Various Artists: Radio India and The Conet Project
Radio India: The Eternal Dream of Sound
The Conet Project: Recordings of Shortwave Numbers Stations
Last night I had the weirdest dream: I was cooking up goat curry with my uncle Ronald while Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai tried to give me a quick tabla lesson. All this racket did was awaken Mahatma Gandhi from his slumber between two female virgins. His admonishments were drowned by the buzzer of my alarm clock. Wiping the tamarind from my eye, I turned over to see that Radio India, the latest installment of the ambitious ethno-musicological series curated by the Sun City Girls' Alan Bishop, was seeping into my head.
Waking dream or not, this two-disc set of delirious radio collage culled from two different trips through India only hints at how that country absorbs outside musical styles into its ancient ones and exhales the blended songs as its own. Here, teeny-bop radio morphs into swooning Bollywood strings, and atmospheric buzzing becomes Bengalese tambour buzz. "Deep Disco Drama Diva" co-mingles a Dr. Dre wheeze-beat with monk moans only to let a menacing radio announcer deep-breathe all over it. Elsewhere, static clarifies into a classical sitar recital, and a fiery raga fizzles into Maxi Priest's maxim that "Oh baby, it's a wild world." Indeed.
Radio can carry nightmares as well. Gleaned only by shortwave, the mysterious transmissions captured on The Conet Project are known as "Numbers Stations," Cold War holdovers from government agencies that would like the taxpaying public to believe they don't exist. The British government once renounced them with a Newspeak gem: "People shouldn't have any interest in Numbers Stations because they shouldn't be listening to them because they are illegal to listen to."
If you heard the sonic meltdown of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or saw Tom Cruise running through an empty Times Square in Vanilla Sky, you've no doubt heard snatches of these enigmas. Simply put, they are strings of numbers read by disembodied voices that are chilling, sensuous, childlike, stoic, curt; they transmit codes to spies and agents in every possible language. As they come through the atmosphere, crackle and distortion wraps a sense of foreboding around a simple recitation of "One...six...nine."
On the UK label Irdial's ambitious, overwhelming four-CD set, you can hear all the greatest hits (perhaps even in the assassination sense) of the CIA, KGB, MI6, and MOSSAD, to name but a few. What makes the collection such a mesmerizing listen is that one wonders why these codes get interwoven with bleeps, whistles, and chirps; bursts of "The Lincolnshire Poacher" announce one transmission, while another cues up vintage Jean Michel Jarre. As terror alerts change color based on vague chatter, this reissue will no doubt fuel enough paranoia to keep listeners up at night.
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