BY Roland Kapferer in Reviews | 01 OCT 06
Featured in
Issue 102

Radio Algeria

BY Roland Kapferer in Reviews | 01 OCT 06

Radio Algeria is produced by Sublime Frequencies, a US-based record label set up by Alan Bishop of the experimental music group Sun City Girls. Sublime Frequencies is dedicated to ‘acquiring and exposing obscure sights and sounds’ insufficiently documented by academics or the mass media. It claims to be collecting and archiving sonic worlds beyond the standard channels of global media-orchestrated musical experience. I think Radio Algeria is dilettantism and, to paraphrase the anthropologist Edmund Leach, musical butterfly collecting. Here’s why.

The album contains eleven tracks with suitably exotic- and new world-sounding titles such as ‘Andalusia Nights’, ‘Saharan Mosaic’ and ‘Evaporating Borders’. Each track consists of edited music samples taken by Bishop from radio broadcasts during a month-long trip to Morocco and Algeria in 2005. Termed by Bishop as ‘radio collage’, generally, two or three different radio pieces per track are jump-cut together using adverts, station IDs or announcements as rough connecting devices.

Neither the original names of the songs from which the samples are taken nor the musicians who created them are listed in the very sparse CD liner notes. Only Bishop is credited as the ‘recorder, assembler and editor’. We are simply told that the album is a ‘diverse collection’ of Berber folk, Arabic pop, Islamic ‘traditional’, Guesba, Tuareg, Saharaui and ‘hybrid styles’. No specific music is identified, and no respect whatsoever is paid to the autonomy of the music used. Isn’t this the very crime once famously attributed to industrialized mass music by Theodore Adorno; the obliteration of musical autonomy and lack of attention to the whole? Here, Bishop is entangled in the very assault of mass standardization that Sublime Frequencies propose to escape.

The shift away from familiar Western diatonic patterns and the nebulous tonality characteristic of Bishop’s work with Sun City Girls is repeated in the structure of this album. Perhaps this is what attr-acts him to ‘non-Western’ music? In this respect, it doesn’t seem to be any different from much of the music being produced by Western DJs who ‘record and assemble’ digital samples or experiment with unusual micro-tonality, and that can be found all over News Corporation’s internet vehicle Myspace.

Essentially, Radio Algeria is an experimental musician’s experiment with ethno-musicology. He lays claim to the tradition of the folklorist capturing ‘field recordings’ but keeps his experimental interests foregrounded. Part scientist and part religious mystic he professes to be bringing the truth to the people, or ‘breathing corpses’ as he called them in a recent interview on, buried under a pyramid of media lies and deception.

There is something deeply troubling about this album. It seems to me to be an aspect of current American global adventurism – a ruggedly individualist cowboy aesthetic for a new world order. It manifests a ‘fuck you’ attitude in relation to other states and cultures. In simply lifting the material out if its environment with no concern for its context or specific musical meaning, Bishop undermines his claims to diversity and archival research. Radio Algeria is absolutely bound up in an emergent, triumphalist rationalism and social reductionism – the idea that all cultures and all modalities of human being are essentially the same.