The Strange World Of… Sublime Frequencies

Ahead of a night dedicated to the label as part of Berlin's Find The File festival, Alan Bishop, one of the founders of Sublime Frequencies, picks ten points of entry into the crucial label's extraordinary back catalogue of sounds from across the globe

Alan Bishop of Sublime Frequencies, photo by Hans Van Der Linden

Alongside Hisham Mayet, Alan Bishop stands at the helm of a collective of sonic explorers. Their label Sublime Frequencies is responsible for bringing some of the most extraordinary sounds on the planet to wider attention. Through albums of folk and pop; field recordings, films and radio collages they have documented extraordinary sounds, from Rio De Janiero’s ‘Forbidden Gang Funk’ all the way to ‘Insect Electronica’ from Southeast Asia.

The label’s story begain in Seattle at the turn of the millennium, where Bishop, Mayet, and their friends Rob Millis, Charles Gocher, Mark Gergis and Bishop’s brother Rick would share audio with one another. These sonic treasures came from their respective travels across Asia, Africa and the Middle East. “Talk of starting a label featuring all of our collected materials was going around at some point then, and in the fall of 2003 it all began officially,” Bishop tells tQ.

He and Mayet remain at the centre of the project. They first made contact in the mid-90s, when Mayet wrote to Bishop about his old band Sun City Girls; appropriately enough, he was crate-digging. “He wrote me a letter first and then called me when he was living in San Francisco in the mid-90s. He was into Sun City Girls and was looking for some of our out of print LPs,” Bishop remembers. “We hit it off immediately. He moved to Seattle a few years later and we started spending more time hanging out.”

Bishop is keen, too, to sing the praises of figures like Gergis, Mills and Laurent Jeanneau, all of whom he describes as ‘crucial’ to the label’s ongoing success. He attributes Gergis with one of Sublime Frequencies’ greatest successes, for example: the introduction of Syrian dabke genius Omar Souleyman to Western audiences. “If Mark had come to me wanting to release a different Syrian dabke singer, it would have been another guy on the label. Would someone else have resonated the same way as Omar? Who knows, but Mark fell in love with Omar’s sound and it rubbed-off on us. And let’s not forget Rizan Said whose keys and compositions really helped make Omar who he was and is, and I’d argue that Rizan is the secret weapon behind Omar’s popularity, as well as the main architect of his sound. Qu Junktions was also an extended factor that led to funding and booking the first few tours and they are part of the reason he became much bigger than we’d ever anticipated as the timing seemed to be perfect for European and American audiences to warm to him. I would wager that even Omar would say that if it wasn’t for Mark’s persistence, he’d still be an exclusively local wedding singer in north east Syria.”

Sublime Frequencies began with five projects, released concurrently. Three albums – a compilation of Sumatran folk and pop, an album exploring the radio of Java, and a collection of nocturnal field recordings from Bali – and two films, Nat Pwe: Burma’s Carnival Of Spirit Soul and Jemaa El Fna: Morocco’s Rendezvous Of The Dead. “I remember that I had very little expectation that any of them would sell but they got lots of attention, and that set up the template for what was to come for most of our records: they don’t sell very well but get lots of attention, which helps gives the impression that they sell very well.”

Poster from Omar Souleyman and Group Doueh’s 2009 Sublime Frequencies tour

One of those five projects, Radio Java, was the beginning of an ongoing series exploring the sounds of radio from around the world, which continued with the likes of Radio Sumatra, Radio Myanmar, Radio Niger and Radio Vietnam. It’s what Bishop recalls when I ask what releases he’s proudest of: “I love the process of creating the radio series. When I travel I listen to radio and that helps educate me on the general styles out there which I may not be aware of, so it has a basic function. Pride never had much to do with any of this. Maybe when I’m old and dead I can think about accomplishments, but there’s too much to do for me to get wound-up on legacy.”

Reluctant as Bishop is to rest on his laurels, two and a half decades on Sublime Frequencies boasts a phenomenally diverse back catalogue from which tQ asked Bishop to pick ten highlights. “I could have chosen all of [our releases], but that’s too much work to explain,” he says. “They have nothing much in common with each other. Each release has a story that has separate variables that differ from all the rest.” There is no particular ‘crusade’ to the label, he says, “but the real point is that any list you see in the US/Europe that charts the best guitarist, singer, band of one period or all-time or whatever is absurd because it locks out the rest of the world where there are entities that most likely destroy the names on the western lists.”

Are there any areas, I ask, that Sublime Frequencies are keen to break into? “Sure, a million, but it’s simply impossible. We just don’t have the time or the finances to be out there on a never-ending quest, we’d have to be employing people to run things, and then we would totally suck and not be the type of label we want to be. We’re more like a family-style cottage industry.”

Sein Sah Thin – ‘Really Strange And Weird Things’ from SF 006: Princess Nicotine: Folk And Pop Music Of Myanmar (Burma)

“My first immersion into the obsession with the music of Myanmar was the first time I went there in 1993. I arrived, turned on the radio, heard the Burmese piano style and flipped out. I think all the records [from there] are important but Princess Nicotine is one I am particularly fond of.

Kieng Yuthhan – ‘Blue Basket’, from SF 011: Cambodian Cassette Archives

tQ: This record was assembled from 150 ageing cassettes at the Oakland public library in California, can you tell us more about it?

“Mark Gergis created this release so he’d have to tell you about what it was like going through those cassettes. The record was mostly based on the diaspora of Cambodian musicians who fled the Khmer Rouge and recorded outside of Cambodia from the late 70s into the 80s and beyond, mostly in the USA. “

SF013: Broken-Hearted Dragonflies: Insect Electronica From South East Asia

What made you want to explore the convergence of entomology and electronica?

“Well, who wouldn’t? Just turn the volume up and listen to the genius of it all. Tucker Martine did these recordings and although I have similar audio, some I had already used on the Sun City Girl’s Sumatran Electric Chair album, Tucker’s material and his attention to detail was superb and these four tracks fit together well.”

Bellemou & Benfissa – ‘Li Maandouche L’Auto’, from SF 045: Algerian Proto-Rai Underground

“The music is raw, pure and unhinged in comparison to later synth-dominated Rai that became popular worldwide. That recording of ‘Li Maandouche L’Auto’ is spectacular, with the trumpet blaring in your face as if Bellemou was standing next to your ear. I think it was Mazen Kerbaj (who plays trumpet in A Trio from Beirut) who told me: ‘Every time I hear that song I just bow down in reverence’ or something to that effect. I totally agree.”

Koes Bersaudara – The Guilties and Djadikan Aku Domba Mu (compiled on SF 053: Koes Bersaudara 1967, Vol 1 + 2)

This is music with a legendary status, how did you get your hands on it?

“I went to Jakarta and met the surviving members of the group and found all their records and studied their career. I even became a member of their fan club. The Koeswoyo brothers were one of the world’s great rock & roll groups in their time, and every Indonesian knows that. I’m happy that more people elsewhere have discovered them and how great they truly were.”

Hayvanlar Alemi – ‘Guarana Superpower’, from SF 062: Guarana Superpower

This music has been compared to your own with Sun City Girls, is that what drew you to it?

“Yeah, they posted two tracks on myspace that just killed us. They truly reminded us of Sun City Girls in the best way possible. Then we discovered that the rest of their material was on par as well…”

‘Staring At The Sun’ from SF 065: Staring Into The Sun: Ethiopian Tribal Music

“Olivia Wyatt went alone to Ethiopia in her early 20s to document a festival featuring music and dance by several of the tribes that eventually appeared on this DVD. When she arrived, the festival was cancelled so she decided to travel throughout the country, find the tribes, and record them. This is my favourite Sublime Frequencies film – it captures the same spirit of editing I try to portray in my radio collages only here, you have the visual element to go with the audio and longer segments as well. Stunning in every way, don’t pass up a chance to see this film!”

Group Doueh – ‘Zayna Jumma’, from SF 066: Group Doueh: Zayna Jumma

This was released to coincide with the group’s 2011 spring/summer tour of the UK, Europe and a first-ever U.S. tour, what are your memories of the tour?

“All the Doueh tours have been great but it’s about the song – that fucking riff Doueh plays on the acoustic tinidit slays everything! I can listen to this thing over and over and never tire of it, fast tempo, relentless, articulate and orgasmic. I’ve seen people dance to this track and use muscles they never knew they had.”

Group Ensemble/Laurent Jeanneau – ‘Do Djui Atsei’, from SF 081: Ethnic Minority Music of Southern China

“Laurent is one of us and we immediately loved him from the beginning. He’s fearless, doesn’t hold back his opinions, has worked his ass off and prefers to live with the musicians he records for longer periods of time, mostly in China and Southeast Asia. The quality of sound he produces is consistently great. He runs the Kink Gong label and has a solo project by the same name. We started working with him early on and still do, and his archive of recordings is mind-boggling.”

SF 111: To Catch a Ghost – Field Recordings From Madagascar

“The music of Madagascar has been fairly well documented over the last century yet there are still so many surprises the more one listens and explores the different music of various locales. Charlie Brooks recorded both albums we released, has lived in Madagascar on and off for many years and his work is on par with the very best.”

Alan Bishop will DJ at Find The File Festival in Berlin as part of ‘Sublime Frequecies Labelnight’, which also features concerts by Hayvanlar Alemi and Baba Commandant, on Friday 22 March

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