1. Seree Srisurat – paying respect to mother
2. Kom Muang Nakorn – 18 year old ladies
3. Rom Sritammarat – tomorrow we’ll meet at the crossroads
4. Ang Kanang – peasant lady
5. Daw Bandorn – the water buffalo leaves the farm
6. Onuma Singsiri – broken-hearted lady singer
7. Chaba Prai – do you have a boyfriend yet?
8. Daw Bandorn – i left my girlfriend to become a dj
9. Prun Promdan – snowy lady
10. Suang Santee – the powerful man
11. Onuma Singsiri – papaya salad merchant
12. Super Star – chili & salt
13. Supaluck Sirihong – i’m angry at you
14. Don Sornrabeab & Chuntana Kitiyapan – angry crocodile people
15. Super Star – i’m so tired
16. Surachai Sombatcharurn – before you loved me but now who do you love?
17. Ang Kanang – the village drum
18. Daw Bandorn – don’t be a flirt
19. Beauty Contest – windmill lover
20. Ray Rai Na Korat – show some thigh
21. Sayan Sanya – driving to find my lover
22. Wai Phot Petsuwan – rowing my boat to find a lover
23. Prun Promdan – In’s rocket
24. Metro Angel – Thai Classical
Thailand is the “Land of Smiles.” I’ve seen that tag-line for years, emblazoned on tourism posters adorning the walls of my favorite Thai cafes. There is a temple shining under a setting sun, its towers radiate up to the blue sky. In the foreground a woman is dressed in silk and gold. Mirroring the temple spires, she has static hands, raised palm to palm heart-high. Her lips are cherry red on a powdered face. She is smiling. She is welcoming. I have stared into this face a thousand times, hypnotized by hunger, awaiting steaming plates of noodles topped with crushed peanuts, shredded carrots, fresh lime juice and eggs scrambled perfectly to catch hot pepper sauce in their crevices. Was it the food that lured me to Thailand? Yes. Was it the warm hearted nature of nearly every Thai person I have ever met? Yes. Was it the sunshine and the mystery? Yes. These were all factors but their was a greater pull.
My maiden voyage to Thailand was fueled by numerous desires of cultural exploration but there was one shining light that tuned magnetization to high. I first heard Thai luk thung and mor lam music just a few years ago on releases by the stellar record labels Subliminal Sounds, Sublime Frequencies and ZudRangMa. I soaked it up and inquired deeper. Luk thung (translation: “children of the fields”) is country music that is thick and high. There’s a thump and sway reminiscent of Jamaican rock steady but with more bells and bamboo. The voices warble and yodel in otherworldly vibrato above a beat that alternates in tempo, slowing like the end of a sweaty day then slamming back like a second wind. These songs sing the same story as country music the world over: it’s all hardship and heartbreak.
Luk thung’s cousin is the music called mor lam whose roots floated from Laos into the northern Thai region of Isan. The central instrument identified with mor lam is the khene, a mouth organ that looks like two long pan pipes glued together. It has the entrancing power of a thousand hypnotists waving their wands directly into your mind. Mor lam songs have the same basic themes as luk thung but once country bumpkins migrated to Bangkok with the aim of making baht (aka cash money) to support their families back on the farm they started twisting the musical form up a bit. In the 60′s when rock & funk swept the globe they started adding farfisa organs and electric guitars to the mix and then when disco blew up in the 70′s they got their Thai groove on to a disco beat. Mor lam is music of tuk-tuk drivers jamming their way through city traffic. Both eyes on the road but hearts focused back home.
When I landed in Bangkok and hit the city center streets I saw my first wave of leathery skinned sex tourists. Over hip packs, their hairy guts hung, stretching sweat-soaked wife beaters to the max. Their Thai teenage “girlfriends” for the night followed paces behind. A pair joined only by lust and money they snaked to humid hotel rooms. I acknowledged the existence of this sickness but tried my best to block it out. I had a musical mission on my mind and luckily, access to the best guide possible. I was connected to Maft Sai courtesy of Now-Again Records’ captain Eothen “Egon” Alapatt and soon realized what a fortunate thing this was. Maft runs ZudRangMa Records, the freshest Thai reissue label and the only one based in Bangkok. His devotion to spreading true Thai music culture is a beautiful vision and vivid action.
Unfortunately, soon after my arrival I was nearly done in with a food poisoning bomb that sent me into the hospital and days of fever dreams. Between all the barf and bad trippin’ I was able to make my goal of vinyl treasure hunting a reality. Maft and I spent time scouring secret spots that only a hyper-tuned native would know. With a portable turntable on hand he turned me onto some of the deepest gems of Thai luk thung, mor lam, funk, rock and disco. These discs were inevitably covered with generations of dust but underneath it lay the sounds of beautiful people making beautiful music. Hearing these songs; inspired by rural fields, fresh air and love, made my subsequent trip up north to Chiang Mai all the more special. As I marveled at emerald mountains and the slow sway of elephants in rushing rivers I thought of the music in those Thai vinyl grooves and smiled a thousand times.
“FROSTY FLIES THROUGH BANGKOK WITH A BUMMER TUMMY”
The sky hangs heavy with humidity, hugging our skin as we weave between chugging trucks and neon taxis. The city pulsates with the day’s progress as people dig their way through solid, spicy lunches at roadside tables furnished with tiny, plastic chairs and flowing blue tarps doing their part to beat the Sun back. A million shrimp legs are swimming in bowls around Bangkok. As we sway through traffic the air is thick with waves of diesel fumes and roasted peanuts. My stomach churns and twists, wrecked with the effects of alien bacterial invasion. The motion and sway of this motorcycle swirls me deeper into the fever dream of food poisoning. Every whiff of grilled, marinated meat kick starts my saliva glands then subsides with sour notes stirred up from the sidewalk gutters. Cold chills and sweat battle for domination over my body as my mind wrestles to remain focused on the mission at hand.
I hear sounds blasting from tiny radios over the sputter of tuk-tuk engines. It’s country music to a city beat. Memories of far northern rice fields: emerald lushness and morning fog flowing like ocean foam over rolling hills. These people slugging their way through traffic have come to Bangkok to feed their families but still hold tight in their hearts the joy of small villages and fresh air. As we pass gleaming mega-malls next to ramshackle huts the music floats like ghosts. It’s a reflection of a culture straddling eras. One foot in a rice field and another on an escalator to multiplex cinema shows. The Thai people love their King with every particle of their beings yet flood the streets to protest the current government. They are steeped in tradition and abuzz with futuristic energy.
These thoughts swirl in my head as we near our destination. My stomach follows each hairpin turn like the ornate, sweeping edges of Thai text. I do my best to keep my breakfast down. We finally wheel up to the soot encased shopfront and I push a handful of colorful bills into the moto-taxi driver’s palm. This store is a treasure chest hidden in plain view. Cassettes, vinyl albums and movie posters line the walls. Glowing stars smile from beneath cobwebs offering solace to broken-hearted lovers. Tight-panted disco dancers shimmy in 12 inch squares next to royally adorned women frozen in classical dance. The record covers vibrate with messages of this culture. I stare at the shop, soaking in the glory of these forgotten artifacts then enter with a calm soul and stomach.
For more international explorations please visit the dublab “Field Reports” page.