Punk Ethnography: Artists & Scholars Listen to Sublime Frequencies

Punk Ethnography: Artists & Scholars Listen to Sublime Frequencies

by Michael E. Veal, E. Tammy Kim

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<P>This ground-breaking case study examines record production as ethnographic work. Since its founding in 2003, Seattle-based record label Sublime Frequencies has produced world music recordings that have been received as radical, sometimes problematic critiques of the practices of sound ethnography. Founded by punk rocker brothers Alan and Richard Bishop, along with filmmaker Hisham Mayet, the label's releases encompass collagist sound travelogues; individual artist compilations; national, regional and genre surveys; and DVDs—all designed in a distinctive graphic style recalling the DIY aesthetic of punk and indie rock. Sublime Frequencies' producers position themselves as heirs to canonical ethnographic labels such as Folkways, Nonesuch, and Musique du Monde, but their aesthetic and philosophical roots in punk, indie rock, and experimental music effectively distinguish their work from more conventional ethnographic norms. Situated at the intersection of ethnomusicology, sound studies, cultural anthropology, and popular music studies, the essays in this volume explore the issues surrounding the label—including appropriation and intellectual property—while providing critical commentary and charting the impact of the label through listener interviews.</P>

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819576545
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 10/18/2016
Series: Music/Culture
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 440
File size: 12 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

<P>MICHAEL E. VEAL is a musician and professor of ethnomusicology at Yale University. He is the author of several books, including Fela: The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon and Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae. E. TAMMY KIM is a writer and member of The New Yorker's editorial staff. She previously worked as a staff writer at Al Jazeera America and as a social justice lawyer.</P>

Read an Excerpt





Around 2003, a peculiar batch of sound and video recordings began to appear on the "world music" racks of specialty music stores like Other Music in New York and now-defunct Twisted Village in Boston. These CDs, LPs, and DVDs, adorned with comic-style cutouts, film stills, and advertisements, seemed out of place alongside traditional, ethnographic recordings. Their titles ranged from prosaic to eccentric and evocative: Radio Morocco, I Remember Syria, Thai Pop Spectacular, The World Is Unreal Like a Snake in a Rope, The Pierced Heart and the Machete, and Princess Nicotine, just to name a few. The contents appeared to span folk, classical, and popular styles, but the liner notes provided little context or information — in general, much less on genre, instrumentation, performers, or translated lyrics than your typical world-music recording. While transparency of presentation in an academic sense was not the label's priority, Sublime Frequencies' releases were surreal, fascinating objects of sound art tackling a diverse range of world music.

Radio Thailand, for example, is a two-disc collection of regional Thai broadcasts compiled over a 15-year period, encompassing court-based "gong-chime" orchestras, molam pop music, "shadow pop" (Thai adaptations of American surf rock), songs played on the khaen mouth organ, random radio excerpts of news bulletins, Buddhist devotional chanting, and pure signal noise. The arrangement of these sounds departs from the traditionally ethnographic and makes explicit the creative hand of the producers. Most tracks, with fanciful titles such as "21st Century Perspiration" and "Rubber of High Quality," are collagist in nature, providing a wild ride across genres and traditions that recalls the frantic sensuality of Stan Brakhage's experimental films. The release belongs to Sublime Frequencies' Radio series, a distinctive strand of the label's oeuvre. Each disc is a sound collage scavenged from the airways of the world; together, they constitute Sublime Frequencies' flagship endeavor and most clearly embody its aesthetic philosophy: a fragmentary, anarchic approach to sound and graphic design and the belief in collage as a medium of cultural representation. Over time, this style has earned the label a dedicated and, in some cases, fanatically devoted following, particularly among "hipster" audiences in the United States and United Kingdom. The recordings have been plugged by taste-making radio stations like KEXP in Seattle, and Sublime Frequencies' founders have appeared in prominent pop cultural outlets and venues like the Believer magazine (see Andy Beta's contribution), the Barbican in London, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Meanwhile, Sublime Frequencies has courted an equal amount of controversy through its renegade capture of world music traditions, its unconventional approach to documentation, and its founders' explicit criticisms of the field of ethnomusicology.

For all these reasons, Sublime Frequencies is more than a label or esoteric cult project. It represents an indie turn in global pop; a rebellious, at times neocolonial streak in ethnography; and an occasion to talk about globalized cultural consumption. There are many reasons to celebrate, vilify, critique, and/or ponder the label's activities. This book — created without the involvement or endorsement of Sublime Frequencies — attempts to make sense of them all, or, at the very least, to begin asking the right questions.


Sublime Frequencies was founded in 2003 by brothers Richard and Alan Bishop — two-thirds of the art-punk band Sun City Girls — and their friend Hisham Mayet. The label naturally grew out of its founders' artistic projects, which encompassed dozens of self-released cassettes, 7-inch singles, and CD/LP albums by the Sun City Girls (whose third member, Charles Gocher, died in 2007). The Bishops, Mayet, and their close collaborator Mark Gergis loved to travel and collect, and had amassed a huge archive of the world's music. Indeed, many Sublime Frequencies releases are curated from their personal troves. Other releases employ a network of "recordists" — including indie-rock producer Tucker Martine (interviewed herein by Julie Strand), ethnomusicologist Laurent Jeanneau (interviewed by Gonçalo Cardoso) and filmmaker Olivia Wyatt (interviewed by Jonathan Andrews) — who travel the world capturing local sounds (and sights) and transforming their semi-refined field recordings into deftly packaged CDs, LPs, and DVDs. Since its initial releases in 2003, Sublime Frequencies has issued a truly stunning range of the world's musical traditions — folk, classical, popular, experimental, and everything in between.

As explained on its website, and as contributor David Novak elaborates, Sublime Frequencies positions itself as a new-media successor to hallowed ethnographic recording labels such as Bärenreiter-Musicaphon, Folkways, Smithsonian Folkways, Chant du Monde, Playasound, Lyrichord, Ocora, and Nonesuch:

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 short wave 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. SUBLIME FREQUENCIES is focused on an aesthetic of extra-geography and soulful experience inspired by music and culture, world travel, research, and the pioneering recording labels of the past including OCORA, SMITHSONIAN FOLKWAYS, ETHNIC FOLKWAYS, LYRICHORD, NONESUCH EXPLORER, MUSICAPHONE [sic], BARONREITER [sic], UNESCO, PLAYASOUND, MUSICAL ATLAS, CHANT DU MONDE, B.A.M., TANGENT, and TOPIC.

This informal "mission statement" places Sublime Frequencies in a tradition of "sound ethnography" historically associated with the field of ethnomusicology and, to a lesser extent, cultural anthropology — not surprising given that most canonical field recordings of the world's music have been the products of academic research. But while "ethnography" is obviously a central term in ethnomusicology and cultural anthropology, "sound ethnography" is less common. We use this term to indicate the writing of culture, with the important distinction that, in sound ethnography, culture is written via the technologies of sound recording. Field recordings, in this light, become more than presentations of the sounds of music cultures; they become representations of music cultures. In addition to raising all the issues that we typically associate with ethnography (the writing of culture), phonography (writing via sound), and the idea of sound recordings as art objects in and of themselves, field recordings dramatize the more basic fact that different ethnographic recordings frame their sounds in different ways, each painting a different — and by definition, partial and subjective — portrait of a music culture.

Like the older ethnographic labels, Sublime Frequencies' releases tend to use sound to present cultures in a certain way. But despite their professed admiration for their predecessors, Sublime Frequencies' founders have expressed strongly ambivalent feelings about bringing the label's products into critical dialogue with ethnomusicology (the field that traditionally has been the main conduit of Western knowledge about non-Western music cultures). In their interviews reprinted here, Alan Bishop and Hisham Mayet express suspicion of the academic ethnomusicological tradition.

On closer examination, the Sublime Frequencies crew has often invoked ethnomusicology as a straight man, as it were, in order to carve out the label's own space in the world-music market. The founders have presented themselves as ethnographic Robin Hoods, redressing the power imbalance between the Euro-American sphere and other areas of the world through musical advocacy. Bishop told the music blog Made Like a Tree: "Western export culture is a oneway highway shoving itself down the throats of the entire world. The developing nations do not have a reciprocal avenue to fire back at the West, to promote their culture. Hopefully the Sublime Frequencies releases can provide a stray bullet seeping through the holes in reverse to inspire others to create larger weaponry to make greater inroads in the future."

But how accurate or genuine are these sentiments? Sublime Frequencies seems quick to elide the involvement of post–World War II ethnomusicology in implicitly and explicitly contesting Western musical hegemony. While it is true that the discipline has historical roots in the colonizing project and relies largely on Western modes of inquiry and analysis, it could also be argued that, with scholars working in the context of nationalism and de-colonization, postwar ethnomusicology has fundamentally contested the pervasive influence of Western musical culture. Sublime Frequencies' commitment to the same is less clear. On the one hand, the label has produced albums from George W. Bush and Dick Cheney's so-called Axis of Evil — including Iraq and North Korea (see E. Tammy Kim's chapter, "Noraebang with the Dear Leader") — and other, majority-Muslim countries demonized by the United States, such as Syria, Palestine, Pakistan, Mali, and Indonesia. On the other hand, the label's releases are strongly shaped by their founders' own idiosyncratic sensibilities and in most cases lack input from and fail to credit the original creators (see André Redwood's essay on copyright). This type of decontextualization arguably reaches its height in the substantial liberties that Sublime Frequencies takes in matters of cultural representation, forcibly reframing a variety of local musics to suit Western punk/indie rock/experimental sensibilities. The reframing lies in direct opposition to ethnomusicology's emphasis on accurate contextualization as a primary means of understanding musical styles and traditions. After all, if the presence of a cello or organ in Western rock does not automatically resignify that music as "classical," neither does the presence of electric guitars and keyboards automatically qualify non-Western folk or vernacular musics as "rock."

The same can be said for Sublime Frequencies' treatment and selection of world music genres that conform to its stylistic criteria for a musical avantgarde or its experimental construction of the Radio albums discussed later in this introduction. Non-Western concepts of sound, meter, pitch, and structure, for example, do not qualify as "experimental" on the mere basis of their stylistic unfamiliarity. We might also ask whether the avant-garde always represents an inherently progressive stance in a given society or whether, as Kay Dickinson suggests, it can just as easily align with reactionary, conservative, and imperialist ideologies and practices. And despite Sublime Frequencies' advocacy claims, to what extent does its brand of avant-gardism adhere to the (neo-) colonial agendas of revitalizing American culture by "mining" the musical traditions of the wider world and exoticizing unfamiliar sounds through lack of adequate explanation? Matters of discretion and creative license are understandable, but all this begs the question of how effectively the label's releases function as the antihegemonic "weaponry" of Alan Bishop's claims.

Bishop has also taken aim at one of ethnomusicology's core values: socalled "bi-musicality," or the emphasis on acquiring hands-on competence in a given tradition in order to represent and teach it more effectively. "Tradition is not about slavish imitation," he said. "The last thing I want to see is a bunch of fucking white guys playing Javanese gamelon [sic] proper ... They are being disrespectful because they are not evolving the situation. They are not rolling the dice. They are copying, just following somebody else's rules."

The concept of bi-musicality was first articulated by ethnomusicologist Mantle Hood in 1960, as a corrective to decades of Western distortion and misrepresentation of world-music traditions. The concept contained both practical and political overtones. Most immediately, it strengthened the rigor of non-Western musical instruction in Western institutions. But it also justified bringing non-Western musicians and scholars to Western schools and performance venues, thereby challenging the balance of power between the West and its former colonial (and current neo-colonial) subjects. This produced a literal, concrete example of the "firing back" to which Bishop alludes above, and it has had long-term consequences: By now, several generations of students, scholars, and musicians have been profoundly influenced by their exposure to the musical traditions of the wider world, and have carried those traditions into previously untouched social and musical spaces in America.

If Bishop and Mayet intend to specifically condemn a conservative, preservationist streak in ethnomusicology, this, too, was prefigured within the discipline. Since the 1980s, large numbers of ethnomusicologists have turned their attention to popular styles of the non-Western world and other practices reflecting cross-cultural mixing and borrowing. Today, the field is well aware of its pitfalls, and self-critique has become a fundamental component of its ongoing internal dialogue. More significant (and ironic), however, is the fact that the Sublime Frequencies' founders and artists often have subscribed to a preservationist agenda, seeing themselves as documenting cultures and media endangered by the processes of modernization, migration, and globalization. In this sense, Sublime Frequencies conforms, in spite of itself, to one of the founding agendas of ethnomusicology.

Ethnography can be a fraught undertaking, but Bishop's criticisms don't stand up to historical scrutiny; nor do they justify the label's cavalier approach to crediting and compensating musicians. (It is, at least, equally hands-off in defending the pirating of its own releases, many of which are available for streaming on YouTube.) Time will tell whether Sublime Frequencies' transgressive model can be reconciled with the hard-won ethical battles previously fought by ethnomusicologists and the large-scale attempts to redefine intellectual property as it relates to artistic traditions of the non-Western world. For the moment, however, we believe there is another way of understanding the label's mission. Sublime Frequencies is rejecting something much larger than the norms of ethnographic practice: It is an enterprise that rejects rules altogether — essentially asserting punk and experimental impulses as valid prisms for viewing the world's music.


To understand Sublime Frequencies is to ground it in the history and philosophy of punk, one of the most significant, transformative developments in 1970s' music and culture and, a generation later, the driving force behind America's 1990s' indie-rock revolution. Both punk and indie rock, as Marc Masters chronicles in his essay, heavily influenced the Bishops' avant-garde trio, Sun City Girls, and in turn shaped the sensibility of Sublime Frequencies. The very naming of their band after Sun City — an Arizona retirement community but also the name of a controversial entertainment complex that symbolized apartheid South Africa — places them in the tradition of rebellious, irreverent band monikers such as the Dead Kennedys, Circle Jerks, the 4-Skins, and Butthole Surfers.

Sublime Frequencies' brand of musical ethnography is governed by punk: a do-it-yourself, take-what-you-want ethos; a reaction against homogeneity, insularity, and centralized narratives; and, most important for Sublime Frequencies, a flair for the deliberately outrageous gesture and embrace of contradiction. How else can we square Bishop's excoriating comments about ethnomusicology with cofounder Mayet's admission that: "I was just a nut for geography and ethnography and anthropology. I studied all that stuff in school. It was informal — I have an art history degree and a history degree. But I just love anthropology and history, music, film. So it just organically happened."

What might the philosophies and procedures of punk mean for the practice of ethnography? In the context of rock music history, punk unfolded in categorical opposition to the normative rock practices of the time. As shaped by groups like the Sex Pistols, Crass, the Exploited, and the Ramones, it relied more on rhetorical irony and brash simplicity than finely wrought reasoning or methodical musical construction. Later, as punk gave way to New Wave, its techniques were used to gradually modulate mainstream practices, injecting edge and energy into more traditional conceptions of rock and pop song-craft, as exemplified by musicians like Elvis Costello, Squeeze, and Joe Jackson. The underlying idea here — whether musical or ethnographic — is that, in the end, all traditions are eventually transformed through the influence of radical, formerly outsider impulses. By extension to the academic sphere, Sublime Frequencies represents its own new wave: a refreshing, at times provocative, and ultimately necessary critique of established ethnographic practices. As much as the label has decontextualized "other" musics, it has also implicitly re-contextualized them. Some releases accomplish this by presenting a fuller range of various societies' musical expression (for example, Thai surf and soul music, Indian country-and-western, and Saharan guitar rock) than the West typically has been aware of via traditional world-music or ethnomusicological channels. Other releases accomplish this by radically resignifying sounds. Broken Hearted Dragonflies, for example, takes the ostensibly most austere, "non-musical" aspect of traditional field recordings — ambient sounds of chirping insects, in this case from Indonesia — and rebrands them for the listener as "insect electronica" — a witty resignification that simultaneously works as a marketing strategy, a readjustment of the terms of listening, and a political assertion (see David Font-Navarrete's chapter). Each strategy serves, in its own way, to lift these cultures out of the historical ghetto of "tradition" within the enforced binary of tradition versus modernity. After all, if the mating sounds of insects can be resignified for human ears as not only music but as electronic music (with all of the latter's technologically advanced associations), this automatically renders moot the uneven classification of human music cultures.


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Table of Contents

<P>TABLE OF CONTENTS<BR>Michael E. Veal &amp; E. Tammy Kim: Introduction<BR>SECTION 1: BACKGROUND CONTEXT<BR>David Novak: The Sublime Frequencies of New Old Media<BR>Marc Masters: Meet the Sun City Girls<BR>Andy Beta: Interview with Alan Bishop<BR>&#8226; Andrew R. Tonry: Interview with Hisham Mayet<BR>Andre Redwood: Collage, Creativity, and Copyright: Sublime Frequencies and the Ethics of Intellectual Property<BR>Interlude: Sublime Frequencies Listener Interviews<BR>E. Tammy Kim: Interview with Awesome Tapes from Africa's Brian Shimkovitz<BR>Michael E. Veal: Interview with Artist and Musician Robert Hardin<BR>SECTION 2: VISUAL AND SONIC CULTURE<BR>Lynda Paul: "Just Pure Sound and Vision": Rawness as Aesthetic-Ideological Fulcrum in Sublime Frequencies' Videos<BR>Jonathan Andrews: Interview with Olivia Wyatt<BR>David Font-Navarrete: Ambient Sound in Sublime Frequencies as Art (and/or) Ethnography<BR>SECTION 3: LOCAL FORAYS<BR>Trekking Africa<BR>Julie Strand: Bush Taxi Mali, Taking the Long Way Home<BR>Julie Strand: Interview with Tucker Martine<BR>Michael E. Veal: Dry Spell Blues: Sublime Frequencies in the West African Sahel<BR>Middle East Steps<BR>Joseph Salem: Engineering Social Space: The 'Silent' Structures of Alan Bishop's Radio Palestine<BR>Shayna Silverstein: The Punk Arab: Demystifying Omar Souleyman's Techno-Dabke<BR>Wills Glasspiegel: Interview with Omar Souleyman<BR>Interlude: Sublime Frequencies Listener Interviews<BR>Michael E. Veal: Interview with Composer Chris Becker<BR>E. Tammy Kim: Interview with Dengue Fever's Ethan Holtzman<BR>Asian Emissions<BR>Stanley Scott: Radio India: Eternal Dream or Ephemeral Illusion?<BR>Gonçalo Cardoso: Ethnic Discrepancies #1 – Interview with Laurent Jeanneau<BR>Andrew McGraw: Radio Java<BR>E. Tammy Kim: Noraebang with the Dear Leader: Sublime Frequencies' Radio Pyongyang<BR>Blaring Americas<BR>Rachel Lears: Collecting the Cultures of Latinamericarpet: Pop Primitivism and the Shadows of History<BR>Cristina Cruz-Uribe: Funk Carioca and Urban Informality</P>

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"This original and timely collection raises key questions about the purpose and practice of ethnomusicology in the 21st century, especially in relation to products of research and politics of representation." —Eliot Bates, University of Birmingham

"As much an ethnography of Sublime Frequencies as it is a study of them as ethnographers, Punk Ethnography is a gloriously multiform study, a rich investigation of their defiant, unaffiliated, grass roots take on the ethnomusicological enterprise, fearlessly interspersing essays with interviews, posing difficult questions and drawing out the nuances of SF's gleefully rogue persona." —John Corbett, author of Microgroove: Forays into Other Music

Eliot Bates

“This original and timely collection raises key questions about the purpose and practice of ethnomusicology in the 21st century, especially in relation to products of research and politics of representation.”

John Corbett

“As much an ethnography of Sublime Frequencies as it is a study of them as ethnographers, Punk Ethnography is a gloriously multiform study, a rich investigation of their defiant, unaffiliated, grass roots take on the ethnomusicological enterprise, fearlessly interspersing essays with interviews, posing difficult questions and drawing out the nuances of SF’s gleefully rogue persona.”

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