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

Archive for February, 2011

Myanmar’s Golden Rock

One of the more magnificent but least visited sites in Myanmar is Kyaiktiyo, more commonly known as Golden Rock. Actually, I should amend that “least visited” part; not many foreign tourists make the trek to Golden Rock, but hundreds of thousands of Myanmar natives do in fact make the pilgrimage every year.

 

One of the factors that limit the number of foreign tourists is that getting to Kyaiktiyo is not the easiest of journeys. But the difficulties and lack of comfort only make it a more memorable adventure. Or at least that’s one of looking at it. Kyaiktiyo isn’t near any airports so you have to either rent a car and driver (note: the car may not have working AC and the driver will probably be chewing — and spitting — betel nut the whole way), or endure a cramped bus ride to get there. For my trip to the rock I opted for a bus from Yangon’s Aung Mingalar bus station to Kinpun, which is the closest town to Kyaiktiyo. The entire journey lasted about five hours, and wasn’t nearly as miserable as I had expected. Then again, I wasn’t expecting much in the way of a luxury ride, and the lack of AC or onboard porta-potties certainly didn’t bother me. The scenery was nice and the people on the bus were very friendly. The coolest thing I saw during the ride was a little teashop at the side of the road in one rural town we passed. It wasn’t the shop itself, but the sign that caught my eye: The Wuthering Heights Café. There MUST be an interesting story behind that establishment. Too bad I couldn’t have hopped off the bus for a quick tea break there.

 

The bus trip ends upon arrival in Kinpun, but you still have a way to go before actually reaching Golden Rock. In Kinpun you have to board a flatbed truck for the ride to the top of the mountain. The truck is uncomfortably packed — asshole to elbow, as the Tom Jans song says — with passengers. And because of the narrow rows, any large Westerners like me will find themselves not only with their elbows touching someone else’s body parts, but their knees touching their chin. No leg room on this rig. But then the real torture starts: the truck makes the ascent up the mountain with alarming speed. At some points, when rounding curves, I was certain that two of the wheels were not touching the ground. With each precarious twist and turn on the road the passengers would scream. Whether those shouts indicated glee or fear is uncertain, but I was certainly feeling very nervous. Imagine an incredibly scary rollercoaster ride. This was worse.

 

Once the truck reaches the top and everyone gratefully disembarks, you still aren’t at your destination. For the final leg of the ascent you must walk, and that requires a hike that takes the better part of an hour. Or you can pay a team of porters to carry you to the top on a stretcher. Really. I saw a few people taking advantage of that “quaint” service. I assume that they had some sort of physical handicap that prevented them from walking, but you never know. But I also saw an amputee on crutches slowing making the climb unassisted, an inspiring sight if I ever saw one.

 

Once you get to the top — and have caught your breath — and gaze upon the actual rock, it’s a pretty impressive sight. Walk up for a closer look, and it’s even more amazing; the rock teetering there on the edge of the cliff, looking as if it would fall off if you gave it the slightest shove. Many men and boys were scattered around the sacred orb, applying gold leaf to the surface of the rock. Women, however, were noticeably absent. And that’s because they are not allowed to touch the rock, or even approach it too closely, due to some sort of preposterous Buddhist regulation.

 

The best times to see Golden Rock are at sunset and sunrise. But if you want to be there during those periods, you must stay at one of the overpriced hotels near the top. That’s because the truck from hell stops making its runs before sunset and doesn’t start up in the morning until after sunrise. The hotels take advantage of this situation and over-charge for their rooms, but in the grand scheme of things it’s a small price to pay for the magnificence of Golden Rock at night, all lit up and glowing like an enormous lumpy grapefruit. The native tourists who come to visit Golden Rock are allowed to stay overnight and camp out at the top. And let me tell you, it’s like a big party there at night, a festive atmosphere overwhelming the entire terrace. Incense and candles are being lit, offerings of food and fruit are spread out in front of shrines, people are sharing meals together, and groups of friends and families gather in front of the rock to take photos. Lots of smiles and a feel-good vibe all around. Let it glow!

 

Grover Washington, Jr.

Grover Washington, Jr. may not be considered in the same league as pioneering jazz sax players such as John Coltrane or Charlie Parker, but for my money he is much more listenable. A few months back I picked up a copy of Soul Box by Grover Washington, an album that was recorded back in 1973, but only recently released on CD. On Soul Box Grover played with an all-star cast of jazz musicians: Bob James (who also produced and arranged the album) on piano, Richard Tee on organ, Ron Carter on bass, Billy Cobham and Idris Muhammad on drums, Airto and Ralph MacDonald on percussion, Eric Gale on guitar, Randy Brecker on trumpet, Jon Faddis on flugelhorn, and Hubert Laws on flute.

 

Soul Box was originally released as a double album, but for decades it was very hard to find until the CD reissue (now conveniently housed on a single disc) surfaced two years ago. There are only seven tracks on the album, but they are all lengthy ones, making for a total of 68 minutes of music. Grover offers inspired interpretations of Norman Whitfield’s “Masterpiece” (also a hit for the Temptations), and Stevie Wonder’s “You are the Sunshine of My Life.” But the real highlight is the nearly 16-minute version of Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man,” a storming, steaming workout that showcases some of Grover’s most intense sax solos.

 

A couple of years after this recording, in 1975, Grover hit number one on the jazz charts with his acclaimed Mister Magic album. He followed that with a double album, Live at the Bijou. This was no laid-back night of mellow grooves and smooth jazz, but an electrifying, funk-filled set that had the Bijou thumping and rolling. Even after all these years, Live at the Bijou is an album that I think still ranks with the best live albums of all time, of any genre. With so many other classic albums now being reissued and expanded with extra tracks (everything from Cheap Trick’s At Budokan to Neil Diamond’s Hot August Night), I only hope that the same “extra” treatment will be given to Live at the Bijou. The 75-minutes of music we have now is more than satisfying, but I just know there is more in a vault somewhere screaming to be heard. Bring it on!

  

While shopping at the B2S outlet in Central Chidlom in Bangkok last week, I found a copy of Reed Seed, the album that Grover released in 1978. This another one that still sounds scintillating after all these years. Inspired by listening to some of these vintage titles again, I just ordered a copy of Grover Live, a CD released only last year, but one that was recorded at a concert in New York in 1997. This disc also has over 70 minutes of music, and includes extended versions of some of his classics (“Winelight”, “Let it Flow”, “Mr. Magic,” etc.) and a medley of hits. Sadly, this was one of the tours that Grover played. Jr. He succumbed to cancer in 1999.

A House in Bali

I’ve never been to Bali, but reading Colin McPhee’s book A House in Bali makes me feel like I am there amongst the rolling green hills, listening to a gamelan orchestra, a troupe of graceful dancers performing, a soothing tropic breeze wafting over me. Granted, things have changed considerably in Bali since McPhee wrote this book nearly 70 years ago. I doubt there are many vestiges of charm and authenticity remaining in Bali nowadays, especially in the wake of all the beer-chugging Australian tourists, tattooed backpackers, and Eat, Pray, Love devotees who have descended upon the island in recent years. But A House in Bali remains — in the words of the book’s publisher — “the only narrative by a Western musician” about Bali. And, like a timeless snapshot, the book is still considered a classic account of life in Bali and Balinese culture.  

 

McPhee was a composer (born in Canada, but an American citizen) who fell in love with the sound of Balinese gamelan music and ended up moving to Bali for several years in the 1930s. More than a travel diary or a primer in ethnic music, A House in Bali also focuses on Balinese culture and the remarkable people that McPhee meets during his time at his rented house in Ubud.  McPhee’s passion and love for Bali and the Balinese people comes shining through on the pages of this delightful, informative, and sometimes funny book.

 

McPhee was a composer of some fame, having studied with Edgard Varese, and later working with Benjamin Britten. McPhee’s Tabuh-Tabuhan: Toccata for Orchestra, which combined Balinese and Western music, is considered his most famous piece.  While doing an online searche I found some old videos that McPhee filmed back in the 1930s when he lived in Bali. Yes, you can see them on YouTube! One video is of the famous dance teacher Ida Boya as she guides a young girl through some moves. There are also short clips of a gamelan orchestra and a kendang drummer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lep_K3KojHY&NR=1

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BLy8oOZXZyA

 

But the most amazing clip of the bunch is the one of the village boy Sampih (a boy that McPhee mentored and reportedly adopted) as he does a traditional Balinese dance (Kebyar Duduk). In full costume, Sampih whirls and weaves his way around the stage, surrounded by gamelan musicians. I’m not sure which is more striking, Sampih’s intricate dance moves or his comical facial expressions, but it’s absolutely mesmerizing footage. It’s too bad there’s no sound to accompany these old Black & White videos — it would be marvelous to hear the gamelan sounds as Sampih dances. But considering that these scenes were shot over 70 years ago, we should just be thankful that they were unearthed after so many years in storage and are in good enough condition that they can now be viewed.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fVYbijajPpc&feature=related

http://rapidscan.me/video/fVYbijajPpc/Bali-I-Sampih-dancing-Igel-Jongkok-1930s.html

 

Sampih grew up to quite a famous dancer, and was part of the “Dancers of Bali” tour that went to the United States in 1952. They appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and there was a feature article on them in Life magazine (which can also be found online). World Arbiter Records has released a CD of music recorded during that tour; Dancers of Bali 1952: Gamelan of Peliatan. This is a quality recording and includes a 24-page booklet with photos and more information about gamelan music and the tour. After the tour finished, Sampih returned to Bali but was tragically murdered in 1954 at the age of 28. McPhee passed away in 1964. A collection of his compositions, recordings, films, photos, and other documents is housed at UCLA, where he taught composition and ethnomusicology from 1960-1964. Another McPhee book, Music in Bali, published posthumously in 1966, is also considered to be an important and influential source of information for musicians. The full title is the cumbersome: Music in Bali: A Study in Form and Instrumental Organization in Balinese Orchestral Music.

http://www.arbiterrecords.com/catalogworld.html

 

Glenn Phillips: Guitar Wizard

The best guitarist you never heard? I’d like to nominate Atlanta’s Glenn Phillips. For the better part of four decades, Phillips and his flying fingers have been making incredible music that most people on the planet don’t know about. Glenn Phillips has a fluid, expressive guitar style, possessing the technical chops that appeal to hard rock guitar aficionados and a graceful melodic touch that endears him to fans of other musical genres. His songs are almost entirely instrumental, but they are composed with such skill that his guitar virtuosity is often overshadowed by the melodic emotional power of the piece. Whether the song is a slow, pretty tune, or a frenzied workout with somersault solos, the dexterity of Phillips’ guitar playing is breathtaking.

 

If you are new to this guy’s music, a fine place to start would be the two-CD Echoes, a compilation of music that he recorded from 1975-1985. Other fine albums include Elevator, originally released by SST in 1987, and Angel Sparks, released in 2003. Also in 2003 he recorded Guitar Party with Henry Kaiser, an instrumental album that contained covers of Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 was 9”, Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” and Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.”

 

Glenn Phillips continues to play shows, mostly near his home in the Atlanta area. He recently made a new album, Sun Hex, as the Supreme Court, a side project he does with Jeff Calder of the Swimming Pool Qs. This was their second full album together. Their first album, The Supreme Court Goes Electric, was released way back in 1993 and received glowing reviews in Rolling Stone and other publications. I haven’t heard the new album yet, but you can guarantee that I’ll add it to my next online order.

 

Phillips was also a founding member of the Hampton Grease Band, whose only album Music to Eat was released in 1971 (and reissued a few years ago on CD) by Columbia Records. With little marketing support from the label or airplay from radio, Music to Eat gained the distinction of being the second worst selling album in the history of Columbia Records (beat out only by a yoga instruction record!). Glenn Phillips later left the band and in 1975 recorded his first solo album, Lost at Sea. That received wide acclaim, including raves from John Peel, the legendary BBC D.J. After Peel’s airplay help and a positive review in Melody Maker, Phillips received a phone call from none other than Richard Branson, who promptly signed the guitarist to his fledging Virgin Records label. That led to a productive period in which Phillips recorded several outstanding albums; Swim in the Wind, Dark Lights, Razor Pocket, St. Valentine’s Day, Elevator, and Scratched by the Rabbit.

Dwight Twilley

Hearing the Dwight Twilley Band’s “I’m On Fire” in 1975 was an invigorating, ear-opening experience. That blast of jangling electric guitar and Twilley’s quaky voice, sounding like it had emerged from a time tunnel, was a remarkably fresh contrast to the stale crop of songs on Top Forty radio at the time. Twilley’s sound was a luscious synthesis of British and American influences — the Beatles and Elvis Presley were noted — but the band (which included drummer Phil Seymour, who passed away in 1993) was able to use those rootsy sources to create their own trademark sound.

 

After the success of that single, however, the band found itself on a label that was in the flux of distribution weirdness. Even though the band had other songs ready, they were not able to get their excellent debut album, Sincerely, into stores until the following year, and by that time the momentum fueled by “I’m On Fire” had sadly evaporated. The band’s solid second album, Twilley Don’t Mind, released in 1977, included a terrific single in “Looking for the Magic” but that one also failed to ignite.

 

Most of Dwight Twilley’s career has been similarly riddled with misfortune and missed chances. Good albums and lots of wonderful songs but no airplay or poor promotion, labels folding, distribution stifled. But Twilley continued to persevere and kept recording, even scoring another minor hit with “Girls” off his Jungle album in 1984. Over the past few decades, very much under the radar, he has continued to make consistently good music, releasing several collections of rarities, some new studio sets, a live album, a Christmas album, and even a Beatles tribute album. I recently picked up, The Luck, an album he released in 2001. To my ears, it ranks with the best material he’s ever recorded. Nothing but strong songs, all packed with hooks and Twilley’s uncanny ability to turn a phrase. 

 His most recent album, 2010’s Green Blimp, has also received favorable reviews, some comparing it to his classic early albums. In fact, original Dwight Twilley Band guitarist Bill Pitcock IV guests on Green Blimp, as do Susan Cowsill and Rocky Burnette. Sounds like this is another one I’ll need to add to my wish list.

Ian Hunter



Ian Hunter, the iconic shades-wearing singer who gained fame as leader of Mott the Hoople in the 1970s, is still going strong — very strong, in fact — at the ripe age of 70. Listening to the songs on his most recent albums, one can only marvel: Ian Hunter still sounds vibrant and full of vigor. I only hope that I will possess this much energy when I get to be that age!

 

Although he is most famous for being the face behind Mott, many of his finest music moments have come since he went solo in the mid-1970s. His first solo album, Ian Hunter, received rave reviews and contained the hit “Once Bitten Twice Shy.” I vividly remember hearing that song being played on the radio when I visited New York City in the summer of 1975. Talk about vivid memories: whenever I see a photo of the Statue of Liberty, I still associate it with that Ian Hunter song! Hunter has released over a dozen other albums since then, but the ones he has recorded in the past decade have been particularly impressive. And just last year Hunter reunited with several of his old mates from Mott the Hoople for a critically acclaimed concert in London. Clearly, the sunglassed-one has plenty of energy left to burn, making a remarkable career resurgence in his “senior” years.

 

His most recent album, last year’s Man Overboard, continues his streak of consistently fine recent recordings (also check out Shrunken Heads and Rant). The highlight on this album is the closing number, the anthem-like “River of Tears.” With the piano banging away, Ian singing and strumming an acoustic guitar, and James Mastro (who used to play with Richard Barone) propelling an electric guitar, the song builds to a glorious climax. Lyrically, it’s also quite powerful, with lines such as:

Waiting on an elevator

In a hotel out in California

Smog clouds up the windows

But there is a plaque up on the wall

That tells of the Agoras

People who were here long before us

Before the covered wagons

Before they lost it all

They were hunters

They were fisherman’

And they often fought each other

But one small tribe was different

Their leader was a peaceful man

They were weavers

They were painters

Trading pelts for pretty colors

Protected by the warriors for the beauty in their hands

Roll back the years

Roll back the years

To the river of tears

 

If you thought Ian Hunter last made a great album with You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic (released in 1979 and included the big hit “Cleveland Rocks”), think again. This guy is on another hot streak, and Man Overboard is a fantastic album. Speaking of the Schizophrenic album, there is now a 30th Anniversary version available as a double-disc CD set. The reissue includes some demos and alternate versions of a few songs, plus live recordings from the 1979 tour.

 

Hunter also recorded one of my favorite live albums of all time, Welcome to the Club. This was recorded in 1980 when guitarist Mick Ronson was in his band. Hunter performs a varied set that includes solo material and some of his popular Mott the Hoople songs (“All the Way from Memphis”, “All the Young Dudes”, and “Walking with a Mountain”). Whether it is heartfelt ballads (“Irene Wilde”), spirited instrumentals (“F.B.I.”), or flat-out rockers (“Just Another Night”) Hunter and his band put on a passionate and powerful performance that still packs a punch. And after hearing his most recent fine albums, I think it’s maybe time for a new live album.

Lamont Dozier

Although Lamont Dozier enjoyed fame and fortune as part of Motown’s legendary Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team, penning dozens of stone cold classics that defined 60s soul, few people are aware that he also had a productive recording career of his own in the 1970s. Dozier was obviously a crack songwriter, but he was no slouch as a singer either. One of his solo albums, 1974’s Out Here on My Own, yielded two Top Forty hits: the ballad “Trying to Hold on To My Woman” and the fiendishly clever and funky “Fish Ain’t Bitin’” (a song that took a dig at “Tricky Dick” Nixon). I own a copy of The ABC Years and Lost Sessions, a CD collection that includes songs from that fine album, as well as its solid follow-up, Black Bach, and as the title suggests, some unreleased tracks. Another compilation that includes most of the same songs is called The Legendary Soul Master. Both are import pressings from the UK.

 

Last year I was also delighted to find a copy of Dozier’s very first solo album, Love and Beauty, which was originally released on the legendary Invictus label. This edition of the album has been reissued in expanded form by Edsel in the UK. It includes the singles “Why Can’t We Be Lovers” (also a hit for Timmy Thomas, and later covered by Sade) and “New Breed Woman,” as well as tracks that Dozier recorded with the Holland brothers, Brian and Eddie. This is a two-CD set and includes a few too many versions of the same songs (single edits, album versions, instrumental, “alternate” versions) for my tastes, but overall the quality of the songs is consistently good. Just what you would expect from someone as talented as Lamont Dozier.  

http://www.lamontdozier.com/index.html

 

After the Holland brothers and Dozier acrimoniously left Motown in 1968, they started their own labels; Invictus and Hot Wax. Even though those new labels didn’t enjoy the same fame of Motown, there was no drop-off in quality, and they even managed to produce a few hits. Among the artists that recorded for those labels, and are also subjects of recent CD reissues by Edsel, are Freda Payne, Chairmen of the Board (whose lead singer, General Johnson, passed away last year), Laura Lee, Honey Cone, 8th Day, and 100 Proof Aged in Soul. With better distribution and less legal headaches (The Holland brothers and Dozier were sued by Berry Gordy soon after they left Motown and were prevented from using their real names in songwriting credits), many of these artists would undoubtedly have been more popular.

 

There is also a fascinating album originally released in 1970 by the early version of George Clinton’s Parliament, called Osmium, that was among those recent Edsel reissues. This album is packed with great songs that should have been monster hits, such as “My Automobile” and “I Call My Baby Pussycat.” It also includes “The Silent Boatman,” a haunting tune that includes bagpipes of all things. The overall sound is a bit more traditionally soulful and less weirdly funky than successive Parliament and Funkadelic recordings, but a definite keeper.

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