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Princess Nicotine — various artists
Folk and pop music of Myanmar (Burma)
Well, thanks to the existence of Sublime Frequencies now you can get it! Originally released in 1994 on Majora, this was one of the 1000 copy vinyl runs that changed the world forever. Possibly the first ever "world music" compilation with the right idea, and so scarce and sought after going out of print, it's been commanding some serious change on the LP collectors market. And for good reason. This fucking thing will absolutely blow your goddamned head off. We've been recommending it to people for years, and only a couple of them have been able to track copies of it down after the first year of its printing — paying through the nose for the privilege.
Princess Nicotine is a compilation of 45s and tapes purchased and traded in Burma by Alan Bishop, and let's just state right here that besides his many other skills, this is a man who knows how to compile an album. Any Morricone freak knows that already, and will recognize AB as being the one who constructed the best Morricone compilation on the market: Morricone 2000.
But this is altogether different. What we have here is Burmese music that is made by and for Burmese people, not just some jerk going over there with some recording gear and making ethno-vampiric field recordings of the quaint little poor people in their natural habitat. (Why the fuck do they always do that? GOD!) Whatever your opinion on the ethics of repackaging previously recorded music, part of what comes through when we get to hear people represent themselves in the recording medium instead of having some "expert" do it for them, is the incredible sonorities of the instruments: the pitched drums, the screaming double reeds, the pitched bells. These are really interesting instruments that come with musicians who are all literally shredding on them like you wouldn't believe. Untrained ears might call the sound lo-fi, but in my opinion the assumption that people making their own recordings on less-than-state-of-the-art gear is automatically lo-fi is pretty insulting. It's about what you put into it, and these recordings are good in my opinion. A lot of thought and heart went into them, and they represent the music really well ... opinions may differ on that argument, so if you're one to get all impressed by, say, Bill Laswell's brand of *ahem* "ethnic appreciation," maybe this isn't for you. For us, with the tape distortion, fabulous high-pitched vocals going through tape delays and karaoke boxes, Casio keyboards — all that stuff just keeps us going, "what? How? No WAY!" and hitting the rewind button over and over...
Ok, so spectacular instruments and sounds aside, the music itself is of course what's really interesting. What a jackpot! At one time a loose seeming and almost meandering part will take off into unfathomably tight musical pyrotechnics unmatched anywhere on earth — then stopping on a dime like a grindcore band to give way to a dialogue/comedy routine, complete with canned laughter. Oh just buy it for Christ's sake. We can't describe it! Well, we should say that there are also songs that are very pretty, and even though they're less crazy than some of the others, being "just" songs, a lot of them still remain harmonically and rhythmically inaccessible to me. Which after 10 years still adds to our love for all this music.
From the evidence presented on this release we know that the music of Burma is extremely varied, and by way of orientation, on this compilation one can hear vague musical relations to all the neighboring musical traditions: some Indonesian/Javanese/Balinese Gamelan style rhythmic concepts, a few elements of Indian pop and film music, the clashing of cymbals and punctuations of Chinese festival and opera music ... it's all there ... sort of. Geographically you would expect as much. But then one has to wonder how much of this is generalization born simply of our nearly universal ignorance of the whole area. For instance, anyone who's heard the piano music of Burma will go, "well, yeah, that's a piano alright. But what the hell??" So part of me doubts the wisdom of defaulting to "cross-pollinization" as any kind of real explanation of what's going on here. AB says it best: "Burmese music has a very distinct sound and whatever instrument is assimilated into its core only seems to magnify its original intent without depending on outside ideas as they relate to each component of it."
And DAMN do they ever turn it up a few notches over there in the jungles of Myanmar!
The CD contains extra tracks not on the LP that are GREAT, and it's tantalizingly subtitled "folk and pop music of Myanmar (Burma) VOL 1." Yes!
Finally, just so you don't go thinking it's all done with mirrors, after getting this one you should definitely get the Nat Pwe DVD on Sublime Frequencies, where you can see music like this being performed live at a festival in honor of a pair of transvestite deities who seem to really dig week long binges of Johnny Walker, Winstons, and loud incredible music that seriously never stops.
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