Sublime Frequencies is best known for its foreign-language pop culture CDs, those agglomerations of songs that provide a kind of backpacker’s excursion for your ears. Ethnic Minority Music of Northeast Cambodia is a different thing altogether. It is a compilation of field recordings made by Laurent Jeanneau between 2003 and 2005. He was traveling among the tribes that live on the border separating Cambodia from two of its neighbours, Vietnam and Laos. This is folk, but not mainstream Cambodian folk, nor is it the complicated classical music that accompanies the old palace dances. It’s village music from the fringes.
Most of the tracks feature singing, and the singing is monotonous. By this I don’t mean that it’s boring. I mean that it doesn’t shape itself around the kind of dramatic variations in tone and octave that Western singing uses: the soaring highs, the swooping lows, the dramatic whispers. In the first track, for example, an old man named Ien sings with a grinding wobble and a groan that sounds similar to Tuvan kargyraa. The notes he sings don’t move across a wide range, but they sometimes intensify or hitch. These changes are like the change in applause; it’s as if someone had decided to speed up and slow down his clapping, or smack his hands together firmly then softly.
Then in track seven, you have the same limited range used in a layered way. Male and female singers take turns to address one another over the swelling notes of five gongs, while young women clap, and a flute player occasionally reminds the others that he exists. None of these elements changes very much in itself, but, put together, they give the song a sense of contrast and vitality.
(I’m referring to these songs as ‘the first track’ and ‘track seven’ because the titles in the inlay are too long to be introduced comfortably into a sentence without some kind of explanation. They’re entirely new sentences in themselves. The full name of track seven is, “Five Kreung Men Gong Players Standing and Holding Their Gongs, a Flute Player, 8 Female Virgins Clapping Hands and a Responding Chant Between a Male and Female Singers, In Dong Gamal (Ratanakiri) March 2005.” The first track is “A Brao Song, an Old Man Named Ien Performing a Lying Song (Meut Mouan Grung Young) Done In His Hammock All Nite Long, Telling Brao Legends, In Taveng (Ratanakiri) June 2005”.)
The most impressive example of the layering effect might be track 10, “Acapella Krung Female Singer, a Song About American Bombing and The Khmer Rouge, In Krapo (Ratanakiri) December 2003.” Gongs ramp up and down like donkeys and the sound they make is matched by a stringed instrument giving off a metallic, one-note chank-chank-chank over and over again.
The gong and the string meld together and the effect is very weird. The string fights against the gong as it rises and falls, and the noise pulsates, pressing in on your ears and then pulling away. The women’s voices are harsh-edged, sharp, invocative, and witchy. They sing, and then drop into a chat. A new voice comes in, either a man or a woman. This goes on and on, the gong, the string, the chanting, relentlessly, and the noise rolls back and forth in a tranced throb.
There are voices on the album besides those of the musicians. On track 16 (“Proak, a Tampoen, 2 Strings Instrument With Gourd as a Resonator Played By Jim In Laom (Ratanakiri) October 2004”) a baby coughs, sneezes, then starts to cry. Someone hawks spit on track three. (“Acapella Brao Female Singer, a Midwife Song, North Bank of Sesan River, In Taveng (Ratanakiri) February 2004”). The sound of the village goes on around the musicians, people wander past, insects zither. By the end, you’re left with no doubt that these groups of people live in a very concrete place with its own atmosphere and character. They exist. They are fully rounded. This is one of the wonderful things about field recordings. They give you a sense of space in ways that a studio recording does not.
The liner notes are short—shorter than the notes you’d see in the field recordings released by Topic or Nonesuch—but they’re long enough to give you some idea of the people you’re listening to. I can’t tell you whether Ethnic Minority Music of Northeast Cambodia is better or worse than other recordings of northeastern Cambodian animist tribes, because, to be honest, this is the first one I’ve heard, and for all I know it’s the only one available. Let its uniqueness be a point in its favour.