musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Archive for January, 2011

Sound of Siam

A new compilation of music with a Thai twist, Sound of Siam, has recently been released on the Soundway label. To give you a better idea of what this album is all about, check out the subtitle: Leftfield Luk Thung, Jazz & Molam in Thailand 1964-1975. This was a fertile period for Thai such upcountry music, but most of these recordings have been out of print for decades. Scouring used record shops around Bangkok, the compilers discovered some real treats, resulting in this incredible album. “World Beat” columnist John Clewley reviewed this album in his Bangkok Post column (now published every other Tuesday in the new “Life” section) a couple of months ago and raved about the music. And I agree with Professor JC: this is great stuff, just the sort of lively and spirited morlam (a spelling I prefer; same as Thonglor is more accurate than Thonglo) that I love listening — and dancing — to. If these songs don’t put a smile on your face and twitch in your hips, you’re probably a closet Celine Dion fan. Start dishing out the som tam, it’s time to party!


Sound of Siam is available online via sites like Amazon, but sadly, it will probably never show up for sale here in Bangkok, except perhaps as a bootleg version in a street stall. Most regular CD shops in Bangkok will either not stock it due to the cost of importing the title or the simple fact that they have no idea what customers actually are interested in buying. Most shops have a predicable selection of pop and rock titles, but when it comes to selections in a “world music” vein, anything more exotic than Brazilian samba is almost impossible to find on local shelves. And of course the other problem is that it’s becoming more difficult to find a local retail store that even sells CDs here in Bangkok.


It’s odd that a company from the UK has to be the ones to help resurrect treasured Thai music, but we should be grateful that they have done so. On their website, Soundway proclaims that they “are dedicated to re-releasing lost and forgotten recordings from the world’s most vibrant musical cultures.” And I commend them for doing so! In addition to this Thai compilation, Soundway has released many collections highlighting various genres of African music. Two of my favorites are the Nigeria Special compilations. The first one, Nigeria Special: Modern Highlife Afro Sounds & Nigerian Blues 1970-76 is a two-disc edition, while Nigeria Special 2: Modern High Life 1970-76 is a single disc. There are also two companions to those albums: Nigeria Disco Funk Special and Nigeria Afrobeat Special. As you would surmise from the titles, this is music that makes you want to get up and boogie. For the most part, the lineup of artists are very obscure ones, or at least ones not familiar to most Western listeners, but rest assured the quality of the music is excellent. Each of the Soundway compilations is accompanied by a lavish booklet with tons of photos, song information, and biographies of each artist on the album. Yet another excellent Soundway compilation is the two-disc Ghana Special. Get on your good foot with grooves galore!



Living in Bangkok

Fifteen years? I feel like I ought to pinch myself at times; have I really been living in Bangkok for fifteen years? Have I really not driven a car in fifteen years? Have I really not voted in an election (except for that thwarted attempt to send an overseas ballot in 2004) in fifteen years? Have I really not cooked a meal in my kitchen in fifteen years? Have I really not attended a baseball game in fifteen years? Have I really not visited Minneapolis in fifteen years? Have I really not eaten at a Cuban restaurant in fifteen years? The answer is “Yes” to all of the above. But, except for the Cuban food and a few good friends, I don’t miss much about my old life in the USA.

You could safely say I feel very settled here in Thailand, or at least as settled as a restless type like me can be. I enjoy living amongst the tolerant and friendly and funny Thai people and adapting to a different lifestyle and culture. But one thing I didn’t have to adapt to was the warm and humid weather; coming from Florida, the temperatures in Thailand felt perfectly natural. I enjoy taking the skytrain and the subway and the boat and the bus and the motorcycle taxis available in Bangkok; a transport choice to suit each and every possible commuting scenario. I certainly don’t miss having a car, having to maintain it, and paying increasingly big amounts of money to fill it up with gasoline every week. Nor do I miss the outrageous insurance payments. And the thought of driving — and parking — a car here in Bangkok? Hell no. I may be crazy, but I’m not insane.

I enjoy the hustle and bustle and frequent chaos of Bangkok. I enjoy living in my ninth floor apartment, overlooking majestic Klong Saen Saeb and hearing the rumble of boats each morning, and the shouts of children at the school across the klong, and — believe it or not — the sounds of birds chirping. I savor the wealth of scrumptious street food and the variety of restaurants in the city. If I get tired of eating Thai food, there are plenty of familiar Western choices, not to mention many good Indian, Lebanese, and Japanese restaurants. But, sigh, still no Cuban food.

At this point in my life I have zero desire to move back to the United States. And quite honestly, I don’t have much of an itch to even pay a visit. The last I visited America, in November 2000, I felt decidedly like an outsider. Who were these aliens behaving so strangely that surrounded me? That feeling, coupled with the fact that I was staying in Florida and they were still counting ballots a full week after the national elections had been held (yes, it was the infamous week of the hanging chads, and Bush versus Gore), instilled some sort of gag reflex in me and I couldn’t wait to return to the relative safety and sanity of Thailand.

In recent years, it seems like things in the States have only gotten stranger, crueler, nastier … and more expensive. The thought of living amongst the lunatic right-wing fringe, gun-toting NRA zealots, gun-toting hip-hoppers, and the lunatic Christian masses gives me cold chills. No way. And what would I do for a living in the “land of the free and home of the brave” in this troubled decade? With the current economic turbulence, it’s not exactly an ideal time for a middle-aged man to make a career change.

As much as I deride the US government and the way that many Americans have gotten fat, complacent, cruel and delusional, I look around at what is going on in Thailand lately, and have to admit that things here are not exactly looking very sane either. In the past two years the Crazy Colored People have come out in force: both the Red Shirts (UDD) and the Yellow Shirts (PAD) have held numerous disruptive rallies in Bangkok. The leaders of both groups shout and holler, fan the flames of indignation, and inspire their followers into doing incredibly stupid things. The Red Shirts in particular have shown a genuine propensity in creating havoc and destruction. These groups proclaim they want democracy and fair treatment from the government, but have no qualms about taking over airports, invading parliament, intimidating neighborhoods, camping out in front of major shopping centers, putting people out of work, and basically holding the entire city hostage via their selfish actions. They’re all idiots.

The latest group of morons, the Thai Patriots Network is a spin-off from the Yellow Shirts. These incredibly short-sighted nationalistic nutters are up in arms over a minor border dispute with Cambodia and won’t rest until we have a full-fledged war with our neighbors to the east. They are upset that the Thai government has the gall to want to negotiate with Cambodia over the border issue, instead of confronting them and escalating the hostilities. Both the PAD and the Patriot’s group are insisting that the Thai government “use force” to expel Cambodian soldiers and villagers from the area in question — all 4.6 square kilometers of it. Recently the PAD started yet another multi-day/week/month rally in central Bangkok and have rejected overtures to negotiate with the government. One of PAD’s leaders is Chamlong Srimuang, an austere devout vegetarian Buddhist — and a Bangkok governor in the early 90s — who reportedly showers each day using a single cup of water. Good old flat-top Chamlong said yesterday that “It is not time for talks. The government should comply with our demands.” End of story. It’s tempting to say the behavior of these groups is pretty damned childish, but even children would have more common sense than these provocative nuts have displayed so far.

And then there is the crisis that nobody wants to talk much about — the proverbial elephant in the room — the continuing violence and slaughter that is taking place on a daily basis in several provinces of Thailand’s Deep South. Another school teacher shot, more villagers killed by a bomb, a village leader decapitated, monks murdered, soldiers ambushed. Ho hum, another day.

But in the grand scheme of things, I’m still glad I moved to Thailand. Despite the recent troubles and the occasional gripe and minor annoyances, I can’t think of anywhere where else I’d want to live. This is home.

Edwyn Collins

Song of the Day: “In Your Eyes” by Edwyn Collins

At the relatively young age of 45, it looked like the music career of Edwyn Collins had come to a tragically abrupt end. In February 2005, Collins — former lead singer of the band Orange Juice and best known for his hit solo single “A Girl Like You” — suffered a stroke at his home in London. After a second stroke and brain hemorrhage a few days later, surgeons operated on him, placing a titanium plate in his skull. What followed were painfully difficult months: Collins could not walk or talk, and didn’t have enough mobility in his arms to even pick up his beloved guitar. But he doggedly underwent a rehabilitation program, and gradually regained most (but still not all) of his physical abilities. Edwyn Collins didn’t quit. Instead, he resolved to resume recording music.

And we should be thankful for that. The new Edwyn Collins album, Losing Sleep, is not just a remarkable comeback, it’s one of the best things he’s ever done. And that says a lot, considering the influential albums Collins made with Orange Juice in the early 1980s, along with his subsequent solo albums. Losing Sleep includes guest appearances from friends such as Johnny Marr, members of the Shins, Alex Kapranos (from Franz Ferdinand), Roddy Frame (Aztec Camera), and Romeo Stodart (from the Magic Numbers). My very favorite track is “In Your Eyes,” an achingly catchy number that features members of The Drums. It’s not the most lyrically potent song on the album, but it makes up for it with its propulsive energy and Collins’s distinctive vocals. So thrilling to hear him making music again, and especially sounding so good.  

When I was in KL last week I found a copy of an interesting CD compilation of Edwyn Collins and Orange Juice material called Casual Introduction: 1981-2001. As you would assume, it includes “A Girl Like You,” along with Orange Juice hits such as “Rip it Up,” “Falling and Laughing” and the irresistible “Felicity.” Altogether the album has 18 tracks, but is woefully deficient in details as regards to which song was recorded when, which album it was on, or who plays on it. Shoddy liner notes aside, it’s still a solid collection.


Kim Fay’s Communion

Kim Fay is not your ordinary tourist. When starting each day on the road, she doesn’t ponder which sights she wants to see, but rather the meals she wants to eat. Ah, now that’s my kind of traveler. Because that’s just what I do when I’m visiting another city. Sampling the local cuisine is one of the most interesting parts of travel in my book. And in Kim Fay’s new book, Communion: a Culinary Journey through Vietnam, she and her two travelling companions (her sister and a Vietnamese friend) eat a wide swathe of territory, from north to south, during a trip around the country. They start their edible adventures in Hanoi before continuing on to Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Dalat, Phan Thiet and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). Reading about all the dishes they sample, one can only marvel: man, these ladies can eat! We’re not talking your usual three meals a day. In some case, they have three lunches each day, in addition to morning and evening meals and snacks. You gotta love it.


Before her trip Kim Fay was far from a novice to Vietnam or the world of Vietnamese food. She spent four years living in Saigon in the 1990s, so she definitely knows the country and the people, and of course the cuisine. She is also editor of the travel guide To Vietnam with Love. What makes Communion so endearing is not only Kim Fay’s deft writing skills, but also her ability to make the reader understand more about Vietnamese culture and the vital role that food plays in the society. Of the Vietnamese people, Kim writes about how “their strength, determination, and work ethic” is reflected in their triumph over adversity, especially since the dark days of the “American War” in the 60s and 70s, and periods of famine many of them endured as recently as the 1980s. In one chapter she writes:

“It is intriguing that a country can make a statement about what it is and what it wants simply by the way it eats. Vietnam is a perfect example of how food can not only reflect change but also engender it.”

Besides the food angle, Communion is peppered with funny and fascinating vignettes from Kim’s recent five-week trip. The collection of people — both locals and expats — that she meets en route are as memorable as the meals she eats. Communion also includes a bountiful bunch of photos taken by Kim’s sister Julie Fay Ashborn; a perfect splash of color to complement the tantalizing and tasty tales inside the book.

Communion has been published as a large-sized paperback edition by Things Asian Press. It’s available online at or at Dasa Books in Bangkok.


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