickname like "The Burmese Texan," you know you're in for something good.
Guitars of the Golden Triangle: Folk and Pop Music of Myanmar, Vol. 2
Choubi Choubi! Folk and Pop Sounds from Iraq
Radio Pyongyang: Commie Funk and Agit Pop from the Hermit Kingdom
Niger: Magic & Ecstasy in the Sahel DVD