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

Archive for February, 2011

Bagan Sunsets

I’ve been thinking about Bagan this week. I don’t have any plans to go there in the near future, but two friends of mine are making journeys to Myanmar this month. One ex-pat I know in Bangkok, an American named John, is going with his father on a one-week trip to visit Yangon and Bagan. Another friend, Pascale from Paris, will undertake a more comprehensive schedule, going to Yangon, Bagan, Yenangyaung, Mandalay, and Nyaungshwe. She’s been to Myanmar many times before and has an extensive network of friends to keep her busy. She will also be contributing to various NGO projects in the country.

 

Like other tourists, when in Bagan, John and his father will have the option of touring the vast conglomeration of ancient pagodas by bike, horse cart, or car. Keeping in mind his father’s age (he just turned 80), I suggested to John that a car might be the most comfortable option, but John boasted that his father is in remarkably good shape for his age, so they may end up cycling around the ruins every day. Neither one has been to Bagan before, so there are definitely in for a treat: thousands of awesome old pagodas and temples await them … and a few new ones too. Purists may wince, but new pagodas are still being built in and around Bagan. Luckily, the new pagodas aren’t so obviously garish that they clash with the old architecture. But anyway, what can you do? When these rich folks need to make merit, nothing is going to stop them from continuing their construction plans … except, perhaps an earthquake. But it’s been a few centuries since the last quake, so let’s hope any more such calamities are not going to occur anytime soon.

 

One of the more popular activities for tourists in Bagan is going to a “sunset pagoda” in the early evening to — as you would assume — watch the sun set. This usually means a somewhat precarious hike up narrow stairways or stone steps to the highest terrace of the pagoda. The sunset itself can be a hit or miss experience depending on the weather, but if everything is working in your favor you’ll be treated to a glorious view with a panoramic set of majestic pagodas silhouetted in the background. Besides unpredictable weather, the other negative factor at the sunset pagodas is the number of other tourists in attendance. At the more popular sites you will have to share viewing space with dozens or even hundreds (in those cases when a bus full of Koreans has dropped by) of other tourists.

 

But you don’t always have to be part of a crowd at sunset. There are many smaller pagodas in Bagan that are high enough (and also allow access to the top; some pagodas are so old and decrepit that climbing to the top is prohibited) to provide you with a sufficiently impressive view. And if you choose carefully, and get off the main tourist trail, you might even have the entire pagoda all to yourself; no other tourists or even local vendors milling around to bother you. It’s a perfect time — and place — to watch a glorious sunset and contemplate life.

Atlanta Rhythm Section

 

In the much neglected genre often dubbed “Southern Rock,” there were many fine bands that came to prominence in the 1970s. Some had a definite country edge or exuded a bit of soul, while others were folk influenced or had definite blues roots. Just because they came from the South didn’t mean these bands were all tobacco-spitting cowboys or hayseed rednecks. Thus, the term “southern rock” was not always a desirable label to be stuck with, and it certainly unfairly pigeonholed many an artist.

Artists such as the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Poco enjoyed their fair share of commercial success and critical acclaim, but many other good bands like the Marshall Tucker Band, the Outlaws, Blackfoot, Henry Paul Band, and Heartsfield never experienced much more than regional popularity despite consistently producing memorable music.

A few other excellent bands from the South were lucky enough to have hit singles: “Keep on Smiling” by Wet Willie, “Jackie Blue” by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, “Amie” by Pure Prairie League, “Third Rate Romance” by the Amazing Rhythm Aces, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by the Charlie Daniels Band, and “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” by the Elvin Bishop Band, but these songs were not necessarily representative of the band’s overall sound. And having a bit hit, as many have noted, can be both a blessing and a curse. Such sudden fame only ended up burdening the band with expectations of producing bigger hits, caused their old fans to accuse them of “selling out,” or saddled them with the dreaded tag of “one-hit wonder” when they never charted again. Sometimes you just can’t win.

One of the more underrated Southern bands was the Atlanta Rhythm Section. Although they also enjoyed moderate success with hit singles such as “Doraville,” “So Into You,” “Imaginary Lover,” and “Spooky,” they never really gained the critical acclaim that they deserved, or were dismissed as “lightweight” by critics. But for the better part of a decade ARS had a run of consistently excellent albums: Third Annual Pipe Dream, Dog Days, Red Tape, Champagne Jam, and Rock and Roll Alternative. I own all those albums on CD and when I saw that the band’s first two albums —- Atlanta Rhythm Section and Back Up Against the Wall — had finally been re-released as a single disc, I eagerly ordered a copy.

Like many Southern acts, ARS were tough to categorize. Their musical palette consisted of southern boogie, more jazz influenced numbers (a cover of Grant Green’s “Blues in Maude’s Flat”), some blustery blues (“Outside Woman Blues”), soothing pop (“All Night Rain”), and even a western swing country piece (“Jukin’/San Antonio Rose”) or two. They were indeed a top-notch rhythm section, and Ronnie Hammond’s whiskey-smooth vocals only helped to make them sound that much better.  

Those first two albums had been extremely hard to find, even on vinyl, so I was delighted to find this reissue. The first album, released in 1971, featured Rodney Justo as lead vocalist. By the time the second album came out in 1973, he had been replaced by Ronnie Hammond, who handled vocals for the rest of the band’s run. Listening to these songs four decades after they were recorded, I was surprised at how strong the material still sounds. They could perform long guitar jams or short pop masterpieces with equal dexterity. Most of the band’s classic albums have been reissued by BGO as two-for-one packages, similar to this album. All are worthy purchases.

Charles Earland

I’m a big fan of the funky organ sound of jazz musicians such as Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Reuben Wilson, and Jimmy McGriff. I recently discovered another jazz organist that I like a lot; Charles Earland. I found a copy of his 1970 album, Black Talk!, in the bins at the Gram store in Bangkok’s Siam Paragon. It was reissued by Prestige Records in 2006, in a distribution agreement with the Concord Music Group, and remastered by the original engineer on the recordings, Rudy Van Gelder.

 

Earland isn’t as well known as most of the Blue Note and Verve organists who came to prominence in the 1960s and early 70s, but I think he should be. Based on Black Talk!, this guy is top shelf stuff. His versions of “Aquarius” and the eleven-minute workout on “More Today than Yesterday” are positively oozing with funky energy and dynamics. Earland first gained notice playing with Lou Donaldson in the late 60s, before he signed to Prestige and began recording his own albums. He continued to record for various labels in the following decades, before passing away in 1999 at the age of 58. His nickname was “The Mighty Burner,” which is also one of the tracks on Black Talk! I was so happy with Black Talk! that I recently ordered a copy of Anthology, a two-CD compilation that has 22 tracks from his 70s and 80s “jazz funk” period. My next mission is to find a copy of Intensity, an acclaimed album he recorded with Lee Morgan and Billy Cobham. Gotta be hot stuff.

 

My first introduction into the world of funky jazz Hammond B-3 organ players came in the early-80s when I first heard Jack McDuff’s Down Home Style album. And yes, that was back in the pre-digital days of vinyl records. Take a look at the cover and you’ll know why it caught my eye: a plateful of barbecued ribs, collard greens, beans, and corn on the cob. And the funky grooves on the album were just as greasy and tasty. I almost felt like licking my fingers when the record finished playing! McDuff (sometimes the credits listed him as “Brother Jack” and other times just “Jack McDuff”) recorded dozens of other fine albums, including some that featured other prominent musicians such as George Benson, Kenny Burrell, and Gene Harris.

Kuala Lumpur

I spent three full days in Kuala Lumpur last month and the time passed quickly thanks to non-stop shopping and nearly non-stop eating. KL has a wealth of good street food and excellent restaurants. Ignoring the western fast food franchises and upscale eateries, there are still plenty of choices, everything from Malay and Indian to Thai and Burmese. And lots of good kopitiam (coffee shops) too.

 

Normally, I hate anything to do with shopping and malls. If I need to buy something, I want to go into a store and get in and buy it, and then get out quickly without wasting time browsing and comparing prices. But when it comes to books and CDs, my aversion to shopping disappears and I can spend hours perusing the shelves and racks in search of treasures.

 

And in Kuala Lumpur, as I discovered on previous trips to the city, there are many shops with a good selection of both books (new and secondhand) and CDs. For music, there remains one branch of Tower Records in the Lot Ten shopping center. The selection isn’t what it used to be, but I still found a surprising number of good titles there; CDs from artists such as Townes Van Zandt, Al Kooper, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, LCD Soundsystem, Buena Vista Social Club, Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, Cracker, Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, J.J. Johnson, and Bobby Hutcherson. There is also a chain store called Rock Corner with an excellent stock of domestic and imported titles. I visited the branches in KLCC and Mid Valley Mall, but in addition to those two, they have another four branches in the KL and Petaling Jaya area. During three visits to Rock Corner I came away with goodies from Jackie Leven, Neil Young, Randy Newman, Dylan LeBlanc, Florence & the Machine, the Duke and the King, Quincy Jones, the Brothers Johnson, the Spinners, Green on Red, Sigur Ros, Ben Kweller, Jakob Dylan, the XX, Deerhunter, the Apples in Stereo, Lindsey Buckingham, and about a dozen more, Now I just have to find time to listen to all this stuff!

 

On the book side of the ledger, KL has a large Kinokuniya branch in KLCC that is fun to browse (and I even bought one book there), but the big Borders store in Times Square has been downsized to a Borders Express outlet. Predictably, their selection has suffered and they no longer sell CDs. But a few stops down the subway line, at the Amcorp Mall, there is a spacious store called Book Xcess that sells inexpensive remainder titles. I found some great stuff there, some books selling for as little as 3 ringgit (about 30 baht, or US$1). There is also a small store in Amcorp Mall that sells used books, but that shop is so dirty and disorganized that it’s painful trying to browse. Boxes in the aisles, a listless clerk slouching behind the counter, books haphazardly thrown on shelves; it’s a mess. But if you are patient look hard enough you may find something interesting, and as usual, I did. A much better selection can be found at the Junk Book Store on Jalan Tun H.S. Lee, but their method of organization is also baffling, and the prices a bit steep. Yet another good outlet for used books is the RC shop, a thrift store run by the local Red Crescent Society. Once again, a bit of digging and patience will reward you with a few nice surprises.

 

KL is very easy to navigate thanks to the extensive network of trains; several subway lines and also a monorail link. The only time I had to take a taxi was my last morning in town when I had to get to the airport early and the trains weren’t running yet. But even for that trip it wasn’t necessary to take a taxi all the way to the airport; I took one as far as KL Sentral, at which point I boarded a very cheap (8 ringgit) bus that went directly to the airport. I also did a lot of walking this time in KL, making the trek from the Bukit Bintang area to Little India and Masji Jamek on foot, or wandering a bit further to Dang Wangi to grab a bite to eat at the fabulous Kut Yee. But I’ll save more of the food stuff for another post this week. 

 

The annual Lunar (Chinese) New Year celebrations were still a few weeks away, but many shops, restaurants, and malls around KL were already decorated for the holidays. I always find it fascinating to walk around the various neighborhoods in KL and Petaling Jaya, marveling at the multi-ethnic quilt of citizens and the modern architecture. Although I feel very safe there, I don’t get as friendly a vibe as I do in other Southeast Asian cities. Of course, my impressions are based solely on being in the country’s biggest city. Like in most other countries, you are likely to find the friendliest locals in smaller towns and more rural areas.

Ma Thanegi on the Ayeyarwaddy

For those readers familiar with Ma Thanegi’s excellent travel book The Native Tourist, the publication of a new travelogue by the spirited Myanmar writer is good news indeed. The adventurous, irrepressible — and always hungry — traveler is back with another memorable adventure. In her new book, Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy, Ma Thanegi and her colorful supporting cast travel down Myanmar’s famous Ayeyarwaddy River, as well as into the lively villages and towns scattered on its shores. But Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy is much more than an account of a trip, it also gives the reader insights into Myanmar’s complex history, culture, and its diverse populace.

Myanmar gets more negative press than any other country in Southeast Asia, thanks in no small part to the brutal and inept ways of the ruling junta. Much of the criticism is certainly justified, but the one-dimensional focus on the junta’s horrible ways gets more than a bit tiresome. Based on what is “reported” by the international media, you would assume that everyone in the country is either a political prisoner, desperate to leave, or living in poverty. Yes, there are some political prisoners, there are some people who want to live elsewhere, and there are some pockets of poverty (as in any country in the world today), but that’s only part of the story. There are also large parts of the country where people are content, businesses thrive, and the junta does not terrify the populace. In other words, things are fairly normal.

Thus, it’s enlightening to read books like Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy that give the reader a different perspective of life in Myanmar. One of Ma Thanegi’s strengths is her ability to shed light on this “other” side of Myanmar, and especially how she gets the people she meets during her travels to open up and talk about their lives. Amidst the heartbreaks and hardships there is lots of love and laughter too. And parts of this book are very, very funny. Ma Thanegi is an extremely engaging writer with a perceptive eye for detail. Even if your travels are confined to the pages of this book, with Ma Thanegi to guide you, you’re in for a mesmerizing trip.

 

Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy has been published in a paperback edition by Things Asian Press. It’s available online at Amazon.com and at Dasa Books in Bangkok. Also available is To Myanmar with Love, another excellent book of travel stories from Things Asian Press with contributions from a variety of writers, including Ma Thanegi.

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