“Southeast Asia” is the deceptively straightforward geographical name for a world region comprised of 1.75 million square miles, 11 countries, and dozens of ethnicities and spoken languages. Unlike its richer and more developed neighbors to the north (China, Japan, Korea) and west (India), Southeast Asia has been a relatively muted participant in the cultural flows facilitated by globalization, including the outward spread of its distinctive musical traditions.
The eclectic crate-digger might recognize some varieties of Southeast Asian music that have found an audience in the West—like Indonesian gamelan, which has influenced artists ranging from Debussy and Satie to Cage and Fahey. By and large, however, the diverse musics of Southeast Asia remain sparsely documented in Western culture, outside the work of archivists and academics. This holds especially true for the music of Mainland Southeast Asia which, over the course of the second half of the 20th century, suffered through several brutal civil wars (Cambodia, Laos), foreign military interventions (Vietnam), and secessions (Singapore/Malaysia).
Though borders, governments, and ethnic tensions have shifted dramatically, certain elements of traditional culture—including music—have a dynamism that persists in Mainland Southeast Asia today. Here are a few labels on Bandcamp that are invested in archiving, documenting, distributing, and recontextualizing these sounds.
(Note: this introduction focuses on traditional music; for a critical engagement with contemporary Southeast Asian music, start with 2016 compilation Not Your World Music, or the Pekak! Indonesian noise anthology released in 2015 by New Zealand label End of the Alphabet.)
One of the first labels to focus on under-documented regional music was Sublime Frequencies, founded in 2003 by Hisham Mayet, along with brothers Alan Bishop and (Sir) Richard Bishop of the legendary avant-rock band Sun City Girls. The Bishops have been exploring links between music, ritual, improvisation, and mysticism since the late ’70s, and though Richard went on to pursue a solo career, Alan remains involved with the label.
Sublime Frequencies now has more than one hundred records, books, and DVDs in its catalog, the first being a collection of Balinese gamelan and Kecak performances recorded by Alan Bishop in 1989. The label’s output stretches from the Middle East to East Asia. 2005’s Radio Pyongyang, for example, collages radio broadcasts and live performances from the capital of a country just now making its first tentative steps onto the global stage; Ethnic Minority Music Of Northwest Xinjiang, China presents rare recordings made in the months leading up to a wave of 2009 protests by Uighur Muslims in China’s northwest, which ultimately led to the country’s government blocking Facebook to prevent further unrest.
The Xinjiang recordings, as well as most of Sublime Frequencies’ output from China and Mainland Southeast Asia, were handled by Laurent Jeanneau, a French musician and field recorder who intensively recorded traditional music for over a decade before relocating to Europe in 2013. For Sublime Frequencies, Jeanneau has compiled several albums worth of material from specific geographical subregions, including Southern Laos and Northeast Cambodia. His primary area of focus is Zomia: a region named in 2002 by historian Willem van Schendel that refers to the diffuse highland regions in Southwest China and Mainland Southeast Asia that have remained culturally isolated from the lowland population centers (and, by extension, the national governments centered there).
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Jeanneau’s work for Sublime Frequencies is just a fraction of his total output. Through his label (and solo moniker) Kink Gong, he has released an additional 159 CDs containing field recordings of ethnic minority music. As opposed to his compilations for Sublime Frequencies, Jeanneau’s Kink Gong field recordings follow a simple, repeated rubric: each is one hour long, and each focuses on one particular village or ethnic group. The clientele for Jeanneau’s extensive field recording library includes American and British universities, public libraries, and archival institutions such as the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris and the Ethnological Museum of Berlin.
After visiting Southwest China in 1992, Jeanneau moved to Cambodia in 2003, where an interest in traditional gong orchestras and bamboo instruments kept him there for three years. He spent the following seven years moving through Laos, Vietnam, and Yunnan—an ethnically diverse province in Southwest China—drawn along by the music and singing styles he encountered across Zomia. “It’s important for me not to understand their language, in order to perceive the voice as an instrument only,” Jeanneau says. He shuns work in a traditional studio, saying, “The only rule is to capture people in their milieu and to be invited.” Most of his recordings fall into one of two categories: music made for a specific event or ritual, such as a funeral, and a second scenario in which “there’s no particular reason to perform music, but they accept my request to play in order to be recorded.”
Jeanneau currently lives in Berlin, and has released two albums of original material this year via London label Discrepant. He’s maintained contacts in Cambodia and China, however, and is currently preparing to release a set of 24 CDs of music he recorded in Cambodia on Bandcamp, with titles such as BRAO KRUNG BRATANEUL rice ceremony RATANAKIRI 2003.
Concrete is a relatively new label, launched by “sound designer, music director, and sonic ethnographer” Yasuhiro Morinaga in 2013. Morinaga first became interested in sound while learning dance as a teenager, and made his first amateur field recordings using a MiniDisc player his father gave him when he was a young man. His interest deepened after he graduated from the Tokyo University of the Arts and spent some time in France, where he met experimental composer Michel Chion and became interested in musique concrète—which gives the label its name.
Today, Morinaga works primarily as a music director and sound designer for film and theater, but he has been repeatedly drawn to Southeast Asia by friends, and over the last several years he’s assembled an impressive catalog of traditional music from Mainland Southeast Asia. His goal is to bring his background in cinematic sound recording to bear on a constellation of musical traditions that he thinks transcend national borders. “After many years of working in Southeast Asia, I have [become] interested in wider perspectives,” Morinaga says, citing the wildly different musical use of gongs in Japanese court ritual, as compared the UNESCO-recognized gong culture of the Vietnamese highlands, as one example.
“From Hokkaido [North Japan] to somewhere like Flores Island of Indonesia, we see a number of islands aligned vertically, and each island has different music culture,” he says. “Even though these islands are owned by [different countries], I feel that this geographical boundary or territory is no longer active when it comes to music. I am interested in how we can make a new map from the musical point of view—such as instruments, the style of music, singing, rituals, and festivals.”
In addition to more than 20 releases of traditional music from Japan, Italy, India, China, and Southeast Asia, concrete also releases a parallel series called Outland Ethnologies that features artists in a more contemporary vein, such as Chinese free improv guitarist Li Jianhong. The overall release schedule is tied up by Morinaga’s diligent approach towards negotiating payment and consent among those whose music he records. Most concrete releases don’t recoup production costs, but Morinaga views the project as an organic, ongoing archive. “Music is always changing in Southeast Asia—the musicians do not play the music systematically. So, every time it can be different.”
CHINABOT, a pan-Asian label run by London-based Saphy Vong, has been off to a running start since launching just over a year ago. Recent releases include the Dângrêk Mountains split, which connects artists across a disputed part of the Thai-Cambodian border, and IKHLAS, a reworking of Malay sounds and samples by Singaporean producer Fauxe that recently earned an Album of the Day nod from Bandcamp Daily.
“I think hybridity is interesting, border towns are full of mixed cultures,” says Vong, who is originally from Cambodia and uses his own position at the border between Asian and Western cultures as a driving force for the label. Vong says he respects the work of field recorders who are interested in the region and engage in “fair trade,” but asks for the casual listener’s sustained attention: “If you are interested in the diversity of music in a country, you should document what’s going on now as well. The continent’s music is evolving rapidly… I think we should talk about what happens to some of these ethnic minorities who try to save their houses from the big constructions of dams, or deforestation. It’s nice to spread their art and feature them in hype magazines, but we should mention what happens to some of these artists at the moment.”
While CHINABOT doesn’t focus explicitly on field recordings or traditional music, many of their releases—including an upcoming album for Thai artist Pisitakun—instill traditional sounds with vital new significance. “Early this year, Pisitakun’s father died of cancer, [and] as is Thai tradition, he shaved off his beard and got ordained, spending a day and a night as a monk to make good merit for his father’s spirit,” Vong says of the Bangkok artist’s forthcoming album, SO SLEEP. “[The album] will be about this experience, mixing in Thai funeral instruments, like the Ching bell and the wooden pipe known as a khlui, into his industrial and electronic soundscapes.”
When asked about local organizations in his home country aiding the process of documenting traditional music, Vong mentions the Cambodian Vintage Music Archive, the Cambodian Living Arts music and dance program, and the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center which, in different ways, preserve and promote a cultural heritage that was shredded by the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. But CHINABOT is not about looking backwards, says Vong. “I’m just more interested in exploring and experimenting. We’ve already done a lot about archives—it’s time to think about the next generation of artists.”