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V/A - My Friend Rain

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Artist: V/A

Album: My Friend Rain

Label: Sublime Frequencies

Review date: Sep. 2, 2010

Professional ethnomusicologists (and a number of amateur ethnomusicologists as well) tend to have ambivalent feelings about the Seattle label Sublime Frequencies. On the one hand, SF does bring recordings from distant parts of the world to the attention of the North American world music market that are historically and stylistically interesting. But on the other hand, the paucity (or sheer incorrectness) of the accompanying notes, not to mention the musical selections themselves, suggests that its attitude toward the music and musicians swings between nostalgia and condescension.

My Friend Rain will do nothing dispel these concerns. The film by Robert Millis, an elegiac and unnarrated string of performances, images and travelogue sequences shot in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Burma, has several fascinating scenes, especially the long opener focusing on a blind street musician playing a pin, and another long scene showing a musician performing the hsaing waing (a tuned drum chine) for the Burmese puppet theater. To Millis’s credit, both performances are unbroken and presented in full; the hsaing waing performance, in particular, is must-see footage for anyone who has recordings of the instrument but only the vaguest notion how the sounds are made. At the same time, stretches of the video, although imaginatively framed, would have benefited from a tripod — unless, of course, the filmmaker intended to evoke the aesthetics of a rather careless tourist fascinated by carved images of demons and devils torturing the unfortunate in one temple diorama after another. Several of the extra pieces included on the DVD will appeal to anyone who has traveled in Southeast Asia, particularly the scenes titled “Bus Depot,” “Cobra Liquor,” and “Ever Had a Spider Throw a Rock at You?”

The accompanying CD presents 12 tracks, four recorded by Millis (and heard during his film); two of them appeared earlier on the 2003 recording Leaf Music, Drunks, Distant Drums: Recordings from Laos Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar. The remaining eight tracks, according to the liner notes, “were taken from various damaged and indecipherable cassette and LP sources purchased in SE Asia.” The tone of the CD (and the film, in this respect) is set with the first cut, a cover of the Bee Gees’ 1971 hit “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” in Burmese by Zaw Win Shein, a lovely, synth-laden version of this piteously lachrymose ditty, sung in a wavering tenor with plenty of reverb. For someone who survived the original when it was in heavy rotation, the defamiliarization brought by Burmese lyrics is quite refreshing. Meas Hokseng’s “Jomnes Jis Kor Aung,” a jazzy 6/8 ballad sung in Khmer (with a saxophone solo), is similarly a sweet variation on an archetypical Thai/Cambodian ballad; other, “traditional” cuts such as “Single Man with the Kids” by the Sein Hing hsaing waing ensemble, are also well worth listening to.

In general, however, the lack of any apparent effort to determine and credit the provenance of the recordings is troubling. This is particularly true of the cuts drawn from the film, all of which are describe as “unknown” (unknown elephant mahoot, unknown blind street musician), but frankly all of the recordings would be better understood with fuller context. Meas Hokseng was an important singer and actor in the 1960s; Pan Ron (singer of track 10, “Pka Sondun”) was No. 1 in Cambodia in the 1970s, but apparently did not survive the Khmer Rouge. These are people’s art and lives, not just marginalia that can be dispensed with by suggesting that it was too hard to get the information. It may be too late to consider royalties for many of the performers, but is it too much to tell us a bit about their lives — is it too much to ask their names after recording them?

By Richard Miller

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