Music from Forbidden Kingdoms

When I first moved to New York some fifteen years ago, I spent a lot of time (and even more money) buying records at Mondo Kim’s on St. Marks and Other Music on East 4th. Among the things I stumbled across at those shops and got addicted to was music released by a label called Sublime Frequencies, which plumbed the most obscure corners of Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa for classic and contemporary pop music. Being the fiend I am for old music from Asia, it was a foregone conclusion that collections of 50s-80s pop music from places like Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, and so forth were going to delight me. But what was even more interesting than those were the collections of music from countries that have been traditionally off-limits to most Americans — Myanmar, Shan Province, North Korea — or are struggling to emerge from decades of oppression and violence, like Cambodia. So I thought, even though we want to take the full Sublime Frequencies tour, we’d start in those mysterious, forbidden corners of Asia.

Radio Phnom Penh

Radio Phnom Penh is exactly what the title suggests. Imagine sitting at some streetside food stall while the sounds of Cambodian radio pour out of some tinny old speaker from an apartment a couple floors up. There’s a lot of great old music on here, some early rock-pop, some more loungy stuff like you’d hear in a dimly lit nightclub circa 1963. Some of the songs are more recent remixes, but many are the pure old gold, with radio announcements in between to complete the atmosphere. Most of it is similar to what you’d expect from any Asian country’s music at the time — Western style mixed with decidedly unique local flavor and folk tendencies to create something wonderful and unique.

Of the remixes, many are reworkings of pre-Khmer Rouge songs. During that era, Cambodia had a thriving music scene, as did most countries in Asia. But during the Kampuchia years, artists, musicians, and other intellectuals were slaughtered en masse. All that remained of them were scratchy 45s and 8-tracks that had trickled over the border into Thailand. The remixes are a way for modern Cambodians, emerging from decades of isolation and oppression and still faced with the daunting task of rebuilding themselves, to pay homage to the vanished artists of pre-Pol Pot Cambodia while, at the same time, reflecting modern tastes. As is the case with many Sublime Frequencies releases — and especially with their radio waves surveys (they’ve done similar releases for India, Sumatra, Palestine, Thailand, Morocco, and Java, among others) — the sheer variety of what’s offered makes for an indescribably and completely immersing listening experience. It’s no replacement for going to Cambodia yourself, but until you can afford that ticket overseas, Radio Phnom Penh is an excellent way to lose yourself on the streets of Cambodia.

Princess Nicotine: Folk and Pop Music of Myanmar

This CD reflect the contents of a long out-of-print LP that collected together some amazing and rare music from assorted Burmese 45s and cassettes collected by Sublime Frequencies’ main mover, Alan Bishop. It explores the musical legacy of a country that has, as a result of brutal dictatorship, been by and large a big blank mystery spot in the world. Where as Cambodia is emerging from its shadow, Myanmar/Burma is still struggling with censorship, political imprisonment, and the other things that keep a country struggling. Princess Nicotine gives us a glimpse into the Burmese music scene circa the 60s and 70s, which means it’s a more eclectic mix than the usual “Rough Guide” collection of folk standards.

The guiding principle behind Bishop’s work with Sublime Frequencies is that the music should speak for itself — that neither he nor his label should impose any sort of anthropological “authority” on a person’s reaction; and also, that it is the pop and everyman music that truly reflects a place, and not the so-called “important” tracks selected by other archival labels. Such material, while worthwhile, is hardly reflective of the “man in the street,” no more so than, say, a recording of Roman Catholic masses would be reflective of the common musical and cultural tastes of the average Italian. So, while religious music is definitely represented in the Sublime Frequencies collections, it is by and large the religious as pop culture — the religious music of the everyday rather than museum-sanctioned performers who put on shows specifically for archivists and other musical anthropologists.

Princess Nicotine is largely folk- and tradition-oriented. There are some cocktail hour songs, showcasing the blending of Western style nightclub music with Burmese traditional instruments and delivery so that you can imagine you’re sitting in your smart suit and tie watching some Burmese band in a candle-lit open-air lounge or some jungle bar. Other songs have a more Indian flavor to them, which makes since seeing as the countries share a tightly-guarded border. In fact, much of the music seems an amalgamation of influences from the insular country’s neighbors. As a result, you will hear elements of Chinese festival music (bang those cymbals!), those shrieking horns that make Muay Tai fighters dance and knee each other in the face, Malay gamelan rhythm, and other styles that are blended into a gigantic and unique swirl that is far too varied and eclectic to accurately reflect via my labored and largely incompetent attempts to write about it.

Guitars of the Golden Triangle

Guitars of the Golden Triangle is Sublime Frequencies’ second trip to the isolationist South Asian country that sometimes calls itself Myanmar, and as you world expect from the title of this collection, the focus this time is much more on sixties-style rock influenced by The Beatles and the English freakbeat scene, much less on traditional folk music. Most of the songs are culled from the country’s expansive Shan State, a wild and somewhat anarchic region that was, for many decades in rebellion both open and covert against the central Burmese dictatorship.

I first became more familiar with Shan through the superb book Chasing the Dragon, detailing the adventures of a journalist as he hiked in from across the Thai border in hopes of interviewing the shadowy Khun Sa, nominal overloard of the Shan State and one of the biggest heroin manufacturers in the world. In his own eyes, narcotics were a way to finance the rebellion against Myanmar and set up an independent Shan State, which would then phase drug production out of its economic future. Shan is also home to some world-class headhunters, a few cannibals, trigger happy rebels and government troops, occasional Thai commando squads, and plenty of regular ol’ folks just trying to get by. Guitars of the Golden Triangle is the perfect soundtrack for the book, but even if you skip the literature, the CD is still magnificent.

This collection of garage and psychedelic rock, raw folk blues ballads, and country-western style music hails from the early 1970s and are rare even in Burma owing to Shan’s fierce independence and sense of identity a something apart from the rest of Burma. Some of the recordings are extremely rudimentary, and the sound quality on a few tracks suffers due to battered source materials (if you think you’re going to find pristine master tapes — or any master tapes — of Shan acid rock, you’re going to be disappointed), but these are minor quibbles with what is otherwise one of the most impressive collections of Asian psych and garage rock ever put together. The ability of the people at Sublime Frequencies to consistently track down some of the most obscure music in the world and bring it to us astounds and delights me. Perfect music to accompany you as you travel the rivers and jungles of Thailand and Burma by boat, train, and foot en route to meet the world’s most notorious drug kingpin/celebrated emancipator of the people.

Radio Pyongyang: Commie Funk and Agit Pop from the Hermit Kingdom

Sublime Frequencies really outdid themselves when they assembled this collection of pop songs and, well, political rock operas, from North Korea when Kim Jung-il was still puttering around. If ever you thought to yourself that Freddie Mercury’s “Barcelona” project wasn’t theatrical or bombastic enough, then Radio Pyongyang is going to delight you. Fearless leader and god-emperor Kim Jung-il, himself an “accomplished” writer of operas, stage musicals, and movies, and a superior golfer (North Korean news items reported that Kim recently played his first ever round of golf, scoring a hole-in-one on fifteen of the eighteen holes), seemed to think soul-crushing tyranny and iron-fisted oppression went down much better if it was accompanied by operatic paeans to his own greatness, featuring soaring rock guitars, weird electronic space sounds, and, one assumes based on news agency photos, legions of dancers spinning and twirling with AK-47s. We can only hope Kim Jung-il’s son upholds this grand musical tradition.

Falling somewhere between the familiar Asian lite-pop strains of China and Korea and the overblown rock opera of Pink Floyd or Tommy, with plenty of traditional martial music and a dash of Korean folk thrown into the mix, Radio Pyongyang is damn near impossible to comprehend. This must be what it sounded like inside Kim Jung-il’s head, where jaunty synth-pop ballads co-existed next to military choirs belting out praise to Kim Jung-il. Say what you will about the wretchedly nightmarish North Korean regime, they sure know how to stage a musical number. It must be a skill they learned from neighboring China, who recognized that cute, AK-47 brandishing women in pigtails and “Army of the People’s Republic” hot pants are way better propaganda than some asshole in a striped shirt and straw hat playing “It’s a Grand Ol’ Flag” on the upright piano.

Assembled largely from intercepted radio and television transmissions (mostly in English), nothing here is subtle. Announcers gush on about how proud they are to have Kim Jung-il as their leader. North Korean chanteuses and pop divas mournfully pour out syrupy ballads about how great and perfect North Korea is. Narrators describe historic North Korean victories accompanied by a 70s groove that sounds like something Godzilla would have beat up a monster to, which then fades into a military chorus accompanied by, I kid you not, a circus-meets-prog rock extravaganza that would make even Rick Wakeman thing they should maybe tone thing down a bit. And no political propaganda musical production would be complete without a children’s chorus. The propaganda is so blinding, so over-the-top, so ridiculously outdated (even though it’s current) that one can hardly believe that such a thing still exists. And yet, here it is, in all its unabashed glory. Seems the crappier a country is doing, the more songs there are about how awesome that country is. Those “Proud to be an American” songs that Sean Hannity loves so much don’t even come close, though. Now if they’d been accompanied by a hundred Texas Guardsmen engaging in a snappy dance number…

Of course, one has to wonder why, if North Korea is so grand and the North Korean people feel a deep joy upon hearing this music, almost all the commentators and announcers are speaking English. One might even get the sneaking feeling that perhaps this whole thing is aimed more at the GIs on the border, because lord knows the hardened vets on the Korean borders will throw up their arms and surrender as soon as the fazer pedal gets pushed. “Oh no! Wah-wah guitars and a chorus of children? You win, North Korea! You win!”

As kitschy absurd as it all is, one can’t help but feel bad for the thinking people whoa re subjected to this endless stream of propagandistic pop insanity. There are still Koreans old enough to remember a time when the Kim boys weren’t the inventors of electricity, the first men on the moon, or the greatest golfers the world has ever seen, and hearing the constant exultation of the evil elf Kim Jung-il must have been a chore. At the same time, it’s hard not to be swept up into the swirling technicolor madness of the music. It’s not the sort of thing you might throw on for casual listening, but as an audio document of one of the most isolated countries in the world, it’s a real eye-opener. Just don’t fall asleep while listening to it, or you might wake up thinking to yourself, “Yes, Kim Jung-il was a great leader and true hero of the world. I shall now go and rent his excellent film, Pulgasari.”