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

Archive for May, 2011

Mandalay Heat

On the road this week, spending most of the time in Mandalay, one of my very favorite cities. That’s an odd proclamation, since most travelers to Myanmar will tell you that Mandalay was perhaps the least interesting city they visited. But many of those tourists do a typically “too quick” pass through town, only spending two or three days to see the supposed highlights of the area. And in the process, at least in my opinion, they miss out on the real interesting stuff to see and do here.

This week, for example, I’ve hung out in teashops, taken a group of 17 children to see the sights on Yankin Hill (and later to a swimming pool), ridden my bike all around town, stopped and visited monasteries and talked to monks, dined with locals, played putt-putt golf at a makeshift neighborhood “course” (basically a big pile of sand that these kids cleverly engineered to accommodate one hole!), and weighed in on the big Barcelona vs. Manchester United football match, which was obviously THE biggest event of the month as far as the locals were concerned.

I’m off to Nyaungshwe and the Inle Lake area on Thursday, hoping to make visits to Pindaya and Taunggyi while I’m there. Once again, this has been a thrilling, humbling, and challenging trip. My language skills are frustratingly still not where I want them to be; most of the time I have to repeat myself or I leave my listeners scratching their heads in bewilderment. But when it clicks, it’s very satisfying. And that’s enough to keep me trying.

Besides the oppressive heat, and the frequent rain storms, the biggest downer for me was hearing that Gil Scott-Heron had passed away a few days ago. This news has really, truly depressed me. Gil Scott-Heron was one of my favorite, most cherished musical artists, one who I’ve followed and listened to since I was in my late teens. Even though his output was negligible the past few decades, his passing will leave a big void in the music world.

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The Baseball Project

What happens when a few baseball-addicted musicians get together to make an album? The answer is, a totally fresh and inspired collective called the Baseball Project.

This super-group — or maybe a bunch of versatile utility players would be a more apt description — has just released their second album, Volume 2: High and Inside. Returning for a “second season” of play are first-year members Pete Buck (R.E.M.), Scott McCaughey (The Minus 5, Young Fresh Fellows, R.E.M.), Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate), and Linda Pitmon (Miracle 3, Golden Smog). This time around they are joined by Craig Finn (The Hold Steady), Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie), Steve Berlin (Los Lobos), Ira Kaplan (Yo La Tengo) and Chris Funk and John Moen of The Decemberists.

As both the band’s name and album title would indicate, the songs are all odes to favorite baseball players (“Ichiro Goes to the Moon” and “Buckner’s Bolero”, teams (“Don’t Call them Twinkies”), or baseball traditions (“Chin Music” and “Fair Weather Fans”). Some of the other songs are about players that these musicians grew up idolizing (Pete Rose, Tony Conigliaro, Mark Fidrych) back in the 60s or 70s, but one other song, “Panda and the Freak”, honors current players on the San Francisco Giants

Even if you aren’t a baseball fan, that should not detract from appreciating this album. In fact, it’s hard not to get caught up in the infectious spirit of these songs. No matter what the lyrical content, this is simply good, fun music. But for baseball fans, especially, the lyrics will provide many smiles. The Baseball Project’s first effort, Volume One: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails, is also a fine album, some of the songs so wonderfully silly that they would leave a smile on my face. With songs about players such as Ted “Fucking” Williams, Satchel Paige, Harvey Haddix, Curt Flood, and Fernando Valenzuela, you can’t help but grin. Baseball is life, indeed!

Laptop Scourge

Anyone who has ever worked in a retail establishment of any kind knows that there are times when you have to deal with unpleasant or just plain creepy customers. On one hand, most customers are kind and considerate, and a joy to have in the store. There are the ones who make retail a magical place. But once in a while along comes some character that delights in pushing your patience to the limit. Complaining, demanding, haggling, whining; they just don’t know when to stop. That old adage that “the customer is always right” is total bullshit.

But the ones at the top of my personal “most hated” list of customers are laptop users. I hesitate to even use the word “customer” when talking about these people, because they certainly are not the type of repeat patrons who spend money on a regular basis. Just as all customers are not nasty cheapskates, neither are all laptop users inconsiderate ingrates. Some of the people I see using laptops appear to be polite, sensible folks who are aware of what is going on around them, and now how to use their laptop without disturbing others around them. But the rest of the laptop-clicking masses seem lost in a digital daze, oblivious to the rest of society. I realize that people are more mobile nowadays, and love having their gadgets with them at all times, but the sight of people going into retail establishments and whipping out a laptop seems akin to public masturbation. What compels them to use their laptops in public? I suspect that there is some sort of exhibitionist behavior at play here. Why can’t they do whatever they are doing at home or back at the office? Or don’t they have homes? Perhaps that then is the problem: what we are seeing are simply sad cases of homeless people with nowhere else to go, so they are forced to seek air-conditioned sanctuary in order to fulfill their vital computing needs.

Whatever the reason for their presence, it seems there is no stopping the rising tide of public laptop users. Starbucks and similar establishments that offer free wi-fi are actually encouraging this odd behavior, deeming it “normal” practice to allow someone to hang out for hours at a time without having to purchase anything more than a single beverage. Then again, perhaps that’s why the coffee is so expensive at those joints.

But my bookshop can’t handle this sort of “customer.” We have three floors of books, but each floor is quite narrow and it should be obvious to anyone who steps inside that we aren’t a spacious Borders type of establishment. We have space for exactly one table downstairs and a counter by our front window where an additional two people can sit. We provide these seats for customers who want to take a break and drink some coffee (sorry, our supply of whiskey ran out last month!), or perhaps peruse a book or two before buying. We DON’T provide these precious few seats for people who want to use our shop as their personal workplace or study hall. One woman thought our shop would be a fine place for her to conduct language classes. She had already held three lessons — without ever asking us for permission — until we finally told her it would be better if she held her sessions elsewhere. She appeared offended at our suggestion and never returned. Wow, what a surprise!

But the laptop fondlers are the worst of them all. They act as if they are entitled to takeover any public space and turn it into their very own private domain for whatever length of time that suits their needs, oblivious to any other people who might need to use that same space. The laptoppers will unashamedly sit for hours nursing a single cup of coffee while immersed in their “work,” or whatever the hell they are doing on their precious devices. An hour or two? That’s a short coffee break for these slackers. I’ve seem some of them hole up for five or six hours. But rarely, if ever, do these digital wankers ever buy an actual book. I honestly don’t think they could handle reading something that doesn’t beep back at them.

Places like my bookshop — even though we mercifully do NOT have wi-fi — have become magnets for these cretins. We had a woman in my shop one day last week who sat for over five hours at our downstairs table, methodically pecking away on her laptop, in between fielding phone calls on her mobile. Then this wench had the audacity to ask if we had an electric outlet to recharge her phone. I just smiled and shook my head “No.” It took all I had to refrain from making a truly nasty comment. This past Saturday night we were treated to yet another inconsiderate laptop flasher; a fellow who spent over four hours with his laptop — and the obligatory single cup of coffee — at the front counter. The entire time he alternated between his laptop and a battery of other shiny iGadgets; clicking, fiddling, nodding, twitching. If I hadn’t have announced that “we are closing in five minutes,” I reckon he would have obliviously remained in his digital cocoon for another hour or two. One day last month we hosted a young Thai couple who set up shop at the table, both of them furiously clicking away on their matching laptops and phones for a solid three hours. Hey, who needs conversation when you can share digital table space? Now that’s true romance!

Thankfully, it’s rare that we are subjected to these marathon laptop sessions, so when they do occur it makes it all the more annoying. I fear the situation is only going to get worse as more people start toting around tablets, laptops, iPhones, and other gadgets and commandeering public space for their own selfish needs. It’s just another sign, in my opinion, of the decline of civilized society. Yeah, yeah, all these gadgets are nice and handy — and apparently indispensible for some — but they are also a major contributor to slothful, impolite behavior. It’s time to fight back!

Thailand Soul

I was listening to a CD compilation called Northern Soul’s Classiest Rarities, Volume Four last week when one of the songs, “A Man of My Word,” caught my ear. I slipped the booklet out of the jewel case to read more about the band, Salt & Pepper (and no, this isn’t the Hip-Hop group Salt ‘N Pepa from the 1980s), who had recorded this catchy, funky tune. I did a double take when I read that “this recording was cut in April 1970 at the Sri Kruong studios in Bangkok, Thailand.”

 

At that time, of course, the Vietnam War was going on, and members of the band were all in the US military, stationed at the U-Tapao Air Force Base near Chonburi, right here in Thailand. In the CD’s extensive liner notes, it mentions that Salt & Pepper “soon had a regular Saturday set in Bangkok at Jack’s American Star Bar, a mainly black GI haunt that was later revealed to have been a front for heroin dealing. Friday nights saw them at Charlie’s Hideaway in the Pattaya Beach resort and they even got gigs in native Thai clubs.” The band’s name was inspired by the fact that the lead singer (Ed Mobley) was black, while the rest of the band members were white. According to additional information that sax player Steve Jarrell posted on an online soul music forum:

We formed the group and played the service clubs and on weekends we played in Bangkok and Jack’s American Star Bar and also at Charlie’s Hideaway in Pattaya Beach, Thailand. We recorded the songs that Ed had written and put them on Toni’s custom label. We were the first Americans to ever record in Southeast Asia. The record became a hit in Bangkok and received airplay on the Armed Forces Radio Network. I sang background and played sax on the records. I can’t remember if any of the other guys sang too. We did the old technique of “pinging” track to track back and forth. I am sure the machine was a 2 or 4 track recorder. The studio was Sri Kruong in Bangkok. I remember we had fun with the Thai engineer. We would move our mouths and not sing and he would start shaking wires like something was wrong with the equipment. We all got a big chuckle out of that.

 

In addition to that track, there are many more cool songs on Northern Soul’s Classiest Rarities, Volume Four. As the title implies, these are all very rare recordings, many of them making their debut on CD for the first time. But that’s not to say that these are weak or inferior recordings. Far from it. The quality is excellent and listeners are treated to vibrant tunes that reinforce the therapeutic power of soul music. Like Salt and Pepper, many of these artists never recorded again, or if they did, their output was never enough to fill an entire album, thus the recordings were “lost” for several decades. About the only “big” name on this collection is singer Brenton Wood, who released several albums, including some “hits” compilations you can still find. The other three volumes of Northern Soul’s Classiest Rarities are also chock-full of great tracks, just begging to be heard. Kent Records has done a fantastic job of culling the archives of various labels to find these rare records. More please!

Wilfred Thesiger

I love reading travel books, so I’m not sure why it took me so long to discover the books of Wilfred Thesiger, but I’m thankful that I finally did. I stumbled upon a copy of Thesiger’s The Marsh Arabs about two years ago, the book just sitting there on a shelf at my bookshop. Thumbing through it, I was struck by the photos that Thesiger had taken of the locals, as well as the descriptions of his travels in the marsh region of pre-oil Iraq in the 1950s. I’ve never been to that part of the world, and honestly don’t have much of a desire to go anywhere in the Middle East, but reading about travels in off-the-beaten-path destinations, particularly from bygone eras, always intrigues me.

Maybe one reason I hadn’t heard of Thesiger is that he isn’t really a typical travel writer, but a true adventurer, one who spent most of his adult life in remote regions of Africa and the Middle East, often venturing to lands where he was one of the first Western visitors. It was typical of Thesiger, that through his actions and behavior, he won the respect, admiration and confidence of the local people wherever he travelled, despite being a foreigner from an entirely different culture.

One book jacket proclaims:

Wilfred Thesiger was, in the words of David Attenborough, “one of the very few people who in our time could be put on the pedestal of the great explorers of the 18th and 19th centuries.” Throughout his life he journeyed through some of the remotest, most dangerous areas of Africa, witnessing and photographing fast-changing cultures to great acclaim.

Luckily, armchair travelers can read about Thesiger’s adventures thanks to the books that he wrote, and we gain an added appreciation of those travels and the people he encountered thanks to the many stunning Black & White photos that illustrate those books. Thesiger travelled by camel around the “empty quarter” of Arabia (the subject of the classic Arabian Sands) and by canoe through the marshes of Southern Iraq (the subject of The Marsh Arabs), as he methodically dispensed medicine to villagers, performed circumcisions (yes, even though he wasn’t a doctor, Thesiger was surprisingly prolific at this operation), or shooting crocodiles, wild boar, tigers, and other wild animals that posed a threat to him and his companions. Thesiger seemed unfazed by the dangers and discomforts surrounding him, including the death threats he received from “enemy” tribes in Arabia, simply because he was in “infidel” travelling through their land. In cases like that, he usually had to request written permission to enter those areas.

After finishing The Marsh Arabs, I was hooked on Thesiger’s style, and then found a copy of his acclaimed Arabian Sands. That book is an account of his travels in the 1940s through Southern Arabia, a trip that was particularly fraught with hardships and danger. No water for days at a time, minimal food supplies, hostile armed tribes, horrific diseases. Not exactly akin to a sea cruise or leisurely walkabout. Following that book, I tackled Among the Mountains: Journeys Through Asia, in which Thesiger travelled in colder climates and higher elevations. In the past month I’ve read both The Danakil Diary: Journeys Through Abyssinia, and My Kenya Days, books which cover dramatically different periods of Thesiger’s life on that continent. In between the Arabian and African books I also read a biography of Thesiger written by his friend Alexander Maitland. That book gives the reader a better feel for this enigmatic explorer, a man more comfortable riding camels on sand dunes than motoring down country lanes back home in his native England. In fact, Thesiger famously detested motor vehicles, big city life, and modern “progress,” although in his later years he succumbed to practicality and bought a jeep to get around the area where he lived in Kenya.

This past month I splurged on a copy of Wilfred Thesiger in Africa, a fabulous hardcover collection of his photos. This book also includes some essays about Thesiger and his travels from a variety of friends and fellow authors. There is also a more deluxe collection of Thesiger’s photos, A Vanished World, but that book is currently out of print, and the cheapest used copies I’ve seen from online dealers are going for around $130. I’d love to have it, but I think I’ll wait.

Heartworn Highways

It’s late December, 1975, and a group of musicians have gotten together to perform a few songs. This bunch of singer-songwriters were all young men, all based in the American Southwest (mostly from Texas), still relatively unknown to the music world, but in the words of this album’s producer, ones who “were beginning to change the landscape of country music.” What these musicians were offering was definitely not your traditional brand of hillbilly country, but something that was later dubbed “outlaw country” or even “progressive country.” More whiskey and Texas chili, as opposed to grits and biscuits.

Whatever the label, you could safely say, without exaggeration, that this was one of the greatest collections of singer-songwriters ever assembled; a jaw-dropping group of young mavericks that included Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell, John Hiatt, Steve Earle, and Steve Young. Throw in interesting characters like Larry Jon Wilson, Gamble Rogers, and David Alan Coe, and the atmosphere becomes even more intoxicating — in more ways than one! The CD clocks in at nearly 80 minutes, offering stunning performances such as Van Zandt’s classic “Pancho and Lefty,” a few Guy Clark gems (“L.A. Freeway” and “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train”), Crowell’s “Bluebird Wine,” and Coe’s surprisingly tender “I Still Sing the Old Songs.”

Although the film was made in 1976, it’s not clear why it took over 30 years for these recordings to surface. But thanks to efforts by the label, the album’s producer, and sound engineers, a “meticulous audio restoration” was undertaken and the result is an incredible album. It sounds like you are right in the room with these guys, listening to history being made. Not only is this a priceless audio snapshot of great musicians during their formative years, it’s also a thrilling listening experience. And it may cause some listeners to redefine what they think of as country music. 

 

There is also a documentary companion to Heartworn Highways that contains even more music, including performances by Charlie Daniels. But it’s apparently now out of print and the last time I checked on Amazon, even used copies were selling for well over a hundred dollars. Have to patiently wait for a reissue or more affordable offerings.

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The biggest musical contributor to Heartworn Highways — at least the one with the most songs — was Guy Clark, at that time a young songwriter who had just released his first two albums, both of them flawless collections of well-crafted songs; Old No. 1 and Texas Cookin’. Pick any song off either of those albums and you have a classic. Really, it’s hard to think of an artist, in any genre, who had two better albums to launch a career. Although Guy Clark is perhaps best known as a songwriter whose songs have been covered by hundreds of other artists, he’s also a very good singer and the power of his songs are not diminished at all by having him perform them. Which I think, was one reason why fellow troubadour Townes Van Zandt never made it big. Townes was a great songwriter, no question about it, but his vocals took some getting used to. And while Guy Clark is no Willie Nelson in the vocals department, he’s much smoother than Townes. 

For yet another glimpse into the great songs and personalities of these musicians, check out Together at the Bluebird Café, a live album recorded in 1995 with contributions from Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, and Steve Earle. Wonderful tunes performed in small venue with some great between songs patter helps gives this album a refreshing down-to-earth homey vibe. This was also one of the last times the three shared a stage; Van Zandt passed away less than two years later.

 

Shan State Novice Monks

 

Another week with too much murder, misery, and mayhem in the news. To counteract all that negativity, here are a few happy photos of the congenial novice monks at Shwe Yan Pyay Kyaung, an old teakwood monastery on the outskirts of Nyaungshwe in Myanmar’s Shan State. Nyaungshwe is the gateway to nearby Inle Lake, a picturesque body of water framed by craggy green mountains, and home of the famous leg-rowing fisherman.

Many of these novice monks come from Pa-O villages in the area. They spend most of the morning and afternoon studying, but once in a while — as you can see in these photos — they cut loose and revert to being silly young boys.

 

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