". . . music can be a bridge for expanding your vision of the world."
Does the field of ethnomusicology need its punks? For many musicians and creative artists of my generation, the spirit of “punk rock” has as much to do with independence and self-reliance as it does with a particular musical style or styles. “Get away from those money people and do it yourself!” is what the late great pianist Connie Crothers told me in her interview for my book Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz, and for decades, musicians from a wide range of genres, including avant-garde jazz, new age, electronica, and contemporary classical a.k.a. “indie-classical,” have embraced a defiant, yet industrious “punk” attitude in how they engage and do business with the world at large. Jazz masters Charles Mingus and Betty Carter both had their own labels, and certainly did their best to retain control of their music for throughout their careers. Former Black Flag lead singer Henry Rollins used to sell photocopied chapbooks of his writing at gigs and eventually created his own publishing company, 2.13.61 Publications.
So the spirit of punk is a positive thing. But what happens when that same spirit impacts how you explore cultures outside of your own experience and share what you discover with the world? Consider the Seattle-based record label Sublime Frequencies. Created in 2003 by brothers Richard and Alan Bishop (who, along with the late Charlie Gocher, founded the completely unclassifiable “punk” band Sun City Girls) and Hisham Mayet, Sublime Frequencies was established as a means of releasing recordings the three had brought back from their journeys to Java, Bali, and Sumatra. The first Sublime Frequencies releases, Radio Java, Night Recordings From Bali, and Folk and Pop Sounds of Sumatra Vol. 1, were a startling blend of field recordings, recordings captured off Indonesian radio broadcasts, and tracks from cassettes sold by street vendors, which typically provided little or no information about the music on tape. Sublime Frequencies willfully eschewed copious liner notes and sometimes musician credits, and cultivated a collage-like aesthetic in the programming and packaging of ethnic musics. Compared to the established methodologies of ethno-musicological research, the label could come across like the Sex Pistols crashing an Emerson, Lake & Palmer concert. As Alan Bishop put it in a 2004 interview in The Wire magazine:
“You don’t have to go to school to learn how to record, or learn how to interpret a foreign culture, or bring it back to spin for someone. You don’t need to have 500 microphones, you don’t need to gather up these people for recording sessions and pay them 1,000 dollars apiece. As far as I’m concerned, it’s open season, and you record what you want to record.”
However, in the past decade, despite its “outsider” status, the label has attracted a great deal of interest from the academic community. The Sublime Frequencies catalog has grown to become an important, unique archive of hard-to-find, and occasionally bizarre music from across Western Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Meanwhile, indie-rock and experimental music fans have embraced several Sublime Frequencies artists such as Syrian singer Omar Soulyeman, who gained wider, international exposure after his music was released on the label. Punk Ethnography: Artists & Scholars Listen to Sublime Frequencies (Wesleyan University Press) is a brand new collection of essays and interviews that addresses several critical issues surrounding the Sublime Frequencies label, including thorny questions of appropriation and intellectual property, and provides a helpful historical and political context for some of the label’s most popular releases. Edited by Michael Veal and E. Tammy Kim, the book is a thoroughly engaging survey and analysis of the label’s legacy and its future. It is also a very timely read, given the current climate of isolationism, racism, and anti-intellectualism here in the U.S. and many other parts of the world. I am proud to be among the many artists interviewed in the book.
I’ve been a big fan of Veal’s writing ever since I read his book Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae. In addition to being a professor of ethnomusicology at Yale, he is also a superb bassist and soprano saxophonist, and performs regularly with his Afrobeat ensemble Aqua Ife. Kim, a former social justice lawyer and staff writer at Al Jazeera America, is now a member of The New Yorker’s editorial staff. Her writing is undeniably powerful and politically astute. I have learned much more about the world, particularly the politics, history, and social structures of North and South Korea, as a result of following her work.
This interview took place by phone and has been edited just slightly for clarity and length.
Michael Veal: The project grew out of a graduate seminar I taught at Yale. We covered the whole history of ethnographic recording, and the end of the semester was devoted to Sublime Frequencies. Five or six students wrote final papers having to do with Sublime Frequencies, but those students were not ethnomusicology students by any definition. They were music theorists and music historians, and they had minimal exposure to world music and the different genres and instruments, much less the critical issues associated with ethnomusicology. (Some of these students ended up contributing essays to Punk Ethnography.) Later, we put together a panel for the Society for Ethnomusicology conference, around 2011 I think, and most of those students participated in it. Before that, in 2010, I reached out to Tammy, who could bring a sort of journalistic angle to the project. Once Tammy was on board, we started to come up with ideas to broaden the thematic palette of the collection.
So the impetus for the book was the essays by your students who were not ethnomusicologists and their responses in their essays to Sublime Frequencies?
MV: The course was a catalyst for a discussion of Sublime Frequencies. The final essays were a catalyst for the panel at the conference. It was the panel, which by the way was attended by Mark Gergis (a frequent contributor to the Sublime Frequencies catalog), he just showed up and surprised us, that was the catalyst for the book. So the project was something that developed its own momentum over time.
One thing that distinguishes the label, which may be one of its strengths, is its lack of documentation, and a sort of “punk rock” attitude toward ethnographic recording, which has helped it to grab the very listeners you describe.
MV: A lot of the constituencies of people who buy Sublime Frequencies’ products are, generally speaking, not familiar with the industry of ethnographic recording. Their entrée into that whole world is via Sublime Frequencies. So Tammy and I are bringing a critical angle to lead them back into the history of ethnographic recording, and show how Sublime Frequencies represented a very crucial and helpful intervention in that history, but also to make them accountable to that history.
E. Tammy Kim: The methodology of older world-music labels like Nonesuch and Smithsonian Folkways is orthodox. So when you talk about the paucity of liner notes, descriptions and background information, that’s definitely one thing Sublime Frequencies has been repeatedly criticized for, and something we deal with in the book. It’s also about who is undertaking the research. With Sublime Frequencies, the people we call “recordists,” who they have hired or collaborated with to go and get this music, only a sliver of them are professional ethnomusicologists. Like Laurent Jeanneau’s recordings for them are very much in the traditional framework of ethnomusicology.
The reason we invoke this term “punk” in the book is there is a little bit of a cavalier attitude in the way Sublime Frequencies is acquiring and presenting these musics, but that also leads to a situation where you get a lot of amazing stuff. One of the things we talk about in the introduction is that Sublime Frequencies has had an oppositional attitude toward traditional ethnomusicology and anthropology, sort of making fun of it, right? But as Michael and other people have pointed out, there is also a lot to be gained from using those professional methodologies.
Is Sublime Frequencies bringing something to the table that no other label was or is bringing to the table, in terms of music and the stuff that its finding and bringing to people’s attention?
MV: The history of ethnomusicology, from its beginnings until very recently, has been by defined by a preservationist agenda, scholars who were trying to document cultures that they saw as in danger because of urbanization and industrialization. So the impetus has really been documenting local, traditional indigenous cultures. And one byproduct of that is, historically, ethnomusicologists have been very dismissive and sometimes hostile to any musical traditions that betray a history of cultural interaction or borrowing, hybridity, or synthesis. They really wanted to document the pure forms, you know? Some of this comes out of the European understandings of culture that were extant around the turn of the last century, ideas of cultural purity and all of that. But whether we are talking about the European context or the American context, it’s been very much about documenting so-called indigenous cultures. In reality, no cultures are pure. They all evolve through a process of interaction with other cultures. But using a narrow historical window, some cultures seem to be less dramatically affected by interaction than others.
Here in the United States, what we call ethnomusicology grew out of cultural anthropology and folklore. The folklorists were documenting rural, Native American, and African-American musics and to a lesser extent, the music of European immigrants throughout the United States. But the whole history of pop music and experimental music was pretty much off the map until the 1970s. John Chernoff’s book African Rhythm and African Sensibility, which is about traditional drumming in Ghana, still gives a substantial nod to the popular music traditions of Ghana and Nigeria. It really was the Africanists within ethnomusicology who began to push the agenda of popular music precisely because many of them had been involved in the study of African-American music here in the United States. People like Christopher Waterman came out of a jazz background. Charles Keil, who wrote Urban Blues, comes from a blues background. . . . That’s really an American thing, which is obvious, because this is the place where popular music as a phenomenon really developed. But still, it was a really small, niche category within ethnomusicology.
So these guys from Sublime Frequencies came in from a completely different angle. They were punk and indie musicians, and they were music collectors, and they just initially wanted to find a way to share cool things they liked with other people. And they found a way to monetize it. So that kind of brashness, what we refer to as their “punk” attitude was actually something that needed to happen within ethnomusicology. The purist ideology needed to be shaken up. But, at the same time, you have to take them to task, because we live in a country with a history of cultural isolationism, and some of the motivations or cultural attitudes underlying Sublime Frequencies reflect that, the fact that they didn’t feel that they needed to reconcile themselves with the methodologies of ethnomusicology. There are problems with that, because you don’t feel accountable to these cultures in the way ethnomusicologists have really been emphasizing. You could also extend it a little further and say it reflects certain trends in anti-intellectualism that have evolved in this country in the past two decades, the idea that we are opposed to all of that intellectual stuff and academic stuff, we just want to go after the raw sensation. That’s also very problematic. Tammy and I see both the positive and negative aspects of Sublime Frequencies' intervention.
Have you heard anything from Sublime Frequencies about your book?
TK: They have been aware there is a lot of academic interest in what they’re doing. We did reprint some interviews with Alan Bishop, Hisham Mayet, and some of the Sublime Frequencies recordists in the book. But they did not want to participate. We sent a book to them, but we haven’t heard anything.
This might be a good segue into talking about Tammy’s essay in the book, "Noraebang with the Dear Leader: Sublime Frequencies’ Radio Pyongyang." If I’m understanding your conclusion in the essay, the producer’s use of collage and lack of editorializing about the sound material has the potential to stimulate an open-minded listener to hear that music with fresh ears and perhaps reconsider his or her own ideas and prejudices about North Korea. Am I correct, or am I oversimplifying your thesis?
TK: I think that’s fair, and that is a theme that is woven throughout the book. I would say that Radio Pyongyang is one of their least collaged releases. They play a lot of the tracks almost all the way through. The sonic layering is a little more even than in their other “radio” albums.
But yes, especially in 2005, when Radio Pyongyang was released, there was really very little North Korean music available to the West. Now, there’s much more. So it is great to just have, on this recording, these direct products coming out of North Korea that you can encounter without it being super-mediated. Of course, it’s not direct, because the music was captured on short wave radio outside of North Korea, so it’s kind of interesting to think about how radio circulates in that regard. But we can trust that North Korean pop collectives produced the tracks on this release. And I do think it’s a useful listening exercise. We talk about the “axis of evil,” which is, of course, something we had to deal with under the Bush administration, the demonization of entire cultures and geographies and peoples. And Sublime Frequencies was intent, perhaps implicitly, on bringing those musics to us. I think we can be grateful to that.
Your reaction to this recording was very different than that of your parents. You write they found the album “jarring and repulsive.”
TK: You find that strong reaction in a lot of people emigrating from geographies where there were totalitarian regimes. They will be hostile toward second-generation approaches. The recording was more of a surprise to my parents, to have these cultural artifacts considered as “art.” “Why would you even be interested in that? Why is this music circulating?” Somebody who speaks in Korean or Arabic or Thai will obviously have a different reaction to these “radio” releases than somebody who is just listening at a pure sonic level.
When I first the recording, before reading your essay, it was more like an otherworldly experience, you know? The music, to my ears, had these qualities of isolationism, propaganda, etc. But maybe I’m bringing some baggage to my listening. You mention “humanizing” North Korea in your essay, and I wonder, is that possible to do for your parents or other people who those similar histories and experiences?
TK: It's interesting to ask what role these lesser-heard musics can play . . . people who have a lot of preconceived notions about North Korea will just hear Radio Pyongyang and go, “Oh, it’s so dated. It’s so ugly. It’s all so frenetic, and “neon” sounding . . .” Maybe they won’t be able to get past that. But, if a listener takes a step back, and evaluates the recording on musical terms, they might be able to hear through the martial music and the 1950s synth-styled stuff . . . the recording invites that. I don’t know if it will always achieve that if people coming to the music have a lot of baggage. But at least it gives that opportunity.
MV: Definitely implicit in the whole idea of the book and the collection of essays is the desire to humanize some of these populations which have been demonized in American culture over the last few decades. When you take these representations of culture and present them to an unfamiliar audience, without any contextualization, one of the things you are doing is objectifying that culture through sound. We wanted to use the book to work against that, not only by providing information and context, but also as a way of putting a human face and a human history to these sounds. If we can understand the human experiences behind these sounds, we can counteract the broad-scale demonization that has been so prominent in recent years.
In my essay about Niger and the Western Sahara (“Dry Spell Blues: Sublime Frequencies Across the West African Sahel”), I tried to resolve it into the question of resources. Some of what those people are singing about relates directly to the resource politics of their area, whether it’s uranium or petroleum or precious metals or whatever. That’s the whole story of the African continent. Everyone is so enamored with African music. People love dancing to it, it sounds enjoyable and communal and sometimes romantic to them. But most listeners are completely ignorant about the context that’s giving life to these sounds. Some of these politics are being sung about in the lyrics.
So you can love the music, but the music can be a bridge for expanding your vision of the world.
TK: I totally agree with Michael. Sublime Frequencies’ retort to that criticism of their lack of liner notes is, "We have trust in our listeners. We can just present this music, and they will take it and they will have an experience with it. And so we don’t need all of this text and all of this explanatory stuff to cloud that sensual experience." That’s the tension and the debate that we try to unpack in the book.
MV: In all fairness to Sublime Frequencies, their concerns are ultimately not different from our concerns. They have their own strategy for humanizing these populations. It’s not as if they are unaware of the cultural and political ramifications of what they’re doing. In fact, in some of the interviews included in the collection, they speak directly to those political realities. At the end of the day, what Tammy and I have done is more of a continuum. It’s not really oppositional.
How do view Sublime Frequencies and your book in relation to our country’s current political landscape?
TK: Oh, God. It’s so bleak now . . .
MV: It’s a positive thing! To take it from the perspective of Sublime Frequencies, the fact that Americans can know that there are electric guitar traditions being developed in Western Africa or the Sahara desert, or that the slide or pedal steel guitar, which factors in our country's music in a very conservative social category, is a key element of Bollywood film music. And drum machine, hip-hop-sounding music is being produced in the Muslim world. So, already, those are very provocative statements that counteract the dominant stereotypes many Americans have of those places. I think the book augments that by providing more historical and critical context and more sonic analysis. I’m proud of the book. I’m glad that it came out precisely at this moment.
TK: On one analysis of our current political situation, this is the logical conclusion of a lot of things that have been swirling for some time. That doesn’t make it any easier, or kinder. But we’ve always envisioned this book as an artistic and political project that is speaking to some of these concerns. I agree with Michael. The book is a direct striking back against the kind of exceptionalism and isolationism that leads to the election of somebody like . . . I can barely say his name. We are after something more open-minded and cosmopolitan and humble in the ways we think about music and culture.
Tammy, when you said “humble,” I thought of how vast the Sublime Frequencies catalog is. I thought of the punk rock spirit, and how that aggressive attitude has fueled the label’s mission. There’s something to that, to kicking against the oppressive climate of our time.
TK: All I mean by “humble” is a way of thinking that is more internationalist and can lead to a useful kind of humility. Certainly the project of Sublime Frequencies is anything but humble. [laughs] It’s incredibly ambitious and wide-ranging.
MV: Their achievement is incredible, the amount of music they have documented and brought to the attention of the wider world . . . I think their contribution is enormous.
So, do we need our punk rockers? We can’t really do without them, right?
MV: Yeah. They have the attitude to go against established methodologies, rules, and procedures. And Sublime Frequencies has put together this massive archive of musical sound. Tammy and I are just sprinkling the critical perspective on top of that.
What’s next for the book? Are there any readings, concert events, or panel discussions coming up?
TK: In February 2017, we’re going to have an event in Chicago at Corbett vs. Dempsey.
MV: Collections have a different trajectory than solo-authored books. The impact, generally speaking, tends to be slower and more long-term. I just came from the Society for Ethnomusicology annual meeting, and the publisher prominently displayed our book there. Usually at these conferences, they just have one or two copies of a book for people to peruse, and then they have to order the book. But we encouraged them to have a lot of copies on hand for sale, and they did, and it sold out. I think whatever momentum the book generates will take place over time as word gets out, because it’s a hodgepodge. . . . a well-orchestrated hodgepodge. Probably Sublime Frequencies’ listeners will be drawn to it and ethnomusicology students and professors will be drawn to it . . . The book can be used in courses, while listeners can use it to enrich their experience of the recordings. And of course, for creative people like you, who have been listening to and are inspired by Sublime Frequencies recordings, hopefully it will be potent in that context as well.
"Sublime Frequencies and Other Distortions: Readings from the new book Punk Ethnography" takes place Wednesday, December 7, 2016, 6:30 - 8:30 p.m. at Dillon + Lee, located at 487 West 22 St., NYC, 10011. RSVP at firstname.lastname@example.org. Space is limited. $5 at door.