Andrew H. Walker, Getty Images Nine days after the deadly tornado that touched…
- Posted on Dec 7th 2010 5:00PM by Steve Hochman
Maybe for many with something like this:
Waipod Phetsuphan, 'Ding Ding Dong'
Hey, we live for those moments! And it's what happened with Chris Menist, a DJ, producer, musician, writer and inveterate music collector, when he found that song, 'Ding Ding Dong,' by Thai singer Waipod Phetsuphan, while combing through the bins in a stretch of record stores in Bangkok a few years ago. He really had no idea what he was hearing.
"And that was part of the joy," he says. "I've been collecting records about 20, 25 years, and I think there's part of every record collector that's trying to capture that initial childlike enthusiasm when you hear something new for the first time. You have to find that. I was listening to different things and thinking, 'Oh, this music is amazing and I don't know anything about it.' It was a pure experience, not going in thinking I knew what it was or the background, looking for particular artists. Even from the album covers it's not indicative of what the music is. I haven't got any kind of reference, so I have to start listening to everything and compiling information."
This all started almost immediately after Menist moved from his native England to Bangkok in 2008.
"I was pretty sure there'd be music to find there that I'd never heard before," he says, speaking at this time from Yemen, on vacation. "So I started going through secondhand markets and shows, and after a few weeks I found there's a stretch of road in Chinatown, the old hub of the music industry there. And there were four or five record shops that had been there 30 or 40 years, like the shops are almost preserved in time. Whatever records were left after people stopped buying vinyl en masse, they're still in the stores. I just started going through these shops and picking up stuff and eventually settling on the types of Thai music I liked."
Rock 'n' roll was very much a presence in Thailand at that point, in part for the same reasons it was all over Southeast Asia: the presence of the US armed forces (a large military base provided a lot of jobs for Thais) and increased penetration of Western sounds via radio and other electronic media. It's explicit in much pop music from that era, as chronicled in various anthologies put together in recent years, such as the '"Thai Beat a Go Go' discs and Sublime Frequencies' 'Thai Pop Spectacular' sets, a good deal of it plainly imitative of the Western models. But this stuff heads way off into what, for many ears, will be enticing weirdness. Even those familiar with the luk-thung examples to be found on the Sublime Frequencies sets, as well as the label's two-volume 'Molam: Thai Country Groove from Isan' collections, will likely find some surprises here.
For Menist, the more he found in record stores, the greater his curiosity. And what he learned was fascinating:
"'Luk-thung' is a very broad term, a generic term for the bulk of Thai folk-influenced music," he reports. "Modern luk-thung I'm not into, personally. It doesn't quite have the experimental feel of the stuff on the album, the hybrid of old Thai folk and modern instrumentation. This is a crossover point where it wasn't quite folk but wasn't really Western-influenced, either; a time when people were trying things out, a lot of trial-and-error. That's one reason why you would say it's not quite like music you've heard before. It doesn't fit a category. It was a period of experimentation."
'Ding Ding Dong' is a great example of this phenomenon, which was centered in lively Bangkok, where a recording and record shops scene thrived.
"Waipod made his name with a religious music form called Lae," Menist says of the singer, who came from Suphanburi, about two hours north of Bangkok. "Lea is very interesting. A lot of young Thai males will join a monastery for a month or a maybe a year or two. When they're about to join, it's a big family occasion. They get their head shaved and the monks will be there, sing about the life of Buddha and to remember your parents. A relaxed occasion, though solemn at the same time."
But this song is quite a departure from those roots.
"It's really quire risqué," he says. "It's about sex – its plus points and minus points. Quite tongue-in-cheek and lots of innuendo. Even so, he's got this natural power. What really hit me about it was this driving backbeat and the way the vocals and horns play together. A perfect combination for me."
Molam, on the surface, shares some aesthetics, but it came from a very different world in the more rural Northeast. The embrace of modern sounds inside the country traditions made for some particularly bracing and head-turning contrasts:
Chaweenan Dumnern, 'Sao Lam Plearn'
"With this track, I think, it's such a fine balance. On one hand, a very traditional Molam track – lam plearn is like a mode. But this has the rock riff at the beginning and the almost whining theme through it. And a lot of Thai music is influenced by Northeastern Indian classical music, so the idea of drones and all that crop up. This has that slightly woozy, druggy sense to it. Instead of using traditional music it uses the sound quality of analog synthesizer to replicate it: her beautiful vocals, nice chunky rock riff and then the whiny drone."
It's not just enticingly exotic to those of us from outside the culture, he's found, but even in the heart of Bangkok.
"Whenever we play this track it always gets reaction," he says. "People dance to it and want to find out what it is. We've had young Thais who normally treat this music with disdain; suddenly they're hearing it in a new way. They come to the club and we play reggae and African, and then we drop this track and they hear it in a different way. This is a track that crosses that divide."
Ultimately, he readily presents the album as a "personal selection" based on his own discoveries and tastes, not a comprehensive survey of Thai pop for that heady era.
"The stuff I bought consistently since being in Thailand strikes a balance," he says. "It has a strong Thai identity but also those elements – a kick drum, electric guitars, things that outside a Thai audience can still be appreciated. But that Thai quality had to be showcased."
The one thing really missing, Menist says, is the personal touch from the artists themselves. Many attempts were made to set up interview with those who are still around, including Phetsuphan and Dumnern, but with no success. Phetsuphan, an official National Artist with a government pension, is in constant demand as a performer at weddings and other functions of wealthy families. He did manage to have a brief chat with Plearn Promdan, who agreed to do a full interview. But every time he called to set it up, he got Promdan's wife, who always said the singer was busy.
"And when it's a foreigner doing this, it's not exactly suspicion, but people want to know why," he says. "And sometimes these guys have a protective entourage and may never know themselves. As a writer, that's been the most frustrating aspect of this coming together. I've done a lot of sleeve notes in the past and usually that was tied to interviews with one or two of the artists. Time ticked along and we had to make a decision, and we didn't get the firsthand interviews we really wanted. We'll try for the next volume – if it happens."