[17 July 2008]
Sublime Frequencies’ last Radio album from this part of the world was Radio Thailand, which came out in 2006. Radio Myanmar (Burma), with one disc instead of Thailand‘s two, is a shorter release. It is also more shapely and more courteous. Where Radio Thailand made Thailand seem startling, a vehicle for one discordant surprise after another, Radio Myanmar (Burma) takes a few core themes—the sounds of the country’s traditional music, evidence of government control, local manifestations of worldwide pop culture detritus—and moves between them, giving us a slightly larger picture of each one, bit by bit, as it goes. The element of surprise is still there, but the mood is thoughtful. We’re being asked to contemplate rather than react.
The idea behind the albums is this: the compiler visits the country and records ordinary broadcasts from the radio. They then edit snippets of these broadcasts together into an unbroken flow of different sounds. So you might have a few sentences from a newsreader seguing into the middle of a rock song followed by part of an advertisement for toothpaste. It’s as if an entire day’s transmissions have been sketched out in an hour. In this case the album begins with the bustling trumpets of a military march leading into the sound of a woman reading aloud in uncertain English from a propaganda bulletin. “To work in concert with the people,” she says. “In building a peaceful modern develop and discipline flourishing democratic nation … To crush every danger posed to stability and development of the state hand in hand with the people …”
After this there’s part of a gentle guitar-based song that sounds like a cover of Linda Ronstadt’s “Mr Radio”, followed by a commercial for something called American Vision. In the liner notes the compiler lets us know that the radio stations he culled this material from are controlled by a pro-government body known as the Union Solidarity and Development Association, or USDA. “It’s [sic] widely published statutes expressing the importance of state sovereignty and public solidarity can be found in all mediums throughout the country,” he writes, “- newspapers, television, billboards and radio broadcasts. Known as the “Three Main National Causes”, “Four-Point People’s Desire”, “Seven-Point Road to Democracy”, and “Twelve Political, Economic and Social Objectives”, each broadcast day begins with their recitation.”
His album’s thoughtful progression suits the importance of its subject matter. Thailand’s political system may not be perfect—this is the country that once nicknamed its Prime Minister ‘Mr ATM’ because he was rumoured to have handed out so much money in bribes—but it allows its people a freedom that is denied the Burmese. It would have been disturbing if Radio Myanmar had taken the same route as Radio Thailand, and made the SPDC junta’s propaganda instruments sound deliberately exotic and surprising and fun.
Anything from South East Asia is going to seem strange to some extent if you don’t live there yourself, but Radio Myanmar showcases similarities as well as differences. The Burmese listeners might start their day with the Twelve Political, Economic, and Social Objectives and Seven-Point Road to Democracy but they also listen to note-for-note Burmese copies of Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” and something that the compiler calls simply, “Pop Song”. “Pop Song” is a little like Crowded House. Their advertisements for “Pain Ointment” and other medicines bounce along to the same upbeat chipper chirp as non-Burmese ones. The difference is that on Burmese commercials the pain-free musicians are singing along to an adaptation of a local folk tune.
The women who make English-language propaganda announcements on tracks like “National Objectives” and “Human Rights” have the inflections of people who know enough of a language to be able to pronounce most of the words correctly, but perhaps not enough to understand what they’re saying at the speed at which they read it. “Now the whole nation including border areas is. Enjoying the taste of progress in the economic and social sectors. Resulting from the …” reads Human Rights woman, and then she pauses and gathers up her strength to deal firmly with the word “endeavours.” A little later she makes a sortie into “tangible.” The sentences she’s pronouncing, with their appeals to the harmony of the party and the people and their denunciations of foreign nations, might as well have been lifted from 1984, but at the same time she is everyone who has ever had to read aloud from a textbook in a foreign-language class at school, secretly doubting that these strange jagged blurts could ever make sense to anybody and wondering if the whole idea of foreign languages is really a fathomless practical joke perpetrated by unseen forces at her expense.
Behind the stiff speeches she is human. Radio Myanmar (Burma) makes this point consistently, without any great fanfare. It’s just quietly there. The Burmese are themselves, with their own folk tunes, their “Tribal Drums & Male Vocal” that sounds like its name, but they also share in a broader humanity. Like parents everywhere they must hope that their children will feel better when they give them the medicine advertised on “Commercial for Kids Cough Mixture”. Radio Myanmar particularises and also normalises them. It’s a terrific social documentary, a persuasive lesson delivered without preaching.