Radio Thailand: Transmissions from the Tropical Kingdom
The Belgian-born Egyptian-Brit singer Natacha Atlas has been trading in Indo-Arabic, global pop fusion since her days with early '90s multiculti collective Transglobal Underground.
By the end of track one on her latest, Mishmaoul, you think you've got it figured out: This sounds like Massive Attack with a slightly more Arabic melody ... and lyrics. Then the second track kicks off with an oud, hip-hop beats and this rap: "It's freaky, baby ... you ever wonder why the world's still crazy? You ever think about the times and the troubles what we're livin' in? And what kind of retribution will the future bring?"
Atlas borrows more than freakiness from Missy Elliot ... there's also her slash-and-burn approach to the sometimes hip-hop, sometimes drum 'n' bass and dancehall beats driving the kaleidoscopic Mishmaoul. Critics noted the Missy flavor on 2003's Something Dangerous, which also featured Sinéad O'Connor and a cover of James Brown's "Man's World." Beyond the skittering beats, Mishmaoul veers between slow, lustrous ballads ("Ghanwah Bossanova") and frenetic accordion techno ("Bathaddak").
The sense the album imparts, whether given utterance in Arabic, French or (seldom) English, is of sonic overabundance ... not to mention scores of musicians and instruments ... of overwhelming possibilities stretching out from the ever-shifting tracks. In some respects, Mishmaoul reminds me of later Capercaillie, a Scottish supergroup that brought ceilidh rhythms, Gaelic lyrics and traditional instrumentation to global pop and African percussion, ending up with Top 40 hits in the U.K. before imploding in cheesiness.
Mishmaoul probably isn't for everybody. But as sung by Atlas' incredible pipes, multiculturalism ... far from some arid issue or debate topic ... is a very sexy thing.
"Need to travel Thailand? Looking for the most breathtaking hiking trail? In search of Thailand's most pristine beach and diving spot? Where to go? What to do? Where to stay? What's going on?" This clip from a tourist commercial accurately expresses the joyful confusion of listening through the two CDs of Radio Thailand: Transmissions from the Tropical Kingdom.
Basically, two guys named Alan Bishop and Mark Gergis recorded various radio stations and formats all over Thailand over a 15-year period, assembling the recordings into audio collages with their own English titles. At any given second, you could be hearing a Thai classic-rock song, sacred music, a commercial, pop, folk, DJs ... you get the idea.
To be sure, there's much beautiful and moving music tucked away here ... but it's nearly impossible to talk about. There's no context or real way to go forward. If something on the disc interests you, who is it? What is it? "What's going on?"
Both Radio Thailand and the more concentrated, purposeful Radio Algeria are products of Sublime Frequences, "a collective of explorers dedicated to acquiring and exposing obscure sights and sounds from modern and traditional urban and rural frontiers ... focused on an aesthetic of extra-geography and soulful experience inspired by music and culture, world travel, research ..."
Take the intentions how you will, but the compilations are a bit troubling, freighted with the familiar baggage of cultural appropriation. It's doubtful any of the (unacknowledged) original musicians receive any compensation.
And if someone sat in a hostel with a boombox and assembled Radio Pittsburgh, what would that look like? Maybe some local music, a pledge drive, some WAMO booty-bass, conservative bluster, college-radio free jazz, half a Godsmack song and a KFC commercial ... Well, that could be considered accurate, but nobody here would be too thrilled about it.
Neither compilation seems to create a snapshot of a culture's listening habits so much as offer an undifferentiated backpack-touristy experience. Call it a poor man's vacation: You can put it on, kick back with your sensory enhancer of choice, and catch that initial rush and blur of chaotic, unfamiliar experience.