One of the latest escapades in Sublime Frequencies? quest to document music of various cultures from across the globe brings us to North Vietnam?specifically ?Ethnic Minority Music of North Vietnam?. I suspect I?m not alone in my severe lack of knowledge of this part of the world, so thankfully traveler extraordinaire and recorder Laurent Jenneau provides a brief but concise essay on his interactions with the Zao, Hmong, Lu, and Giay people.
Eight of the compilation?s fifteen tracks belong to the Hmong. Quite a few of these tracks are performed using an instrument called the kheng, which Jenneau describes as a ?mouthorgan of 6 bamboo tubes.? Designed to manipulate certain singing techniques, the instrument sounds a bit like a simplified harmonium. The kheng tracks are some of the most enjoyable on the album, sounding playfully melodic at times and gorgeously plaintive at others. Additional tracks showcase several other simple Hmong instruments, including percussion created from a bamboo stick and coins as well as a chungja, which is essentially a Jew?s harp often used by flirting boys and girls.
The rest of the tracks on the album deal solely with singing styles presented with little or no instrumentation. The first vocal track, by a Lu woman, is stunning in its simple expressiveness. Other vocal pieces present more esoteric styles of singing. Hmong women demonstrate a technique known as ?Hungao,? which begins each measure with high notes that sharply dip down the scale. Even more intriguing is the ?Bao zoo? method, performed on four extended tracks by the Zao, which utilizes several voices repeating the same line at different times to create a hypnotizing delay effect. While the vocal pieces are striking upon first listen, their a cappella nature makes repeat plays a bit difficult.
Unlike some of Sublime Frequencies most widely praised albums such as ?Group Doueh? and ?Radio India?, the sounds on ?Ethnic Minority Music of North Vietnam? are virtually untouched by any popular or mainstream music sensibilities. So, obviously, anyone expecting another piece of international psychedelia will be sorely disappointed. It may not be the easiest or most immediately pleasurable listen?but like any trip to another land, an open mind can lead to a fascinating glimpse at customs and methods of expression from a world so very different than the one we dwell comfortably within. 8/10 -- Franklin Teagle (11 March, 2008)