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

Archive for October, 2012

Mandalay Meandering

I spent a full week in Mandalay during my visit to Myanmar in July. I’ve been there so many times that I rarely bother to revisit any of the popular tourist attractions in town. My usual routine involves going to teashops (Morning Star, Minthiha, or a small one near the railway station that has delicious monhinga in the mornings), restaurants (Aye Myit Tar for Burmese cuisine, and V Café for western dishes), and just simply riding my bike around town. Sometimes I don’t have a real plan; I just hop on the bike and ride off into the dust, often getting lost in the process. That’s when the adventure starts!

 

During these somewhat aimless bike rides I’ve discovered some incredibly memorable people, places, and things: lovely old monasteries, tree-lined avenues and bubbling brooks, friendly local families (one of them, I kid you not, was named the Adams Family … and they are Burmese!), and quaint little neighborhoods. One of those is the neighborhood on 90th Street, where U Tin Chit’s teashop is located. I usually make my way over there every day when I am in town, stopping at the teashop first for conversation — and tea, of course. Inevitably, the kids will come around after school and they will take me on walks or bike rides around the area. I never know where we are going to go — a park, a monastery, a lake, a jade workshop, a school — but it’s always fun. Really, I never get bored of hanging out with this crew.

 

My friend Maw Hsi, one of the regulars at the teashop, planned a few new excursions in the area this time. One day, while the kids were in school, we rode our bikes around town and visited a half-dozen monasteries, from small ones to huge complexes. Another day we took the kids to the chinlon tournament at Mahamuni Paya. Other times, we just meandered down the jigsaw pattern of small narrow lanes until we reached the river. Here are some photos I took of the kids out and about, hamming it up for the camera. Just another day in Mandalay.

 

 

 

Disc Battles

Are vinyl records really making a comeback? More and more, even here in Bangkok, I hear people talking about collecting records, and raving about the superior audio quality of vinyl versus that of compact discs. I used to have a sizeable record collection when I lived in Florida, but once CDs became the format of choice in the mid 1980s, that’s pretty much all I bought and listened to the rest of that decade and beyond. When I moved to Thailand in 1996, any records I still had were given to friends.

 

Despite the larger artwork on record covers and the general consensus that vinyl sounds better, I really don’t miss my old records. It was always annoying when records would accumulate scratches so easily, were prone to warping, took up lots of space, and were damn heavy when you boxed them up. I’m no audiophile, so the “superior sound” of vinyl records goes right over my head … or in and out my ears. Some people might wish for a return to the glory days of vinyl, but I’ll stick with CDs, thank you. I don’t doubt that there’s a difference in sound quality, but I don’t notice it enough for it to factor in my own listening habits. For me, the bottom line is the music. It doesn’t matter if I listen to the songs in mono, stereo, or on a cheap unit with a single speaker. I’m more moved by the rhythm, the lyrics, or the emotional impact of the recording rather than sonic resolution or high fidelity dynamics. And don’t even get me started on the subject of downloads. I realize that many people enjoy the convenience of mobile devices nowadays — or are just addicted to those devices — but how could anyone be passionate about collecting sound files? If you can’t touch it or sniff it, why bother?

 

Keeping the music theme in today’s post, here are the CDs getting the most play at my place lately. As usual, it’s a hearty diet of tunes covering various genres; some new releases, many old gems, and a few compilations and live recordings.

 

Bobby Womack – The Bravest Man in the Universe

Lou Ragland – I Travel Alone

Robert Forster – I Had a New York Girlfriend

Ian Gomm and Jeb Loy Nichols – Only Time Will Tell

Gene Ammons – Live in Chicago

 

Kelly Hogan – I Like to Keep Myself in Pain

Stanley Turrentine – Don’t Mess with Mr. T.

The Waterboys – In a Special Place

Redd Kross – Show World

Chuck Prophet – Temple Beautiful

 

Little Feat – Rooster Rag

John Hiatt – Mystic Pinball

Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros – Rock Art and the X-Ray Style

The Gaslight Anthem – Handwritten

Mark Knopfler – Privateering

 

Father John Misty – Fear Fun

The Diggers – Mount Everest

The Black Keys – El Camino

Cannonball Adderley Sextet – Dizzy’s Business

The Magnetic Fields – The Charm of the Highway Strip

 

Shoes – Ignition

Paul Kelly – Deeper Water

Eddie Henderson – Heritage

Joe Walsh – Analog Man

The Neville Brothers – Live on Planet Earth

 

Jacobites – Robespierre’s Velvet Basement

Baby Face Willette – Face to Face

Duke Ellington – Money Jungle

Steve Goodman – Artistic Haircut

Ike & Tina Turner – Funkier than a Mosquito’s Tweeter

 

Lee Morgan – Search for the New Land

Ben Folds & Nick Hornby – Lonely Avenue

Mitty Collier – Shades of Mitty Collier: The Chess Singles

The Sound – From the Lion’s Mouth

The Pale Fountains – Pacific Street

 

Various Artists – Eccentric Soul: A Red, Black & Green Production

The Cramps – Off the Bone

Les McCann & Eddie Harris – Swiss Movement

Belle and Sebastian – Push Barman to Open Old Wounds

Small Faces – Ultimate Collection

 

Willie Wright – Telling the Truth

Primatons – Don’t Go Away: Collected Works

Eric Dolphy – Out to Lunch

The xx – Coexist

Black Heat – Keep on Runnin’

 

The King on the Moon

I was in my bookshop last night, updating the Daily Arrival list on our website, when I got a phone call from Chamrong, a friend in Cambodia. The connection was poor, so I had to ask him to repeat what he was telling me. Something about the moon.

“Go outside and look at the moon,” Rong urged me. “I think the moon in Bangkok is the same as Cambodia. You should go look.”

“What is happening with the moon?” I asked. “Is there an eclipse or something?”

“Look at the moon,” he repeated. “You can see the face of King Sihanouk!”

“Huh? On the moon?”

“Yes!” Rong exclaimed. “You can see his face! It’s King Sihanouk!”

So, with phone in hand, I wandered outside and looked up. All I could see were the damn Skytrain tracks, some large buildings and lots of wires. I turned in a different direction and more of the same, plus a massage sign and a few billboards. No sign of any moon.

 

“I can’t see the moon right now,” I told Rong. “There are too many tall buildings on my street. I’ll have to look later when I go home.”

“Yes, look later. You will see King Sihanouk’s face.”

 

Well, on my walk home, I finally did catch a glimpse of the moon. My eyesight isn’t so good, even wearing glasses, but I certainly couldn’t make out any image resembling the recently departed King Sihanouk of Cambodia. Hell, if you use your imagination and look at the moon, it could be anybody or anything.

 

“Look, there’s Gordon Lightfoot!’

“No, it’s Isaac Hayes.”

“Actually, that looks more like Richard Nixon.”

“You’re crazy, it’s Betty’s buttocks.”

I wasn’t about to tell my Cambodian friend he was nuts. No doubt this Sihanouk on the moon thing is some rumor that’s running rampant in Cambodia, as happens so many times over there. If they want to believe that their beloved former King is smiling down at them from the moon, go ahead and let them. Just don’t let it rain again tonight.

Immigration Shuffle

I’m currently undergoing the annual trauma known as Visa Renewal. Being an “alien” resident here in Thailand I must renew my non-immigrant visa every year, as well as doing the same with my work permit. The copious volume of documents, forms, receipts, rubber stamps, and signatures that are needed to accomplish these renewals borders on the ridiculous. To facilitate this mind-numbing — and finger-tiring — process, and to make sure that I haven’t missed any details or forgot to sign or stamp every photocopied page, I use the services of a local company that specializes in dealing with visa and immigration issues. This service isn’t cheap, but the company does a good job, making the visa renewal virtually painless.

 

Nevertheless, at least once during this process I have to visit the immigration office in Chaeng Wattana, an administrative district located in the northern suburbs of Bangkok, far away from any mass transit lines. Getting there requires a journey that takes both a chunk of time and money. One option is taking the skytrain or the subway to the Chatuchak area, and then continuing the journey by a regular taxi or a motorcycle taxi. I opted for a subway and motorcycle combo, by far the fastest way to get there.

 

I arrived at Immigration a full 30 minutes before opening time, but there was already a long line of people waiting. I sent a text message to Patt, the young woman who is my rep at the company, to let her know that I had arrived. She showed up with two other women from the office about 10 minutes later. I soon learned that these two women were recent hires and were experiencing the Immigration Department for the very first time. Patt was basically training them.

 

Once the doors opened, we took a number and waited our turn. During this time, Patt and I chatted. Or I should say: she talked and I listened. Clearly, this woman loved to talk. At one point she stopped for a breath of air and asked: “Do I talk too much?” I smiled and assured her that her babbling was just fine with me. It wasn’t a question of talking “too much”, I said. She was, I told her, very “skillful” at speaking. Poot geng mahk!

 

Once our number was called and she realized where we were going, Patt squealed with delight. “She is my friend,” she told me, pointing to an official sitting at the desk in front of us. Sure enough, once we were seated, Patt and the immigration lady exchanged greetings and launched into an animated conversation about life, food, and product distribution. It turns out that both women have dabbled in selling Amway, Herbalife, and similar direct sales schemes. At one point, the immigration lady also kidded Patt about talking too much, but tried to explain the subtle difference between poot mahk and poot yer. I just sat there and marveled at how casual and chatty this whole “official” business was being conducted. Within a few minutes, we marched over to another desk and chatted with another friendly woman who perused our stock of documents, adding her own stamp and signature, and then we returned to the first desk, got yet another stamp and signature from that official. More smiles and wais and jokes, and everything was done. Thank you and see again. Take care, ka! Just another reason to love living in Thailand.

 

But, in actuality, my one-year extension was still not official. As in previous years, after this in-person immigration visit you aren’t given the full year extension at this point, but only a 30-day extension where you, “the applicant,” are “under review.” Once those 30 days are up, you can return (or someone from the office, such as chatty Patt can go for you) to Immigration, and at that point you’ll get the full year. They always do it this way and I’ve understood the logic of the silly “under review” period. In any case, I should have the “real” visa completed by next week.

 

If that wasn’t enough bureaucratic nonsense, I got an e-mail from Patt last week informing me that my 90-day “check-in” visit was due this month. This “90-day” rule is a very annoying regulation that all foreign workers much comply with. Even though you have a proper visa and work permit you are still required to “check in” with the Immigration Department every 90 days while you are in the country. There is no fee, just more paperwork and the compulsory visit to the remote hinterlands of Chaeng Wattana. But you can circumvent this requirement if you have gone an overseas trip during the 90-day period. In other words, if I decide to visit Cambodia before the 90-day check-in comes due, I don’t have to make that visit. The 90-day clock is re-set from the moment I enter Thailand again.

 

So this announcement from Patt about the need for another 90-day check-in visit totally puzzled me. I had just visited the Immigration Department the previous week, and received the new extension, so why the need for a 90-day visit during the one-month review process? I wrote Patt and told her that I thought there was some mistake; I shouldn’t need to go back so soon. Her supervisor, a woman named Kat (Patt and Kat; the perfect name for a new singing duo!), wrote back to assure me that the 90-day visit was still required. By this point, I had passed the point of being annoyed and I was now approaching furious. “What sort of idiocy is this?” I asked. My old visa had expired and the fact that I had started the visa process all over again should also mean that the 90-day check-in requirement should start from the first day of my new visa, not the date of my last entry to Thailand on the old visa. I exchanged a few more e-mails with Kat and Patt (and also their boss) before I finally relented and accepted the fact that I would need to make this totally pointless visit to Immigration. Hmm … what was that I said about loving Thailand?

Randy Newman in the Hall

One of the nominees this year for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is Randy Newman. If you’re familiar with the music of Randy Newman, well, you know it isn’t quite your textbook definition of rock and roll. But then again, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is no longer the sole sanctuary of traditional rockers. This year’s nominees include the likes of Donna Summer, Chic, Kraftwerk, The Meters, N.W.A., and Public Enemy.

 

I remember the first time I ever heard of Randy Newman. It was a newspaper ad for his “new” album at the time, Good Old Boys. According to the album’s release date, that must have been in 1974. “Who is this guy?” I wondered. Although a teenager at the time, I was a regular radio listener and read publications such as Creem and Rolling Stone, so I thought I was fairly knowledgeable about rock music. But this guy Randy Newman? Looking at the cover of his first album, with Randy sporting horn-rimmed glasses and a somber expression, he looked more like an accountant or a math teacher than a musician.

Well, later that year, after reading more about Randy Newman, I ended up buying Good Old Boys and it quickly became one of my favorite albums. Even after all these years, it still remains a cherished album in my collection. Songs like “Marie” … “Rednecks” … “Kingfish” … Louisiana 1927” … “Birmingham” … oh, stop me; nearly every song on this album ranks as a classic. The lyrics were especially mind blowing; some clever or playful, some caustic or sarcastic or ironic. I’m sure several songs — “Rednecks” being the most obvious example — caused many a listener to puzzle: “Just what is he trying to say?”  

 

In 2002 Rhino Records released a deluxe 2-disc version of Good Old Boys with extra tracks in the form of demos and unreleased tracks. I haven’t taken the plunge and gotten that one yet, but I recently purchased two other relatively “new” Randy Newman CDs, both of them re-workings of previously released tunes, only this time with just Randy and his piano. I did it backwards and got The Randy Newman Songbook, Volume 2 before purchasing the first volume. But I have a good excuse: I didn’t find the first volume until a few months after I saw the second one. In Bangkok CD shops, you gotta take what you find when you see it. In any case, they are both worthwhile additions to my collection. Nothing radically different from most of the original versions, but it’s nice to hear these great tunes stripped down to their bare essentials, without the addition of strings in some cases. Volume One has 18 tracks, while Volume Two offer 16 reworked tunes.

 

Hearing these songs again has inspired to go back into my archives and listen to older albums by Randy Newman, treats like Sail Away (which is nearly the equal of Good Old Boys in its greatness, boasting songs like “Political Science” and “You Can Leave Your Hat On”) and Little Criminals (which included his big hit “Short People). Randy Newman might not be a typical rock and roller, but based on his outstanding recording output over the years (including composing music for many popular soundtracks, such as Toy Story), he deserves to be in some sort of musical hall of fame.

 

Monk’s Mood

During his time on the Blue Note label, Thelonious Monk recorded a fine tune called “Monk’s Mood.” I thought of that song this week, not while listening to the music, but by looking at photos that I recently took of the novice monks at the Tat Ein monastery in Shan State. Feeling down? Feeling Blue? Let the “happy monk vibe” of these youngsters rejuvenate your mind. Monk’s Mood indeed! The joy and happiness that these novice monks exude is contagious. For me, there is no better therapy in these trying times.  Enjoy these photos!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Politics and Lunch … with Ry and Ian

One of the many great albums that Ry Cooder recorded in the 1970s was Paradise and Lunch. That album included inspired covers of jazz, blues, and country standards such as “Mexican Divorce,” “If Walls Could Talk,” and “Ditty Wah Ditty,” along with some pop and R&B tunes such as Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now.”

 

Since his early, more folk-influenced recordings in the 1970s, Ry Cooder has veered all over the musical map; witness his various soundtrack projects and world music albums such as his recordings with the Buena Vista Social Club in Cuba. But in recent years he has returned to his roots, recording original material, many of the songs focused on politics and social issues. In fact, he has just released a new album of originals that is his boldest political statement yet. It would have been appropriate to call it Politics and Lunch, but instead Ry settled for Election Special. The album includes tracks such as “Guantanamo”, “The Wall Street Part of Town,” and “Mutt Romney Blues” (yes, that’s “Mutt” not “Mitt” in the song title!). Cooder is an unabashed Democrat and proudly affirms his allegience, along with his views on the state of the nation over the course of this lively album.

 

Naturally, Cooder has alienated any right-wing fans that he might have had with these politically-charged tunes, but I doubt that he’s losing any sleep over it. Instead, he’s doing interviews to both plug the album and wake up the voting public. He’s pulling no punches, urging voters to choose Barack Obama and not to put up with the crooks on Wall Street, or the creepsters behind these nefarious PAC funds. In a recent issue of Mojo magazine, Cooder urged Obama to “give up the idea of bipartisanship and kick ass now.” In the same interview he declared that “the foundations of society are being dismantled before our very eyes, brought about by four years of think-tank fascism funded by the Koch Brothers.” The Koch Brothers, for those out of the US political loop, are described by the magazine as “billionaire industrialists and right wing propagandists.”

No matter how you feel about Ry Cooder’s music, you have to admire him for speaking his mind and using his music to illuminate various social, financial, and political issues. To my ears, Ry Cooder is a throwback to folk singers like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, musicians with a strong social conscience and equally strong backbone, guys who were not afraid to take a stance on matters of importance to them. I wish there were more artists like that in this me-my-mine age. Too many of them play it down the middle, wary of voicing an opinion for fear of a backlash from fans with opposing views. Some people seem to think that it’s wrong, or a mistake, for musicians to get involved in politics, but I think such a view is balderdash. Musicians should not only feel free to voice their opinions without getting slammed for it, they should be encouraged to do so.

 

Meanwhile, at the age of 73, Ian Hunter still continues to amaze with his boundless energy and the high quality of the music he is recording. Hot on the heels of the amazing Man Overboard album, he has released another yet strong group of songs, some with a decidedly political slant, on his new album, When I’m President. Ian, being a Brit, won’t be able to vote in the US election (unless, of course, he managed to become a US citizen in between tours and recording sessions), but he still feels strongly about what’s going on in this crazy world, and ain’t afraid to speak up. In the fist-pumping title track to the album, he sings:

I’m gonna lean on the one percent — when I’m president

I want a 28th amendment — when I’m president

No more bargains in the basement — when I’m president

Everything’s gonna be different — when I’m president

Veto this, veto that — when I’m president I’ll stick it to the fat cats

 

Politics and music have always been awkward bedfellows but each election year, countless artists either play benefit concerts to help the candidate of their choice or publicly declare their support. I’m reminded of another Ian Hunter venture into American politics, when he toured with Todd Rundgren in 1980, raising money forthe campaign of  John B. Anderson, an independent candidate for president that year. I was fortunate to see the Ian Hunter-Todd Rundgren tour when they stopped in Tampa, Florida for two shows at a small club called the Agora. Ronald Reagan, of course, defeated Jimmy Carter in the November election. Anderson finished far behind with less than 7% of the national vote. I didn’t vote for either Reagan or Carter in that election, but I can’t recall voting for Anderson either. Most likely I stuck to my usual stubborn habit of voting for a write-in candidate such as Bill the Cat.

 

I forget where on the net last week that I saw the retouched photo above, but it’s just so brilliant, that I had to post it! Kudos to whoever actually created it.  Don’t know what it is, my friend, but something odd is blowing in that wind!

 

Tag Cloud