Wednesday, November 15, 2006

I'm posting an olde timey unpublished review because it points out a couple of issues I want to further discuss, and it points out a me with quite a bit more faith in humanity. Plus it ain't half bad:

V/A : Tibetan Buddhist rites from the monasteries of Bhutan : Sub Rosa
The drone, it swells and recedes. Lately, it’s been seeping more and more into the Western consciousness through the cracks in the sonic underground, flowing from the space jams of Double Leopards to the magnetic pull of doom-metal giants like Earth and Sunn 0))). It anchors the psych-folk wanderings of Six Organs of Admittance and propels the primal clatter of Avarus and Sunburned Hand of the Man into their bent head-space. This isn’t exactly a coincidence, just a bunch of different sound-heads tripping off in their own direction and coming to the same conclusion. See, as musical ideas come, the drone is pretty damn convincing, making its case in a singular, uncluttered fashion. At its best, the drone is the sonic glue that holds sounds together while threatening to overwhelm everything with its own massive power. But really its just the sound of our underground catching up with what avant garde-ists like Tony Conrad and La Monte Young were doing in the sixties, which, in turn, was influenced by a vast array of non-Western musics that have existed throughout history. This is why Sub Rosa’s reissue of John Levy’s 1971 recordings of Buddhist rites from the Bhutan region has come at the perfect time.
Separate from Tibet yet sharing many similarities with its variation on Buddhism, Bhutan became a haven for Buddhists when China began its occupation and suppression of Tibet and its culture in 1959. While the homogenizing onslaught of Westernization is handily eradicating indigenous cultures all over the world at an alarming (horrifying? despairing?) rate, Levy managed to capture the full radiance of this one with his Nagra tape recorder in 1971. And it is HEAVY. Using mass chanted vocals, long horns which measure from 9 to 12 feet and a vast arsenal of smaller horns and percussion instruments, the monks of these monasteries created an awe-inspiring sound that was meant to invoke the blessings of their gods. This isn’t some psychedelic traveler’s approximation of something ancient and holy, it just is, and it isn’t exotic pleasantries for world music tourists, it’s high dose skullfuck that could appeal equally to the doom-metal massive and the spiritual seekers, if their minds are open enough.
As lovely as they are, tunes are few and far between on this 2-disc set, emerging between the roaring, cathartic power drones that dominate. They’re definitely most prominent on the second disc, where a lute melody precedes serene chanting and a wandering monk (Manip) sings a poem praising his guru. Levy’s exhaustive yet enthusiastic liner notes help guide the listener through all this uncharted territory, although I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking their academic nature detracted from the sheer kicks provided by these sounds. At one point, Levy wonders out loud whether our tendency to idealize a culture such as this is misleading, with the behavior of some monks leading him to believe that these people had just as much of a penchant for cruelty and abuse as the rest of humanity. Still, it’s minor when compared with his complaints against Chinese and Western cultures. It would be my own hope, however far-fetched, that his recordings would help us to find a way back into a culture less convinced of its own impending doom than our own.

So. World musics. However much I'd like to criticize audio tourists, I can't think of a genre, well, musical grouping, where it's laid more bare that I am one. I mean, I'll let the tastemakers tip me to goodness from round the globe, but I probably couldn't point out a gamelan if I heard or saw one. Maybe an oud, but it might just be a banjo. Leave it up to DJ /Rupture or Ethiopiques or Congotronics or Sublime Frequencies or whatever. They can figure all that jazz out. At least appreciation has evolved past that "Bollywood soundtracks are funny" garbage that was in vogue some years back. And maybe you can look down your nose at some Buena Vista Club Med asshat who wants a Mariachi band to follow him around while he drinks umbrella'd drinks and makes conference calls. They're the tourists, right?
I guess it makes sense. As experimental music embraces drones and non-Western melodies, world music starts to seem experimental. But really intuitive, almost as if they were traditions that had developed over time. And with singing, singing like you never heard. Singing that so deftly bares its soul, that expresses such a depth of experience it reminds me of those voices captured on pre-war blues music. And when I listen to that singing, so open to all its idiosyncracies, I think it's one of the greatest indicators of whatever that intangible is that our society has lost in this last century. It's why we need to step up the efforts to record the musics of all these cultures before they're completely wiped from the face of the earth. No punchline here kiddos.
Sublime Frequencies gets this. They put out world music releases that break all the world music rules. There's no academic backing, no extensively researched liner notes, no cut of royalties for the musicians. So they're just looting up the third world, right? Capturing the souls of these poor motherfuckers and whipping up cheaply put together releases to line their pockets. At least, that's what some erudite pud at The Wire would have you believe. And that's what he needs to believe, like some record-collecting Atticus Finch who needs to be convinced of his own benevolence before he can pull up the covers at night. The fact is that we're all compromised. We all try to do the best we can with our given circumstances. (Well, maybe the best of us try and do the best we can. The rest can choke.) No doubt those Sun City guys are shrewd businessmen (They'll sell you a copy of Torch of the Mystics right out of their own stash. Bit of a mark-up.), but many of these Sublime Frequencies releases seem like recordings that were made for their own benefit before they decided to be cool and share with the rest of us. Maybe that's a cop out, but I'd bet five times as many copies of Sublime Frequencies releases get downloaded as have been sold anyways. Artists are making music and people are hearing and enjoying it. Something about the circumstances under which they're recorded strikes me as more genuinely representative of our relationship with the third world anyways. Like a lot of those scenes in Herzog's Fata Morgana, just us looking at them and them looking at us, equally wary and fascinated.
So I just watched Jemaa El Fna: Morocco's Rendezvous of the Dead, a festival where musicians travel to some sort of fairground location to play their music and ply their wares. And there's some great looking backlit shots of steam rising off the gathered crowd in the night sky, but those performances are polluted by louder rhythms drifting in from the background. The performers seem frustrated, but you can't tell if its because of the distraction or because its being recorded. And then there's scenes that are pure magic, like the little fella who gets in the middle of a circle and gets real animated when the feeling overtakes him, maybe snatching a tambourine out of someone's hand and bashing the shit out of it. And the kids. There's the little girl who sings and dances and calls and responds, clearly loving the music, but she's also more acutely aware of the camera than anyone else in the film, constantly mugging for it. At one point, the cameraman catches a glimpse of a stunningly beautiful young woman and zooms in on her. She has the look of a teen whose uncle just got his hands on the acoustic guitar and wants everyone to gather round while he trys his hand at Freebird. "Like, are you sure we polished off the rum, cause I sure could use a drink." So while it's a pleasure to see these elders hoop and holler, clap their hands and mouth along to the words, there's that hint of loss there. I mean, what will the scene be when Hisham Mayet shows up with his camera ten years down the line? Ya dig? At least he caught this one.
Also, forget what I said before about Botch. We Are The Romans is a barn burner, and as good as any of Converge's pre-Jane Doe output. I'll even forgive my much loathed "clever song titles."
In fact, forget all kinds of things I said on this blog. Shit's embarassing. I'm nuts. Peace.


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