Sublime Frequencies' Ethnopsychedelic Montages
Sublime Frequencies' Ethnopsychedelic Montages
Marcus Boon explores the healing of traditional music.
I am currently editing tapes of a Colombian Putumayo shaman named Santiago Mutumbajoy for a CD that Locust’s ethno-music label Latitude will be issuing in 2006. The tapes were recorded by my friend and teacher, anthropologist Michael Taussig, in the 1970s and 1980s, while doing fieldwork. Taussig travelled with Mutumbajoy as he moved around the Colombian Amazon conducting healing seances using the psychedelic vine potion yagé or ayahuasca (the same one that William S. Burroughs went off in search of in the 1950s). Taussig’s account of his travels, Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing, came out in the late 1980s. The book’s rich and complex descriptions of yagé sessions were one of the main reasons I went back to school. So it was a surprise when, after talking with Taussig, we found an old shoe box filled with cassettes, many of them still in good condition, made during Taussig’s time in Colombia.
These recordings are unusual for a number of reasons. Taussig, who lived and worked with Mutumbajoy for many years, holds him in high regard as a healer, and the recordings, which record Mutumbajoy’s singing, the swishing of curing fans, sounds of laughter as Mutumbajoy tells a joke, or someone staggers out of the room, ready to puke from the intense intoxication caused by the drug, are very warm, intimate and powerful, like listening to someone singing a lullaby in your ear. The escalation of the war in Colombia between the army, right wing militias, and left wing guerrillas has made travel in the Putumayo dangerous, so that it would be difficult, for a number of reasons, to make recordings like these today. The mono cassette recorder picked up a lot of ambient sound too, notably the shifting sounds of bird and insect life that mark the arrival of dusk and dawn, which give a remarkable feeling of presence to the recordings. Taussig himself was a participant in many of the yagé healing sessions, and used the cassettes to make notes on what’s going on, even when incapacitated by the potion. You can hear the slightly slurred voice of an anthropologist on the tape, speaking observations into the microphone, describing the scene, theorizing, often barely able to finish a sentence.
I recently interviewed musicians involved with Rat-Drifting records in Toronto, who spoke of their interest in music that was not made in order to be listened to (The Wire, Jan. 2006). Taussig’s tapes certainly fit that bill, at least if “listens to” means, “be consumed by the public in the form of performances or recordings which are to be distributed through public channels.” Occasionally you can hear public recordings, cumbia blasting on the radio, or from a jukebox in a bar, on the tapes. But the sound here has a ritual purpose: it is part of the shaman’s techniques for the work he or she does. And it is part of the anthropologist’s techniques for representing that work, for carrying out his or her own ritual, especially in a state of intoxication where any attempt at clear, objective representation would be even more impossible than it usually is. There is in fact a long association of drugs and recording - I think of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which, in the absence of any other notes, ends with a transcription of tape recordings supposedly made by Thompson, as he rampaged around Las Vegas, totally wasted. The fragmentation and/or transformation of consciousness by drugs is tracked and ordered by the linear passage of tape through recording device. But then the tapes can be cut up too, imitating the fragmentation.
If these recordings were made to allow remembrance of an event, as part of an anthropologist’s fieldwork, “raw data,” if you like, that would end up in a book, then Mutumbajoy’s singing itself should also be understood as something other than a performance, even that of a “healing ritual”. Taussig writes: “We all drank [the yage] and fell into a dreamy doze. About three-quarters of an hour later a tiny hum began. It grew louder to counterpose the wind from the forest and the river’s rush. Utterly absorbed and lost in itself, the song went on for a long time. The singer was old and tired. His voice was rough and low. He seemed lost in himself, singing for the sake of singing, the rite singing to itself in complete disregard of our presence or judgments. The room was quiet. People seemed to be asleep” (Shamanism, 438).
To play for yourself. To play for the spirits to make them come, which is what Indian raga musicians do. To play, as Cornelius Cardew did, for a revolution to come, for an imaginary audience, perhaps existing in the future, but for now hardly existing at all. To play for a tape machine, as Ngawang Sangdrol and 13 other Tibetan nuns in Drapchi prison did in the early 1990s, sending out a message to friends for sure, but also somehow finding a space or a moment in a prison to sing to a tape recorder, as many other people in many other empty rooms around the planet have done. There are many reasons to play, other than for an audience.
One of Taussig’s most important insights into Putumayo shamanism was his observation that contrary to clichés of the unity and homogeneity of ritual among traditional peoples, shamans in the Putumayo practice a kind of montage technique, using clicks, breaks, jokes and other methods to break through habit, conditioning, sickness, envy and the pervasive effects of colonial domination. When we think about montage, it’s usually thought of as a 20th century Western avant garde practice, a politically motivated attempt to destroy or rearrange a consensus, as practiced by John Heartfield, William Burroughs, or Cabaret Voltaire. In fact, Brion Gysin, developer of the cut up technique, claimed that he got the idea from a magical curse that was placed on him while he was running the 1001 Nights club in Tangier, Morocco. In Haitian voodoo, the word “break” (“casse”), familiar to us from hip hop, indicates the moment where spirit possession takes place. It makes sense that colonized people, for that matter poor people everywhere, working mainly within cultural systems put in place by dominators, or working with little by way of materials except for scraps and left overs, would use montage techniques, and discover some of the same powers in it that the 20th century avant garde did. We could say that montage is technical in the sense that Mircea Eliade defined shamanism in terms of “archaic techniques of ecstasy.” Or we could say, as Taussig does, that montage is part of the tools of shamanism precisely because colonization is already a modern phenomenon. The montage of the dadaists and the Putumayo shamans emerge from what Gaonkar has called “alternative modernities,” meaning equally but differently modern cultures which have appeared all around the world in the wake of Western imperialism.
One of the most interesting trends in contemporary music has been the fusion of these two kinds of montage - the “traditional” folk musical forms, with their various uses of appropriation and montage, and new technological means of creating montage effects, from turntablism, to laptop cut and paste and sampling, to the various techniques employed by the avant gardes. This fusion of ethnic and avant garde forms can be traced back as far back as the dadaists, who stole many of their techniques from traditional African arts, and then mixed them with print media; or the work of the minimalists, who mixed tape music with ethnomusicological theories and practices. Or Bob Dylan going electric, mixing Rimbaud with Appalachian folk song. Or Jamaican dub, itself a distorted echo of New Orleans music heard on far off radio stations across the Gulf of Mexico. Or hip hop, emerging out of the B-Boys’ taste for African polyrhythms purloined from old vinyl reshaped and engineered on turntables and mixers for block parties in the Bronx. More specifically, there is a range of performers and composers from around the world who have consciously worked to blur lines between traditional and contemporary methods of creating montage, making their montage in fact precisely by breaking the boundaries, cultural, disciplinary and otherwise, which appear to separate us and them. I am thinking of French ‘nomad’ musician Ghedalia Tazartes, Brigitte Fontaine’s work with Areski and the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Turkish composer Ilhan Mimaroglu as examples. Psychedelic rock also works in this way: Brazilian Tropicalistas like Os Mutantes, Germany’s Can, or Japan’s Acid Mother’s Temple are the most well known of these groups, but, as CD reissue programs by labels such as Shadoks are revealing, from Burma to Argentina, Morocco to Korea, there was hardly a place in the world that did not have its own explosion of psychedelic rock in the late 1960s and early 1970s - much of it superficially dependent on American or British models, but often incorporating both local instruments and musical techniques and a kind of pan-global vocabulary of African/blues riffs, glissandos, and drones from Indian raga music and other trance music styles and motifs. All of these musicians share an interest in breaking through consensus reality, producing a direct transformation of consciousness, either in the listener or performer, using jarring juxtapositions of traditional and experimental sounds and sound making techniques. I call this kind of music “ethnopsychedelic” in opposition to the kind of smooth fusions that so much world music aspires to - a music of strange jumps, juxtapositions and alliances that are not situated easily on either side of the modern/traditional divide.
Two of the most important precedents for ethnopsychedelia can be found in the work of Henry Flynt and Harry Smith. Philosopher, visual artist, economist and musician, Flynt was formally educated in the European classical tradition, but after exposure to various ethnic musics in the early 1960s, began pioneering his own mutant version of Country, Bluegrass and Blues. In his 1980 essay “The Meaning of My Avant-Garde Hillbilly and Blues Music”, Flynt spells out his shift of allegiances to what he calls “ethnic” or “folk” musics:
In all of my experimentation, I assert myself as an autochthon (colloquially, a “native” or “folk creature”) - siding with the emotional experience and the musical languages of the autochthonous communities…. For me, innovation doe not consist in composing European and academic music with inserted “folk” references. It consists in appropriating academic or technical devices and subordinating them to my purposes as a “folk creature.” (Flynt)
Although Flynt himself is dismissive of almost all music made after 1965, he defines the ethnopsychedelic situation very elegantly: allegiance to global folk cultures, appropriation of technologies and techniques from mainstream culture and, elsewhere in the essay, commitment “to a beauty which is ecstatic and perpetual, while at the same time being concretely human and emotionally profound.”
Harry Smith embodies so many of the signs of the ethnopsychedelic, it’s hard to know where to start. His magpie-like collector’s sensibility which ran from records to images to Ukrainian wooden eggs; his own ethnographic recordings of everything from the Kiowa Indians to the unissued Materials for the Study of Religion and Culture on the Lower East Side; his interest in drugs and the effects of drugs on creativity; his remarkable montage films such as Heaven and Earth Magic. However, it’s the work he’s most well known for, the Anthology of American Folk Music, that is most significant. Released in 1952, in three volumes, Smith’s anthology comprised 84 old recordings, and, as Greil Marcus writes in The Old Weird America, was “the founding document of the American folk revival” (87). But this was much more than a document. All compilations are montages in the sense that they are rearrangements, reconfigurations of a set of materials. Smith however went considerably further than this, designing the Anthology according to a scheme of alchemical colors, situating the recordings next to quotes from renaissance alchemist Robert Fludd and images of the Pythagorean monochord. “I felt social changes would result from it,” Smith commented. The montaged rearrangement of American folk music, juxtaposed with these quotes, as well as Smith’s bizarre mock tabloid notes to each song was aimed at a transformation of America, a calling into manifestation via montage of forces, identities, and events, repressed.
The most recent inheritors of Smith and Flynt’s practices, and that of ethnopsychedelia, are a group of musicians in Seattle working under the name of the Sun City Girls, who play and record, and also run a world music label, Sublime Frequencies. The term “world music,” or for that matter “world” is of course as fraught as “America” was in the time of Smith and now. “The equator runs through ten countries and I bet you can’t name all of them without looking at a map,” writes Sublime Frequencies co-founder Alan Bishop in his sleevenotes to Folk and Pop Sounds From Sumatra, Vol. 1, providing a clue as to the politics behind the extraordinary series of compilations and found sound collages that the label has been putting out over the two years, including music from Tibet, North Korea, Iraq, Syria, Morocco, Burma, and Palestine. At a time when the rest of the world is presented on American TV as a monstrous Lord of the Rings-like axis of evil/Mordor image, these compilations provide an antidote to rampant paranoia. As the press release for I Remember Syria states, “Syria is officially listed on the US Government list of Terrorist-sponsoring States…. Here’s a chance to actually discover Syria without the US State Department editing it first!”
Although some of these CDs can be regarded as compilations (Burma), or field recordings (Bali), the others are montages of the ubiquitous cassettes to be found in marketplaces in many parts of the world, along with radio recordings - sometimes a full song, sometimes just a clip, sometimes a voice, or a snippet from a radio play, or just radio static - and ambient local sounds. Anyone who’s sat around and played with a shortwave radio, especially when out of Europe or America, will understand the fascination of this - and will appreciate that to listen to sound this way, moving and shifting across the dial, cutting and splicing, is not just some kind of abstract collage, but a portal into a sound world, in which different frequencies or transmissions fortuitously (whatever we mean by that word) blend and clash with each other, creating strange, delicate codings and communications.
This way of listening to sound gives the lie to the tendency of most ethnic music labels to present regional musics in homogenous categories or genres. Switching on the radio in most parts of the world, one is unlikely to hear a single homogenous style that “represents” a people, but a polyphony of styles and sounds that is as baffling and fascinating to locals as it is to tourists and outsiders. There is a lingering ethnomusicological prejudice in favor of the purity and order of certain folk styles, and against the cacophony of modernity which is present just about everywhere in the world, even, or perhaps especially where people are unable to claim any of the material benefits of modernization. Ghettos, shanty towns, dismal rural villages with a couple of generators and a muddy main street are as modern as the skyscrapered metropolises. And they have a modern sound world, which Sublime Frequencies is the first to document. Although the SF crew clearly love Arab classical music as much as they are fascinated by cheesy Burmese synth pop, there’s a real relish in confusing things here: on Radio Java, there are clips of bossa nova from Chico Buarque or someone similar; on the Palestine CD, a brief burst of Robert Wyatt’s “Alifi.” Again, more than being eclecticism for its own sake, these “foreign” intrusions mark the presence of the editors, their own tastes and idiosyncracies, the subjective nature of their choices. They also mark “the foreign” or “the intrusive” as something that is already being negotiated and appropriated through montage as a source of power and pleasure in these places - for these are certainly joyful disks for the most part.
Sublime Frequencies’ releases, which are notable also for the lack of credit or documentation that accompanies them, have been rather controversial, with some people asking whether this is one more entry in the long history of Western theft, appropriation and repackaging of other cultures? In terms of identity politics, it should be noted that the Bishop brothers are themselves half-Lebanese, complicating any simple claims as to where their work can be situated. CDs based on radio recordings are a challenge, because they are broadcast over airwaves and listeners can access them, skipping from station to station as they please, in a way that makes documentation of specific sounds and tracks difficult. And it is precisely this free movement across the airwaves that Sublime Frequencies’ disks want to recognize and celebrate (interestingly, none of the Sublime Frequencies discs is copyrighted, either). Furthermore, many of the radio tapes and recordings are now already twenty years or more old, and are themselves part of a fast disappearing sound world (altho disks like Radio Sumatra: The Indonesian FM Experience and Radio Phnom Penh, both recorded in 2004, show there’s still plenty of life around). Still, although it may be hard to track down credits for a recording off the radio, that’s hardly true of tracks lifted from cassettes or vinyl, and it’s puzzling that SF consistently refuses to do this. True, the esoteric nature of these CDs means that they are hardly likely to leave their issuers rolling in cash - Alan Bishop said in a recent interview with Erik Davis: “When it starts selling like fucking Outkast I’ll fly to Medan and start handing out Benjamins to anyone who looks like these guys” (Davis, “Cameo Demons”). But if those recorded on SF disks had access to Western legal representation, it’s doubtful that they would wait around for Bishop to show up with a pile of cash in order to establish their ownership of their musical performances.
But that’s not the whole point. Sublime Frequencies’ releases aim, as Greil Marcus said about the Smith Anthology, to make “the familiar strange, the never known into the forgotten, and the forgotten into a collective memory” (The Old Weird America, 95). But who is the collective? Anyone modern, anyone affected by “globalization,” which means, of course, everyone. For it is a global alchemy that SF aims at, rather than the American alchemy of the Anthology. Obviously, this is a more ambitious, more hazy endeavor. In a recent interview with Brandon Stosuy, Bishop commented that “what we’re doing is a DIY approach to everything, not dependent on institutionalized engineering of thought about foreign cultures and how they need to be accessed through brokers of politics, communication and finance” (“No Sleep to Beirut,” 16). In Sublime Frequencies’ CDs, punk rock’s aggressive style of appropriation, suspicious of authorities and experts, claiming the right to set its own terms for action and interaction, meets the more subtle but ubiquitous appropriations of traditional folk culture, in which everyone steals techniques from everyone else. How different is this from the stealing that is already an essential part of Western imperialism, one in which might proclaims right? Aren’t Bishop and friends merely the newest “brokers” in a long history of brokering of native cultures? It all depends on what the result of the stealing is, what kinds of connections are forged by these appropriations, and how much knowledge and power flows back to those whose work is being presented and represented.
It’s worth thinking a little further about the way in which Sublime Frequencies presents their music. It is not just laziness which leads Bishop and Co. to present their sound edits without labels, subtitles, long ethnomusicological essays, or kitsch pre-modern exotica. SF are interested in kitsch, but it’s the kind of kitsch that can be found in the markets and stores of the countries they travel in - a part of what Peter Lamborn Wilson has described as the drive within cultures to romanticize, exoticize themselves, presumably because they enjoy a certain way of living, a certain kind of fantasy about themselves. Superimposed and entangled as these fantasies are within Western colonial and imperialist fantasies, nevertheless, these fantasies exist, in an autonomous way, as they do in Western cultures. To be captivated, charmed by these fantasies, these cultural fabrications, looking in from the outside is a delicate, complex matter. But it might also be a necessary part of developing a real respect for other cultures.
Is the kind of ethnomusicological documentation that usually accompanies “world music” releases really the only way of honoring this music? The argument goes that by not labelling or explaining what it is that we’re listening to or seeing, SF reduces the specificity of a particular cultural form in Morocco or Niger or Myanmar to a universalist, exotic sludge. Furthermore, just about any Western music, including that of the Sun City Girls, is labelled, named, and subtitled. The refusal to accord this prestige of naming to foreign musics is yet another repetition of the Western appropriation of native cultures, which have historically been stolen and used without permission or even credit.
Conversely, it is also true that the ethnographic labeling of music, as well as the visual rhetoric of documentary film subtitling, are kinds of appropriation too, which do very little for those labeled and which build the power of ethnomusicologists as authorities and experts. The fact that there are various kinds of collusion between certain members of ethnic cultures and certain experts, which claim to establish the authenticity of the native culture, and correct protocols of address of that culture, does not necessarily solve the problem of who gets to speak for whom. Sublime Frequencies’ silence, their refusal to label music, can be seen to preserve a kind of secrecy around the music which reflects more accurately the position of that music within the culture that it’s found, and within the broader world too. There is a paradox here: by not labeling the music, it does not fully enter the global marketplace, since it remains nameless, or named only by the singer or musicians as he/she/they perform. This is what Bishop and Co. mean when they call their disks “raw,” and emphasize their interest in an encounter free of guidance, passports, or expertise. At the same time, Sublime Frequencies’ disks are a part of the global marketplace, even while their disks encode a resistance to that marketplace. Nevertheless, their silence about labels may involve greater respect for these local musics than a rhetoric of “fair trade” or ethnomusicological accuracy do, working on behalf of global capital or academic prestige. To paraphrase philosopher Donna Haraway, there is something like “encounter value” - and this value cannot be reduced to information or documentation.
What would this encounter value consist of? SF’s refusal to hand this music over on a plate is a way of saying: go and find out for yourself, we’ve given you a clue, but you have to actually go and find out for yourself and have the encounter, if you really want to know about this music. It’s punk DIY values, applied to our relation to the non-Western world. Of course, SF disks are sold in stores like any other disk and are thus folded back into the society of the spectacle where they can be consumed as one more piece of exotica. But evidently some consumers are dissatisfied that they aren’t being given the full spectacular experience. Something is missing. What? It isn’t more information, it’s the act of actually going to Niger or Myanmar and visiting and checking things out for yourself. Of course, in the current environment where the non-Western world is presented as a dangerous no-man’s land, awash with terrorists, this means taking a risk. But what’s new about that?
For now, Sublime Frequencies CDs are an interruption of “our” airspace, with something that isn’t being heard, even in indie or alternative music circles, and which really needs to be. Their CDs cut through the boundaries that make up US and THEM creating an open, fragmentary, montaged space in which unexpected sounds surge up, lines of flight that send us, not into pure abstraction, but into moments of other people’s lived history. What happens in the encounters that occur in those moments, how those encountered feel about it all, is an open question, and one that the Sublime Frequencies people wish to provoke. The power dynamic is no doubt an unequal one, but not in the way that one might initially think. After all, we are the novices when it comes to the world of ethnopsychedelia, and for us at any rate, these appropriations and juxtapositions are a necessary education as to the nature of many kinds of sound worlds otherwise lost or ignored, both here and elsewhere.
Davis, Erik. “Cameo Demons”, The Wire, Feb. 2004 (archived at http://www.techgnosis.com/scg.html).
Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton University Press, 2004.
Flynt, Henry. “The Meaning of My Avant-Garde Hillbilly and Blues Music,” 1980/2002. (http://www.henryflynt.org/aesthetics/meaning_of_my_music.htm).
Gaonkar, Dilip, ed. Alternative Modernities. Duke University Press, 2001.
Haraway, Donna. The Companion Species Manifesto. Prickly Paradigm, 2003.
Marcus, Greil. The Old Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes. Picador, 1997.
Stosuy, Brandon, “No Sleep Till Beirut”, Arthur 18 (2005).
Taussig Michael. Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing. University of Chicago Press, 1986, c1987
Sublime Frequencies CDs:
Folk and Pop Sounds From Sumatra (2004)
I Remember Syria (2004)
Radio Java (2003)
Radio Palestine: Sounds of the Eastern Mediterranean (2004)
Radio Phnom Penh (2005)
Radio Sumatra: The Indonesian FM Experience (2005)