“Without a coordinator they took portable DAT recorders and went to the mountains of India, the prairie of Mongoli and villages in Bali. They made friends with the residents, collecting their sounds while singing and dancing with them…”
- from Sorma’s press release
In my real life—that is, what I do with my time when I’m not writing record reviews—I spend a lot of time trying to think about how it is that we got to where we are today. Granted, this is a pretty enormous topic, and it’s fair to ask who I think this “we” might be and where “where” is located. To be only slightly more specific, much of my current research and writing deals with how globalization—a complicated set of social, political and economic phenomena—has changed our understanding of culture. Of course, culture is not just something that is effected by globalization: it is also a fundamental part of the process of globalization. The spatial and temporal collapse of the globe into a much smaller place has meant that the physical and psychological borders by which we have long defined both our personal and cultural identities have also collapsed. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Borders, whether internal or external, have tended to promote the most virulent kind of illiberal parochialisms. Globalization’s worst-case scenario is that of a global monoculture of mass-produced commodities and experiences originating out of the dream factories of America. As much as we might want to avoid this, we should be careful not to think the opposite to be the case—that everything opposed to globalization, everything that might be considered “traditional,” is necessarily better than where we are now.
What does all this have to do with Sorma’s new album?
Sorma is an open-ended music collective with four central members: Yoichi Shimada, Eijiro Shimada, Yasufumi Yamashita, and Rikiya Yamashita. Mirage of the East is their third album, following up 1996’s A-Un? and Illusion, released in 1998. Half of the tracks on the new album are remixes of tracks on Illusion. This is a different Sorma than the one whose trippy dance tracks first brought them to public awareness, and the urge to remix so many of their early tracks comes from a desire to recapture the original idea of the collective. The general formula remains the same: slinging DAT recorders over their shoulders, the members of Sorma head out into the wilds mapped by Lonely Planet guides in order to fill tape after tape with authentic folk sounds from India, Mongolia, Bali and so on. Back in the lab in Tokyo, these sounds are processed, sampled, synthesized, mixed with other instruments and finally pumped out as electronic trance music. The only difference seems to be is that on the new album things are more mellow. This ain’t music that moves your butt, but which helps your consciousness float away while you’re sitting on it.
It’s all decently carried off and I was happy enough to listen to it several times so that I could write this review. I don’t have any real objections about the execution; rather, I suppose that my objections are strictly philosophical. Sorma’s entire musical project is anxiously wrapped in an aura of authenticity. This isn’t just trance music, we’re told: it’s the real thing, real music of the world captured like an exotic animal and brought back to civilization to be gawked at by suburbanities looking for some diversion from their chronic boredom. But there’s nothing especially distinctive about the final product. This is kind of world beat music that one could imagine snuggling happily alongside Starbuck’s cash registers: an unfocused, atmospheric stew of indigenous voices and contemporary dance beats, the traditional and modern, the country and the city. I imagine that this would be the perfect soundtrack for people who meditate at home or those who find modern life to be a little too fast and hard and who deal with it by drinking herbal teas with names like “Blissful Blend” and “Peaceful Peppermint” (I imagine Tim Robbins’ character in High Fidelity). I’m not saying that what Sorma is up to is inauthentic, that is, that they’re doing something wrong or perverse by undertaking this mix. World music is all about fused and hybrid forms—the birth of something new, something greater than the sum of its parts. All too often, however, what’s called world music is packaged as an antidote to the supposedly crass, soulless music and culture of the west—rap and industrial music, commodity consumption and stock market greed. It’s a far too simple an equation for a complex world, and it doesn’t really help us to understand or appreciate music that we haven’t, until recently, had a chance to hear. Quite the opposite. Sorma may have travelled 4,000 kilometers to fill their DATs. The mileage is impressive; the music, less so. Buyer beware: there’s nothing more inauthentic in the global marketplace than buying into the marketing of authenticity.