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

Kampee for Chai

Feeling a bit physically and emotionally drained after work last Sunday night, rather than walking most of the way home as I have been doing lately, I opted for the comfort of a taxi ride. Once I was seated inside, I told the driver where I wanted to go, speaking in Thai. I couldn’t help but notice the familiar music the driver was playing. “Is that Pongsit Kampee?” I asked, knowing the answer already, but wondering what sort of reaction that my recognition of the music would get from the driver.

He flashed a big smile. “Yes, that’s Kampee.”

I offered a grin of my own. “I like his music very much,” I said.

The driver turned up the volume, the grin still on his face. We were rolling.

Pongsit Kampee is one of the more popular practitioners of a Thai music style known as Pleng Puea Cheewit, or “Songs for Life,” and it’s pretty common to hear his music played, especially in taxis, here in Thailand. Pleng Puea Cheewit is a type of folk music, sometimes acoustic and sometimes electric, but almost always with political or socially conscious lyrical content. I love all of Pongsit Kampee’s albums, but my absolute favorite — and one of my most treasured in any genre — is Plug Loot (literally “Unplugged”), an acoustic set of songs that he recorded with Lek Carabao (yes, from the band of the same name, but don’t get him confused with band leader Ad Carabao) back in the early 1990s. That album was a masterpiece of acoustic perfection, the two guitarists performing some of their strongest songs, all garnished with Pongsit’s sweet vocals. Even if you can’t understand everything — or anything — that Pongsit is singing in Thai, you can’t help but fall under the spell of that beautiful, soothing voice. And if you ARE able to understand the lyrics, you will agree with my friend Chai, who once told me: “His songs have very good meaning.”

And that brings me around to the topic of Chai, who is one of the reasons for my recent fatigue. For the past three weeks I have been visiting Chai in the hospital ward where he is currently bedridden. He’s been there for over a month now, the result of head injuries he suffered in a motorcycle accident. For the first week he was in a coma in ICU, and things were touch and go. He is now awake but doesn’t appear to recognize anyone. Because of a lung infection he still has to use a breathing tube and is being fed intravenously.

I’ve been going to the hospital twice a week. I leave work each Monday and Thursday afternoon, taking the Skytrain to the Saphan Taksin station and then walking the rest of the way to the public hospital on Silom Road. I take the elevator up the 15th floor, say hello to the cleaning lady (she seems to be the friendliest and most attentive person on the whole floor) and walk over to Chai’s bed, situated in a huge ward along with dozens of other patients. His mother is there at his bedside every day during visiting hours, from noon till nine at night, massaging Chai’s legs and arms, and speaking to him encouragingly. To see Chai in such a condition must be agonizing for her, but it’s clear she loves her oldest son and will do anything she can to help his recovery. I make my own unskilled attempts at massage and speak to Chai, telling him how much that I and his other friends have missed him, and urging him to get better soon. I tease him not to be lazy, not to give the nurses a hard time, and to obey his mother. But I have no idea if he understands any of my babbling or not. Chai stares at me with his one undamaged eye, but there are no obvious signs of recognition, and he doesn’t speak.

You always hear that listening to music can be productive therapy for people with head injuries, so I went out and bought an MP4 player for Chai, and then loaded it up with lots of tunes that I know that he likes; music from Thai artists such as Pongsit Kampee, Carabao, and Body Slam, along with some upcountry Morlam and Luk Thung songs. In addition to that, I added a bunch of instrumental music, ranging from Ennio Morricone and Jean Michel Jarre, to Grant Green and Love Tractor. Now, whenever I drop by to visit, unless he is sleeping or has just woken, the ear buds are in place and Chai is listening to music. Or at least the device is playing. I’m not sure if his mother is humoring me or if she believes in the power of song too. I asked her the other day what Chai was listening to, and she replied with a smile: “Kampee.”

Even if this music does nothing to assist in Chai’s rehabilitation, at least it may help to relieve any boredom he feels from being confined to bed all day. Hell, maybe he’ll end up becoming a big fan of Morricone’s film scores. At this point, though, I’ll just settle for a normal conversation with him. But that day is still a long way off, or I fear, may never happen again. I have to be realistic. We’re not talking about broken bones and bruises. Head injuries are very serious, unpredictable things, and one can’t make accurate predictions about the prognosis for a person who has suffered such severe trauma. In most cases like this, there is no such thing as a complete recovery. But can we at least hope for some slight return to normal? Will Chai be able to walk again? Will he talk again? Will he laugh and sing songs again? Will he even be able to feed himself or use the toilet unassisted? His mother tells me that he’s getting better, that he understands what’s going on, but honestly, except for the swelling around eyes dissipating, I don’t see much improvement yet.

All I can do for now is to wait patiently for any incremental signs of progress, visit him often, keep chatting and smiling, and hope he’ll get better. And let the music play.

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