Various Artists: Ethnic Minority Music of North Vietnam

[9 January 2008]

By Deanne Sole

SUBLIME FREQUENCIES,” reads the small print on the label’s website, “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 …,” and goes on to name other labels that have shown some dedication to field recordings: Topic, Nonesuch Explorer, Chant du Monde, and so on. It’s a justifiable nod of respect. Field recording has never been a very lucrative business, and yet the labels kept and continue to keep bringing out these surprising albums, their unpredictable and evocative titles smelling of old movie serials: Hunters of the Dallol Mawri, The Aissawa Confraternity, From a Shaman’s Notebook, Gamelan of the Love God. The award for best cover, though not best music, goes to Topic’s Yemen Tihama and its man with his mouth full of ivory snakes.

The titles of Ethnic Minority Music of Southern Laos and Ethnic Minority Music of North Vietnam are plain by comparison. Sublime Frequencies is not a label that puts its faith in words. Its “soulful experiences” are all about sounds and pictures and the feelings of curiosity and mystery that come from not knowing everything about whatever you are looking at or listening to. It seems to be searching for some pre-word experience, a Neanderthal or childlike sense of astonishment in a world that is modern and adult, too clever, too well-informed.

Both of the new albums are reflections of their geography. There are similarities between the music on Southern Laos and the music of Thailand, while North Vietnam with its overlapping, angular noises, sounds closer to China. The voices of the North Vietnamese Hmong women slide adroitly up and down, and the kheng bamboo mouth organs wheeze like flat harmoniums. There are love songs and songs of welcome, and, at the end of the disc, a 15-minute solo marathon sung by a Giay who draws out some of her words with a faint, attractive hint of curling rasp. In “Piem Zat”, a Zao man plays a reed instrument that sounds so much like a small set of bagpipes that I had the fleeting impression he was going to segue into “The Skye Boat Song”. There is possibly too much of the kheng, all of it sounding roughly the same to a listener who doesn’t know how to pick out the subtleties in each performance.

Southern Laos is an album of gongs, many gongs. It is safe to say that if gongs irritate you, then this CD will have you wishing that the evil forces of mainstream capitalist society would arrive and give these Brao tribespeople an electric guitar or a saxophone or anything at all to break up the bong-bong-bong and ding-ding-ding of gongs. Sometimes the gongs come with singing. Sometimes the gongs are mysterious. “Gaw Ja Galpeu” is “played for animist buffalo sacrifices,” the notes tell us, and the gongs here are muted and eerie. Sometimes the gongs are frankly boring. Sometimes they go away and we hear voices or bamboo instruments instead. At times the music suggests the morlam that came out on the label’s Thai Country Groove from Isan disc, but in a different form, looser, less snarly.

In these Ethnic Minority Music releases, Sublime Frequencies takes on the role of the slightly bullying friend who pushes you in the deep end for your own good, trusting that you’ll learn to swim if you’ve got enough incentive to try. This is not the Nonesuch Explorer series, varied and melodious, carefully appealing to the middle ground between the field recording newcomer and the veteran who wonders what Burundian shepherds, specifically, sound like when they play flutes. Think instead of Topic’s Moken: Sea Gypsies of the Andaman Sea—music that has something intimate and monotonous about it, murmured and muttered, the music of people who know that they will never be asked to face huge audiences and rarely required to sing to anyone other than themselves and their friends. Anyone looking for another raucous Thai Country Groove will have to adjust their expectations. But there are rewards here that you will not find in the same form anywhere else, not unless you want to fly to the baize-green East Asian landscape and hunt down the Brao and the Giay and the singing women yourself.

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