Over the past two years, the Kali-worshipping Dadaists at Sublime Frequencies have been bringing their skewed take on their Middle and Far East travels back for Western ears. Eschewing academic and anthropological dissection and analyses, the Sublime Frequencies folks instead opt for something more impressionistic and surreal. During stops in India, Morocco, and Nepal, they plucked snippets of recordings of street musicians and shortwave radio transmissions from bazaar-bought cassettes for a disorienting, almost dreamlike result.
Something more is at stake this globe-trot around though, because two of Sublime Frequencies' most recent titles, Choubi Choubi! and Radio Pyongyang, hit American ears at a crucial juncture in the War on Terror. The former's subtitle is "Folk & Pop Sounds from Iraq," and for those who don't recognize the latter, Pyongyang is North Korea's official name. Before you reach to raise that alert to orange or to report the label is siding with the terrorists, consider the enthralling sounds of lowbrow pop music and operatic high culture smuggled from these Axes of Evil and presented here.
Choubi documents the Iraqi musical style of its namesake, showcasing the form's furious rhythms and double-time beats as made in the era of Saddam. There are artists like Bawin, a masked female singer who belts over some explosive near-electro, while Seventies folk singer Ja'afar Hassan glorifies the social agenda that would become the Baathist party line. Whether hand-drummed or electronic, the staccato bursts of choubi beats automatically make one think of machine-gunfire. Other tracks are further from such violence -- like those with the oddest beats of Timbaland and modern dancehall -- though the most striking cut has its title translated as: "Oh, Mother, the Handsome Man Tortures Me."
As recent books such as Guy Delisle's graphic novel Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea and Bradley K. Martin's Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty bring a bit of that ensconced and repressed culture to light, Radio Pyongyang serves as their aural counterpart, revealing a glimpse alternately fascinating and frightening of the Kim dictatorship. When Delisle's book describes an accordion orchestra for young Korean girls, a piece called "Start 'Em Young" sounds like a Broadway performance of Annie, where the children are praising the benevolence not of Daddy Warbucks but Fatherly Leader. Lest the strange nationalist opera, synth balladry, and ABBA-bubblegum agit-prop seem unreal, broadcasts from the true Radio Pyongyang intermittently burst through. The cool, halting announcers remind us of Kim Jong Il's benevolent magnificence and subsequently that we, too, are part of such a real and frightening world.