Sublime Frequencies: The globetrotting label unearthing and recording regional folk music

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E. Little
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Saigon rock & soul, Bollywood steel guitar, Khmer Folk and beyond…

For the past 19 years the Seattle label Sublime Frequencies has been traveling the globe in search of sonic illumination. Like the great imprints Awesome Tapes from Africa, Luaka Bop and Now-Again, the minds behind Sublime Frequencies are driven by the idea that the music world is a huge place that most listeners haven’t fully explored, and that this journey is dense with sonic epiphanies.

Here’s the label’s 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 shortwave 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.

In the nearly two decades since the label was founded by brothers Alan and Richard Bishop of  Sun City Girls, it has released more than 150 records, DVD/book packages and CDs including To Catch a Ghost: Field Recordings from Madagascar, Adnan Othman – Bershukor: A Retrospective of Hits by a Malaysian Pop Yeh Yeh Legend, and Folk And Pop Sounds Of Sumatra.

Crucially, Sublime Frequencies were early amplifiers of musicians including Omar Souleyman, Bombino, and Group Inerane.

To get a sense of the label’s approach, here’s a 10-minute documentary that follows Sublime Frequencies explorer Hisham Mayet embarking on a musical road trip around Burkina Faso in West Africa:

Bollywood Steel Guitar

Expert crate and cassette diggers, Sublime Frequencies issued this ace collection of Bollywood steel guitar players from the 1950s and 1960s. Per the release notes: “All 21 tracks featured here were film hits from 1962-1986 and all the masters of the steel guitar sound from the period are represented: Van Shipley, Kazi Aniruddha, S. Hazarasingh, Sunil Ganguly, and Charanjit Singh. An entirely different approach that rocks, swings, and grooves through some of India’s most beloved film tunes, the electric steel guitar as lead instrument transforms the already infectious melodies into a multitude of higher sound dimensions.”

Tóc Mai Sợi Vắn Sợi Dài – Thanh Mai (Uneven Hair)

Taken from Saigon Rock & Soul (2010), a collection that the label describes as providing “a window into a rich musical Vietnamese music scene that has long been obscured, and for the most part, forgotten. As the scope of electrified Vietnamese music from the 1960s and 1970s begins to be revealed, it becomes evident that this was among the heaviest and most eclectic musical scenes of South East Asia at the time.”

Choubi Choubi! – Oh Mother, The Handsome Man Tortures Me

This amazing track will upend everything you think you might know about Iraqi music in the 1960s and ‘70s. It’s taken from Choubi Choubi! Folk and Pop Sounds from Iraq (Vol. 1), what the label calls “meticulously selected from Iraqi cassettes and LPs found in Syria, Europe and the Iraqi neighborhoods of Detroit, Michigan.” The notes continue: “There are many reasons why Iraqi music stands alone in the dynamic world of Arabic music: one example is the unbelievable rapid fire machine-gun rhythms fluttering atop the main tempo. This is the work of a unique nomadic hand drum called the Khishba –also known as the Zanbour (Arabic for wasp). A style prominently featured here is the infamous Iraqi CHOUBI -a driving rhythmic style that can include fiddles, double reeded instruments, percussion, bass, keyboards and oud over its signature beat.”

Groupe el Azhar – Mazal nesker mazal

Release notes describe this brilliant collection as featuring “Rai music from Algeria as you’ve not heard it before. In the early 1970’s, a new group of singers and musicians were operating on the northwest coast and what they pioneered was a sound that eventually reached worldwide status by the end of the decade, however their names are relatively unknown to this day outside Algeria. This crucial and defining period of the development of Rai is criminally ignored and overlooked by Algerian music historians and Raï’s fans.”

Cambodian Cassette Archives: Khmer Folk & Pop music Vol. 1

“Culled from over 150 ageing cassettes found at the Asian Branch of the Oakland Public Library in California, these recordings showcase a pre and post holocaust Cambodian musical lineage that can’t be ignored,” writes Sublime Frequencies in release notes. “A truly Khmer blend of folk and pop stylings – Cha-Cha Psychedelia, Phase-shifting Rock, sultry circle dance standards, pulsing Cambodian new wave, haunted ballads, musical comedy sketches, Easy-Listening numbers and raw instrumental grooves presented in an eclectic variety of production techniques. Male and female vocalists share the spotlight, embellished by roller rink organ solos, raunchy guitar leads and MIDI defying synthesizers.”

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