Mexico City's Plaza de Garibaldi sits only a few blocks away from the art-deco Bellas Artes, home to the internationally renowned Ballet Folklorico de Mexico, but it's the come-as-you-are to Artes' black-tie. During morning hours the rifle-stacked guitars are the only clues to Garibaldi's Mexico-wide reputation as the home of mariachi music, but once afternoon slowly rolls around and the fiery smoke of grilled meats starts to flow from the open-air food stands, musicians trickle onto the plaza and start plying their trade. Songs average about a buck apiece – whatever you work out with the musicians – and while mariachi is the predominant style, Garibaldi is a living jukebox of Mexican folk, where tourists primarily from Central America can find groups playing norteño, veracruzano and conjunto.

This pocket of Mexican folk might as well be Total Request Live when compared to the global sounds coming out on Seattle's Sublime Frequencies imprint. Started by Sun City Girls brothers Alan and Rick Bishop and friend Hisham Mayet, Sublime's CDs and DVDs are transmissions from parts of the world where ethnomusicologists fear to tread, presented without an encyclopedia of big-idea text to explain the exotica, typically just some cursory liner notes identifying the music's source. It's a wonderfully unadorned way to offer these documents, giving you a chance to discover the new without the crutch of discursive context.

It's a strategy that reaps near-magical results in the Isan: Folk and Pop Music of Northeast Thailand DVD, which also succinctly outlines the closest thing Sublime Frequencies has to an unifying aesthetic. The 50 minutes of Isan drifts from an evening's music and dance folk festival to a guy playing a bizarre Phin guitar to young women dancing in front of a primarily percussion rock ensemble, moving from one long-take scene to the next via fadeout. It's a graciously commentary-free presentation that's due both to Sublime's operation – the footage was shot in March 2004 and came out this fall – and its interests. The area of northern Thailand explored in Isan is where Laotian, Cambodian, Thai and the far-reaching currents of Western music traditions intermingle, and what Isan catches – especially in the quasi-rock performances – is music as pidgin language, where it has changed just a little bit with each successive generation. All of Sublime's releases explore this cultural and musical scrim, an unfamiliar layer between the familiar layers of contemporary world music and field-recording archives. And best of all, Sublime Frequencies treats all this music not as some anthropological data but as intoxicating sounds to hear.

Bush Taxi Mali: Field Recordings from Mali and Radio India: The Eternal Dream of Sound drive home Sublime Frequencies' mission as a travels-based label. Bush Taxi culls 14 hypnotic tracks from Seattle-based musician/producer Tucker Martine's 1998 travels through West Africa, where his microphone captured bluesy, jubilant strings – a ngoni, strummed like a guitar and higher-pitched than a banjo – snippets of contemporary highlife taken off the radio in Bamako, and Fulani flute playing. It unfolds like a travel scrapbook, each new track a page turn to a colorful snapshot of dizzying rhythms and vocal chants you find yourself humming along to even though you don't know the words – or the language.

Radio India is a travelogue of a completely different order. This collection comes entirely from Alan Bishop's recordings of radio broadcasts throughout India, edited into a transporting collage as giddily weird as a Bollywood epic and, at two CDs, almost as long. Songs, commercials, station identifications, DJs, radio dramas, whatever – all is game to Bishop's indiscriminate ear, the tracks labeled like items in a photography exhibit – "Radio Calcutta #1," "Spirit of Puja in Bengal/DJ No Home" – and the tracks themselves are blasts that run straight from the ears to pelvis and face. Radio India is a nearly two-hour bus ride of hip-shaking grins. Echo-drenched keyboard splashes fade into arpeggio guitar lines and into a simple programmed beat that squelches into a radio search through Indian pop in "Trolling the Crossroads of Bliss." A sky-soaring soprano sings one of the perkiest bittersweet melodies around in "Silent or Noisy World?", a melodrama that marries strings to canned beats and then morphs into a honky-tonk C&W computer ad sung with a Hindi accent, and then into wafts of reggae Muzak. And on "Deep Disco Drama Diva," a man's bedroom talk over a throaty chant swells into a bubble-gum bounce that backs the presumed titular vocal queen. It's a ridiculous hodgepodge that doesn't make one lick of sense, yet over these two discs Radio India doesn't disorient you by the bizarre, but instead allows it to seduce you all on its own.

More by Bret McCabe


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