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

Archive for December, 2011

Monastery Greetings

The New Year is almost here, and it’s getting mighty cold in the Shan State hills, but the novice monks at Tat Ein Monastery wanted to send their warmest greetings. They wish everyone a Happy New Year filled with peace and loving kindness. And I’ll tack on my own wishes for good health, happiness, and prosperity while we’re at it.


If touring Myanmar, try to make time to drop by Tat Ein village to visit the school or the monastery if you are in the Nyaunghswe or Inle Lake area. Just take the stairway up the hill near the primary school, and you’ll see the little monastery perched at the top. Maybe you’ll also see some of the novice monks outside playing marbles. You can ask to see U San Di Mar, the senior monk who lives in a nearby cave. Yes, a cave. But he only grants audiences during certain times in the morning and early afternoon, so if you get there too late, his “door” will be closed.


Visitors are always welcome at Tat Ein. Everyone there, from the school principal, teachers, students, and monks, will go out of their way to make you feel at home. Like most people in Myanmar, they take hospitality to a whole other level.


Clarence Clemons

One of many — too many — great musicians who passed away this year was Clarence Clemons, the saxophone playing dynamo from Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. Clarence wasn’t just another musician in the band, he was a vital cog in the wheel; perhaps the most indispensible single member. Physically, he was a huge man, capable of  commanding your attention at any time, but when he was onstage and playing his sax he become an even more imposing force of nature.


On songs like “Jungleland,” Clarence’s sax playing was as crucial — or more so — to the composition as Springsteen’s lyrics or guitar playing. Clarence’s sax added extra layers of atmosphere to each song; depending on the mood of the song, it could sound mournful, soulful, funky, or raucous. And when Clarence got hold of a song like “Kitty’s Back,” he would blow the roof off the tune, creating a joyous feeling of wild abandon. The man is irreplaceable.


Shortly after Clemons passed away in June, Springsteen issued this eloquent statement about his friend and bandmate:

“Clarence lived a wonderful life. He carried within him a love of people that made them love him. He created a wondrous and extended family. He loved the saxophone, loved our fans and gave everything he had every night he stepped on stage. His loss is immeasurable and we are honored and thankful to have known him and had the opportunity to stand beside him for nearly forty years. He was my great friend, my partner and with Clarence at my side, my band and I were able to tell a story far deeper than those simply contained in our music. His life, his memory, and his love will live on in that story and in our band.”

I saw Springsteen and the E Street Band six times in concert during their “glory years” from the mid-70s through the mid-80s. Those shows were, without a doubt, the best concerts I saw during that period. The energy that Springsteen, Clemons, and the other members of the band exuded each night was breathtaking, and sometimes exhausting. Shows that lasted three hours or longer. They gave all they had, and it showed. Clearly, this was a band having fun onstage, and their enthusiasm inevitably infected the audience.


During one the band’s early 80s tours, the night before a show in Lakeland, Florida, some friends and I went to the hotel where the band was staying and managed to find out which floor they were on. This was in the days of little to no security, so we had no problems roaming the corridors of the hotel. At one point during the night, “the Big Man,” as Clemons was fondly called, came wandering out into the hallway wearing only his underwear. He smiled and nodded at us — I think he might have even murmured “Howya doin’” or something like that — and then shuffled off in search of more ice. Ah, those brushes with greatness!


I was thinking about Clarence again this week as I listened to Springsteen’s amazing Hammersmith Odeon London ’75 live album. That double CD has some great early-period Springsteen songs, all of them punctuated by Clarence’s vibrant sax playing. These live recordings really embody what was so wonderful, and vital, about Springsteen’s music. But listening to this album also shows that it wasn’t just Bruce’s songs and charisma that thrilled audiences; it was a band effort. Listen to these songs, smile and remember the greatness of Bruce, Clarence, and the band. I’ve decided that their version of “Quarter to Three,” the old Gary U.S. Bonds hit that’s one of the encores on Hammersmith Odeon, will be a great way to ring in the New Year this weekend. Play it loud!

Kathein Treasure Trees

During the full moon period of Tazaungmon in November — the same time as the famous balloon festival in Taunggyi — there is also a ceremony called Kathein that is held in villages and cities throughout Myanmar. During this important ceremony an offering of “Holy Robes” are given to monks in area monasteries.


In addition to the traditional giving of robes, Kathein has spread to include donations of other kinds. Items ranging from toothpaste and soap to noodles and crackers, and especially bank notes, are collected and given to monasteries. Some of these donations are collected and decoratively mounted on stands that resemble trees. During my recent trip I saw these “Kathein Trees” everywhere; in homes, restaurants, street corners, schools, and shops. I asked my friend Ma Thanegi, who lives in Yangon, for clarification on this Kathein thing, specifically the name of these tree-like donation displays. She told me that they are called Padaythar Pin in Burmese, which roughly translates as “Tree of Plenty,” although she prefers the term “Tree of Treasures” because she thinks “it sounds nicer!”


Traditionally, the collection of Kathein offerings starts after the Full Moon day of Thadingyut in October and lasts until Tazaungmon comes around in November, the exact dates of which are always changing according to the lunar calendar. I didn’t make it to the Kathein ceremony when I was in Taunggyi this time, but it’s renowned as being the most spectacular in all of Myanmar, with “a thousand and one gifts” donated to local monasteries.


Reading List: December 2011

Jo Nesbo – Nemesis

Another installment in Nesbo’s increasingly popular Harry Hole series of detective novels, all set in the author’s native Norway. Harry Hole reminds me a bit of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus character; a real maverick police office that delightfully annoys his colleagues. I’ve read three of Nesbo’s books now and plan to keep going. He has been compared to another popular Scandinavian mystery writer, Stieg Larsson, but Nesbo is a much better writer.



Robert Hicks – Widow of the South

Picked this up to read just because it looked interesting and had a nice blurb on the cover, comparing it to Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, which was an excellent novel indeed. I’m not a big Civil War buff (unlike one guy I knew back in Florida, who sold most of his record collection to buy a musket for Civil War re-enactment events!), but I found this combination of historical fiction and a love story to be very gripping. I’ll be eager to read more by this author.


Laura Hillenbrand – Seabiscuit

I’ve never been a big horse racing fan, or even a fan of horses for that matter, but this novel is about much more than horses and racing. Hillenbrand is a skillful writer and she keeps the reader’s interest throughout this great book, merging 1930s history with a fascinating cast of real people that were devoted to an amazing horse. Hillenbrand’s research and writing skills help to make the reader feel like they really knew these people.


Martin Cruz Smith – Stalin’s Ghost

I hadn’t read a book by this author since Gorky Park many years ago, but after hearing many customers rave about his writing, I felt it was time to try another one. This recently written novel features the same protagonist, police investigator Arkady Renko, and is once again set in Russia. Smith is certainly a very gifted writer, but his storytelling style, use of too many characters (maybe it’s all the Russian names that trip me up!) and convoluted subplots often left me confused and not so eager to keep turning the pages. The story was far from boring, but after finishing this one I’m not compelled to read more books in the Renko series right away.


Eric Newby – What the Traveller Saw

This is a collection of essays by the famed travel writer, covering a variety of unusual destinations around the world over several decades. Newby’s writing is both informative and amusing; he truly has a special eye for people and details. The book is also illustrated with many striking Black & White photos taken by Newby.



K.C. Constantine – Always a Body to Trade

This is one of Constantine’s delightful Mario Balzic crime novels, featuring the cranky, profanity-spewing Rocksburg, Pennsylvania police chief. First published in 1983, this one is a delight, as are all of the Mario Balzic novels; little gems that need to be rediscovered.


Michael Connelly – The Drop

The latest Harry Bosch mystery, this one finds the hard-headed L.A. detective wresting with investigations — old and new — and trying to raise his increasingly independent teenage daughter. Biggest surprise; the kid like some of her father’s favorite jazz albums! Another strong novel by one of the best in the business.


Danny Goldberg – Bumping Into Geniuses: My Life in the Rock and Roll Business

Goldberg reflects on his many years in the music business, from starting as a young rock magazine writer, to being tour manager for Led Zeppelin in the early 70s, running a record label in the 90s, and working with Kurt Cobain and Nirvana during the Nevermind period. A fascinating memoir with plenty of good tales. I especially enjoyed the chapter about Warren Zevon, one of rock’s most underrated geniuses.


James McBride – The Color of Water

This famous, bestselling memoir is about a mixed race man whose mother was white. McBride tells his own tale, while interspersing his mother’s own reminiscences between chapters. His mother grew up in a very conservative Jewish family but later became a Christian. The author also seems to have deep religious beliefs, thus there’s a bit too much Jesus babbling in the book for my tastes. But overall this is an unusual and interesting read.


Ed McBain – Ghosts

I’ve loved reading McBain’s 87th Precinct series of police procedural mysteries — I read three or four of them each year and still have a dozen or so to go — and this one is another good one. It’s very short, at under 200 pages, but a very fun, and sometimes funny, read.


Monastery Photo Flood

When I visited the novice monks at Shwe Yan Pyay Kyaung in Nyaungshwe last month, I not only brought them photos I had taken on my previous trip in June (during which I took groups of them to both the Pindaya Caves and to Taunggyi), but newspapers from Bangkok, specifically the sections with photos showing the ongoing flooding in Thailand. I’ve learned enough Burmese over the years that I felt capable of describing what had happened in Thailand, but using the old “a picture is worth a thousand words” axiom, I figured the photos would do a much better job of conveying how catastrophic the flooding in the Bangkok area had been than if I had tried to explain.


I brought about two weeks’ worth of full-page photo spreads from the Bangkok Post, and the monks seemed fascinated as they perused them. They were also quite eager to look at the photos of themselves from earlier in the year. And this, of course, led to some brand new photo sessions both inside and outside the monastery; posing in front of Buddha images, standing in front of the building’s distinctive windows, and more.


The monastery was also crawling with tour groups this time around, more tourists than I’ve ever seen in town. But the young monks happily took time during their early afternoon break (after lunch and before studies resumed at 1 pm) to pose for more photos. I think it may be time to get them their own camera so that they can start taking photos of all the tourists!



Skaggs & Hornsby … and Anderson

A friend of mine in Bangkok let me borrow the CD that Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby released in 2007, simply titled Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby. It’s a fabulous, lively set of bluegrass originals and “reworked” versions of Hornsby songs like “Mandolin Rain” and “A Night on the Town.” The last track on the album, however, is the real head-turner; a hoedown cover version of Rick James’ “Superfreak.” But who was the vocalist? His delightful country drawl sounded very familiar, but I knew it wasn’t Skaggs or Hornsby. Okay, check out the booklet inside the CD, dummy. And that of course revealed the answer: the singer was John Anderson. If that name doesn’t ring a bell right away, remember that huge 80s country hit “Swingin’”? Yes, THAT John Anderson, as opposed to the senator from Illinois who once ran for US President or the Jon Anderson from the band Yes. This John Anderson was a good old country boy with a great singing voice, the pride of Apopka, Florida, which is right now the road from my old hometown of Orlando. In fact, one of my friends from university went to high school in Apopka with John. Just a regular guy, from all accounts, but one with talent.

“Swingin’” might have seemed like a novelty hit to some listeners, but Anderson had plenty of other great songs and recorded several very good albums in the 80s and early 90s. Songs like “1959” and “Seminole Wind” are classics in any genre. He was quite successful for a few years, enjoying a run of number one hits on the country charts, but he changed labels several times and I’d lost track of him in recent years. Was he still recording? A quick online checked revealed that, yes indeed he is. Just two years ago he released a new album, Bigger Hands, on the Country Crossing label. Good reviews on that one indicate that it may be one to hunt down. In any case, it’s good to see an artist with such a distinctive voice still out there making music. And kudos to Ricky and Bruce for recruiting John to sing “Superfreak” on their album. You gotta hear this one. If it doesn’t make you smile, it’s time for lethal injection.

The Other Side of the Mountain

Only a few kilometers away from Tat Ein village in Shan State, on the other side of the mountain, and down some incredibly difficult to navigate dirt roads, is the small village of Lwe Kin. Actually, there is a Lwe Kin South and a Lwe Kin North. I visited the northern village. Not only is this village more remote than Tat Ein, it’s even poorer.


My friend Htein Linn knows two of the teachers at the primary school in Lwe Kin and tries to encourage tourists to visit when they have time. Of course, getting them there is the big challenge. You have to make the journey on foot, by bike (and half of that journey involves getting off your bike and pushing it up hills or across ditches), or find someone with a motorcycle. The first time I visited, two years ago, I took a bike. Uh, never again. The last two trips Htein Linn borrowed his brother’s motorcycle to take us. With money from donations, Htein Linn juggles several projects at the school each year. He is currently making arrangements to have new washrooms and toilets built for the students.


Sadly, one of the most difficult challenges is persuading parents in Lwe Kin to let their children attend classes. Many poor families living in the area consider their kids to be valuable workers that can help them earn extra income, thus some parents would rather have the children helping them in the fields than letting them go to school. But once they are in class, some of these children really thrive. If you visit Nyaungshwe and the Inle Lake area, consider a short trip to see this school. Htein Linn at Golden Bowl Travel can fill you in on all the details.

Pieces of a Trip

Carrying a heavy load on a rain-splattered sidewalk in Yangon.


Moe Thet Aung, Zin Ko, and friends in Mandalay.


Sunset in Nyaungshwe.


Novice monks at monastery in Mandalay.


A woman sells birdfeed in Yangon.


Making shoes at a small workshop in Mandalay.


Guard dogs in Yangon taking a nap!


Tourists pose for a photo with the novice monks at Shwe Yan Pyay Kyaung in Nyaungshwe.


A Buddhist nun makes alms rounds in New Bagan.


A novice monk takes a kite flying break in Mandalay.


Cooking up lunch for teachers and monks at Tat Ein village.


Temple ruins interspersed amidst the fields in Bagan.


The road to Tat Ein village near Nyaungshwe in Shan State.


Pyin Na Thiri and friends from Tat Ein at the park and mini-zoo in Taunggyi.


Roadside refreshment stand in Yangon.


Newlywed couple in Nyaungshwe.


Novice monks at Tat Ein monastery show off their collection of marbles.


Making music at the balloon festival in Taunggyi.


Always time for a nap on the dusty streets of Yangon.


Kaw Wi Di, a novice monk from Tat Ein, and friend at the park in Taunggyi.

Kickin’ it in Bagan

While I was in Bagan they were holding a football tournament, the Tike Su Cup, featuring local teams. These weren’t conventional football (soccer) matches, however, but “mini-matches”. Each team was only allowed three players on the small pitch, and had two substitute players on the sidelines. The goals were tiny ones (literally “narrow goal” in Burmese), making it very difficult for the players to score goals. Most kicks were either too wide or too high. When it came time for free kicks, the smart players gently tapped the ball, making it sure it never left the ground, but rolled straight towards the untended goal.


I went with my friends from New Bagan, Tun Tun and Zin Zin, to see the semi-finals one afternoon and the final the following day. The matches were held in what basically looked like a vacant dirt lot, a couple of blocks off the main road in New Bagan, and just down the street from the high school. Tun Tun was still licking his wounds from his own team’s defeat in the opening round earlier in the week, but he was excited about seeing his friends on the Yadanarbon team play a match.


Each late afternoon match drew a vocal crowd of supporters. The crowd, as expected, was comprised mostly of males, but a considerable number of young ladies were also present. Some of the smaller and shorter kids in the crowd found it hard to see the action, so they found better viewing spots … in the nearby trees! The atmosphere was very festive and pleasant, and absolutely no traces of hooliganism. There’s not a whole lot to do in New Bagan, so this event was a real treat for everyone. Even the losing team in the finals didn’t appear too upset with their defeat. Maybe that’s because once the teams got to the semi-finals they were all assured of a cash prize.



December 2011 Listening List

Here are the CDs (yes, real legitimate discs and NOT downloads) that I’m listening to this month, just the sonic tonic to keep my spirits high amidst the depressing seasonal onslaught of Christmas nonsense.

Ry Cooder – Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down

Coldplay – Mylo Xloto

The Winstons – Color Him Father

Tony Joe White – The Heroines

Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

Swamp Dogg – It’s All Good

Lindsey Buckingham – Seeds We Sow

Red Hot Chili Peppers – I’m With You

Jackie McLean – Bluesnik

Daryl Hall – Laughing Down Crying

Various Artists – Nigeria 70

Dan Fogelberg – Live: Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, … and Some Blues

Art Farmer – Brass Shout/The Aztec Suite

Grant Green – Iron City

Lonnie Liston Smith – Cosmic Funk

Eddi Reader – The Songs of Robert Burns (Deluxe Edition)

Tony Rice – Sings Gordon Lightfoot

Blue Rodeo – Casino

Bob Mould – Body of Song

Ben Webster & Joe Zawinul – Soulmates

Various Artists – Carolina Funk: First in Funk 1968-1977

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds

The Black Keys – Attack & Release

The Coral – Singles Collection

Ray LaMontagne – Gossip in the Grain

Jim Ford – The Sounds of our Time

Danny and the Champions of the World – Streets of our Time

Tommy Stinson – One Man Mutiny

Kelley Stoltz – Circular Sounds

The Grid – Four Five Six

Dusty Springfield – The Complete BBC Sessions

The Red Button – As Far as Yesterday Goes

Booker T and the MGs – Play the Hip Hits

June Tabor and Oysterband – Ragged Kingdom

Hurrah! – The Sound of Philadelphia

Tinariwen – Tassili

Mekons – Fear and Whiskey

John Mellencamp – No Better Than This

Boston Spaceships – Let it Beard

The Originals – California Sunset

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