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

Archive for February, 2013

Neil Young Never Sleeps

I just finished reading Neil Young’s autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace. I can’t say that it’s a great book — too many clichéd phrases and repetitive references to Neil’s various side projects  dampen the “wow factor” — but for any diehard Neil Young fan, it’s still a must read. Like the man’s music output, you never know what expect from one chapter to the next — and that’s part of the fun. If you can tolerate Neil’s copious references to his car collection and the “PureSound” audio project he is obsessed with launching, you’ll enjoy reading most of this book. It’s packed with fascinating anecdotes and honest recollections of his life, both inside and outside of music. Particularly touching are the passages in the book that reveal Neil’s love and devotion to his handicapped son Ben, and also to his wife, Pegi. At times I think this book could have used a strong editor, one who could have cut out some of the weaker and sillier parts, but then again those parts are just Neil being Neil, staying true to his soul, and this book gives the reader a better idea of what he thinks and cares about. And in that context, the book hits the mark.

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Last year Neil released two excellent albums with his longtime band Crazy Horse. The first one, Americana, was billed as “a collection of classic American folk songs.” That may have been the case, but in the hands of Neil and his band, those songs were turned inside out and re-energized. The album included songs such as “Oh Susannah”, “Clementine”, “Tom Dooley”, “This Land is Your Land” and “Waywarin’ Stranger.” But these were definitely not laid back, traditional arrangements of these old songs. Each one was electrified and transported by Neil’s new arrangements and the presence of Crazy Horse. There was also a clear social and political slant to the song selection, all of which made the album even more of a vital listening experience. If that “comeback” (it was the first Neil Young and Crazy Horse album in nearly 9 years) wasn’t enough, Neil and the Horse returned later in the year with Psychedelic Pill, a two-CD set of all new material. Not only was this a double album, but the songs themselves were sprawling opus-like creations. The opening track, “Driftin’ Back” was 27-minutes of electric guitar bliss, enhanced by Neil’s wacky lyrics. Pure genius. There are several other tracks that break the 10-minute barrier, so don’t go expecting a bunch of short, sweet folk tunes or a reprise of Harvest. All in all, there is nothing ground breaking on Psychedelic Pill, following familiar Crazy Horse territory. But if you are a fan of Neil’s other Crazy Horse recordings, you’ll love this one too. The energy and raw power is both thrilling and comforting. These guys, even in their 60s, can still deliver the goods!

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In addition to Neil Young’s Psychedelic Pill here are the other CDs I’ve been playing in heavy rotation lately:

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George Jackson – Let the Best Man Win: The Fame Recordings Vol. 2

Todd Rundgren’s Utopia – Live at the Hammersmith Odeon ‘75

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Live from Alabama

Various Artists – Titan: It’s All Pop

The Low Anthem – Smart Flesh

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Daryl Hall – Sacred Songs

Lee Morgan – Lee-Way

Jim Boggia – Safety in Sound

UB 40 – Signing Off

Jackie Leven – For Peace Comes Dropping Slow

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Ronnie Dyson – One Man Band

Roy Harper – Songs of Love and Loss

Miracle Fortress – Miracle Fortress

Alabama Shakes – Boys  & Girls

Fun. – Aim and Ignite

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Aimee Mann – Charmer

Cannonball Adderley – Money in the Pocket

Cabaret Voltaire – The Original Sound of Sheffield: Best of 1983-87

Elvis Costello – Kojak Variety

Lyle Lovett – Release Me

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Alphonse Mouzon – Mind Transplant

Robert Glasper – Black Radio

Larry Young – Locked Down

Dr. John – Unity

Etta James – Rocks the House

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Various Artists – Eccentric Soul: Outskirts of Deep City

Freddie Hubbard – First Light

Bill Fay – Life is People

Groundhogs – Thank Christ for the Bomb

Augustus Pablo – Skanking Easy

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Taj Mahal – Hidden Treasures: 1969-1973

Miles Davis – The Birth of the Cool

J. Tillman – Year in the Kingdom

Hank Crawford – Roadhouse Symphony

Dusty Springfield – A Very Fine Love

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Chris Difford – Cashmere if You Can

Various Artists – Hip Hammond & Soulful Grooves

Eddie Money – No Control

Bloomfield/Kooper/Stills – Super Session

Ken Stringfellow – Danzig in the Moonlight

 

Shwedagon Unplugged

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Wi-fi is now available at Yangon’s sacred Shwedagon Pagoda? Say, it isn’t so, Soe Moe! But according to a somewhat tardy news bulletin that I stumbled upon last week, the news is true. Here is an excerpt from one online article that I read:

Tourists visiting Shwedagon Pagoda will be provided with free Wi-Fi access as of 15 August, Mizzima reported, citing a member of pagoda board of trustee. The official said Crystal Shine Company offered the board to provide free Wi-Fi service—30 minutes per head—to foreigners on 1 July. “Wi-Fi password will be provided to foreigners visiting once they have paid five FECs or dollars as usual at foreign guest counter at southern arch,” U Win Kyaing, head of BOT office, was quoted as saying by Mizzima. The service at the most famous pagoda in Myanmar is currently destined for the tourists and its service period will be extended later. Signboards will be erected on the pagoda precinct to let the visitors know the Wi-Fi access is available from 4 am to 10 pm.

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I’ve mentioned this latest wi-fi news to other friends, both Westerners who have visited Yangon and natives of Myanmar, and everyone’s puzzled reaction runs along the lines of: What’s the point of offering wi-fi at a pagoda? Why are they doing this? Why indeed. Why do tourists need to access wi-fi while visiting the country’s most hallowed pagoda? They can’t wait till they get back to their hotel or an internet café? To me, offering wi-fi at Shwedagon borders on sacrilege. Yet the local authorities seem to have no qualms about initiating this so-called “service.” I have visions (okay, nightmares) of laptop-toting tourists sprawled on the grounds of Shwedagon (which is actually more than one famous pagoda, but a large complex of shrines and pagodas, including that famous “big one”), tapping away on their keyboards, oblivious to the worshippers around them. This is just … wrong.

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And it’s also yet another disturbing sign of the increasing sense of entitlement that seems to have become the norm nowadays amongst the tech-savvy generation. These youngsters have practically grown-up online and feel like they need to be — and are entitled to be — connected around the clock, no matter where they wander. I was shocked to see a “Wi-Fi available” sign at a teashop in Myanmar last year, but this Shwedagon sighting it an outrage of a different magnitude. It seems to me that there needs to be a line drawn at some point, leaving some places — such as Shwedagon — off limits to such electronic distractions.

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I remain puzzled at the plethora of businesses and even non-commercial entities that now offer free wi-fi to their customers or the general public. Why? Do they really think these weasels are going to spend more money because wi-fi is being offered? Everything I’ve noticed says that the opposite is happening. I see this new generation of freeloaders and slackers and I don’t see any of them spending any money whatsoever … except to buy the latest shiny new gadget. From free downloads and Google searches to various phone apps and Skype, people nowadays want instant information and instant access, and they don’t want to pay for any of it. It’s what they now expect. And that’s quite sad.

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Wi-fi at Shwedagon? It’s the end of the world as we know it.

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Bangkok Street Scenes

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I almost never take photos when I’m in Bangkok. If I’m on the road, traveling somewhere, well, that’s a different story, but once I’m back home in Bangkok, the urge to get out the camera rarely strikes.

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But I wanted to get some shots recently of the campaign signs of the candidates running for Bangkok governor, and while I was out taking those photos, I decided to snap a few more while I was out and about. These photos are nothing earthshaking, nor anything that’s particularly representative of what Bangkok “is like.” These are just some shots that I took on Sukhumvit Road, near where I work, and on New Petchburi Road (and the adjacent klong), where I live.

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I included several shots of various food vendors, people who play a vital role in making Bangkok such a convenient and livable city. Step outside your door and there is good, inexpensive food available nearly round the clock. But alas, this year has already brought some changes in the food vendor scene, at least from my perspective. My regular fruit vendor on Sukhumvit went back to his home province in late December and still hasn’t returned. He makes frequent trips back to Phitsanulok, so I’m used to not having him around for periods of time (and there is always another fruit vendor to take his place), but he’s never been gone for this long and I’m a bit worried. To compound that concern, one of my favorite noodle vendors, a guy that sells a very tasty concoction across the street from my apartment, hasn’t been around since late November. At this point I’m wondering if he’s going to return or not.

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Meanwhile, the vibrant pulse of the city continues. It’s not a cliche to say that this city never sleeps.

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Monks & Politics

I popped into a branch of Asia Books last week to hunt down a copy of the new Neil Young biography that one of my customers said they had seen. I was ecstatic to find that book (and more about that in a later post), but I was also shocked to see another book in stock: Burma’s Plea by Dimitra Stasinopoulou.

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The book was displayed behind the counter, but it was one of those huge coffee table-sized photo books so it was very easy to notice. My mouth must have dropped open when I saw the cover photo: a huge shot of one of the novice monks from Shwe Yan Pyay Kyaung, a monastery that I visit frequently in Shan State’s Nyaungshwe. Perhaps “frequently” is an understatement. I usually drop by Shwe Yan Pyay on a daily basis when I’m in Nyaungshwe, taking donations of fresh fruit and snapping photos, sometimes chatting with the Abbot (Saya Daw), the novice monks, or senior monks. I’ve been going there for the better part of decade and in recent years have taken groups of the monks on trips to places in the area such as Kakku, Pindaya, and Taunggyi. They’re a nice, polite bunch of kids and the Saya Daw and his assistant monks do a fine job of educating and taking care of them.

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So anyway, I see this huge book and the cover photo was clearly taken at Shwe Yan Pyay, and even the novice monk looks familiar; I’m just flabbergasted by the whole thing. But what I found most unsettling was the book title, Burma’s Plea, along with a big quote plastered on the cover: “Please use your freedom to promote ours.”

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That’s more than a little creepy. I can understand and even empathize with the desire to promote “freedom” and other human rights issues in the country I know as Myanmar (I’ll leave the name debate alone for now; that’s something I’ve written about in the past), but I find it troubling that they are using the photo of a young novice monk to highlight their human rights agenda, no matter how righteous it may be. What does this young monk have to do with promoting freedom? You can rest assured that novice monks like this kid have scant knowledge of politics or human rights issues. Yes, many older monks in Myanmar are known to voice their political opinions and some have marched in various protests in recent years (witness the famous, but misnamed, “Saffron Revolution” in 2007), but novice monks from Shan State have not been among the participants. This book, published in 2011, looks like a gorgeous one (see the “YouTube” link below), containing 407 pages of photographs that highlight various parts of the country. While the photos may be captivating they don’t seem to focus on “freedom.” In any case, the author and/or publisher really should not have used a photo of a novice monk on the cover to make a political statement.

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And what’s with that horrible book title? Burma’s Plea? It almost puts the locals on the same pitiful level as beggars: Help us because we can’t help ourselves! I have a problem with Westerners sticking their noses where they don’t belong, particularly when it comes to domestic political issues in other countries. I look at any sort of intervention or “assistance,” no matter how dire the situation may appear, to be the wrong course of action. To title a book “Burma’s Plea” makes it sound like “those poor pitiful people” can’t fight for their rights without the benevolent assistance of Westerners. I think that most people in Myanmar have enough pride that they don’t want to be seen as helpless in the eyes of the rest of world. That’s not to say that they don’t appreciate — or need — development work and humanitarian assistance, but whatever political problems the country may have, let them work it out amongst themselves without know-it-all Westerners trying to butt in and dictate the “proper” way to make changes or do things.

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I’m also still not clear where the proceeds from the sale of this book are going. On the website of The Border Consortium (an organization that has an office in Bangkok) it states that:

“This private edition is available in Thailand from TBBC’s Bangkok office for 1,500 baht each. Dimitra has generously agreed that proceeds of books sold by TBBC in Thailand will be used for TBBC activities.”

And those “activities”, judging from what they say on their website, include a lot of worthwhile projects. But a news report on the Mizzima.org website, states that “funds from the sale by the TBBC will be donated to Burma Campaign UK.” Now that gets a little trickier. Frankly, I’m not a big fan of Burma Campaign UK. They are one of those organizations that used to strongly discourage (condemn might be a better word) tourists from visiting Myanmar, deeming it not only politically incorrect but tantamount to enriching the coffers of the military junta. But in 2010, after Aung San Suu Kyi (along with her NLD party) changed her tune and decided that tourism ain’t such an evil thing after all, the folks at Burma Campaign UK, in parrot-like fashion, followed her lead and no longer opposed the idea of tourists visiting the country. Except for package tourists: they were still evil and were helping the generals get richer. At least that’s the opinion of Burma Campaign UK. Their heart may be in the right place, but I think that the strident, no-compromising stance of groups like Burma Campaign UK has done more harm than good over the past 20 years.

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During one of my trips to Mandalay I saw a shocking reminder of just how negative and counter-productive that these “campaigns” can be. I was visiting the Moustache Brothers (the famous dance and comedy troupe who are very politically active, two the “brothers” having spent time in prison) at their house one afternoon. In between serving me tea, Lu Zaw (the “funny one”) played a DVD that had a public service announcement produced by Burma Campaign UK. It was in such bad taste, and catered to such pathetic stereotypes, that I was appalled. I don’t even think Lu Zaw — who has always encouraged tourists to visit his country and see the situation for themselves — was properly aware of just how insulting and one-sided that this video message was. It certainly wasn’t going to help his business or encourage anyone to visit Myanmar.

You have to wonder what organizations like this do with all the donations that they receive (consider their overhead, for starters: they have to pay healthy salaries for their director and staff members, rent an office, etc.) and how much of the money really goes to helping the people in Myanmar/Burma? On their website, they state their goal as:

“We play a leading role in raising awareness about the situation in Burma, and pressuring the international community to take action in support of the people of Burma.

Okay, those appear to be admirable goals on the surface, but what does “pressuring the international community to take action” involve exactly? More boycotts and sanctions? A lot of good that did! In other words; not at all. Meanwhile, all those “misguided tourists,” ones who defied calls for a boycott, visited the country over the past two decades, met many local people, and were able to put money directly into those people’s pockets, something that groups like Burma Campaign UK could never do.

http://www.dimitrastasinopoulou.com/

http://theborderconsortium.org/announcements/2012-01-16-news-burmas-plea.htm

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UV2GvDaLTho

http://www.burmacampaign.org.uk/index.php/burma/donate/burmas-plea

 

Bangkok Governor Election

It’s been a veritable noise fest on the streets of Bangkok in recent weeks. Yes, Chinese New Year reared its noisy head once again, providing all the idiots who love playing with firecrackers an excuse to create more racket. But the added factor in the decibel level was the start of the campaign for Bangkok governor.

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Naturally, a forest of gaudy campaign signs has sprung up all around the city, a most visible clue that the election is coming. But to supplement the signage, many candidates have embraced the idea of hiring vehicles to drive around town, blaring campaign slogans and playing songs, with the occasional “live announcer” yelling more nonsense through the amplified sound system. How loud is it? You can hear them coming from blocks away.

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One of the more visible candidates is the incumbent governor, Sukhumbhand. Despite the fact that he’s done a pretty good job during his first term, based on his cringe-worthy collection of wimpy-looking campaign signs, I’m willing to wager that he loses the election big-time. In some of the photos, Sukhumbhand bears an eerie resemblance to Grandpa Munster. But at least old Mister Munster bared his teeth when he smiled. Sukhumbhand has apparently lost his choppers, judging from the fact that he avoids showing them when he tries to smile. Or is that a grimace? In another unfortunate set of photos the guv is shaking his fist at the camera, and again NOT showing any teeth. The fist-in-your-face pose (there are both right-fist and left-fist signs for some reason; maybe targeting the ambidextrous vote?), however, just comes off looking silly. Is he trying to look tough? Menacing? Determined? Once again, the word “wimpy” springs to mind. This guy is going to lose.

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The other leading candidate, Pongsapat (he, the darling of the ruling Pheua Thai Party, the latest incarnation of the Thaksin regime), has a look of utter surprise in some of his photos. “Can you believe they picked me to run in this thing!” In yet another photo he is making some sort of odd hand gesture, as if he accidentally lost the flute he was playing. Thinking of that missing flute, visions of old Jethro Tull songs from the 1970s spring to mind. “Bungle in the Jungle” baby! No, let’s try “Living in the Past.”

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The other candidates are the usual mish-mash of ex-police dudes, university graduates (these guys love posing in their cap and gown, or showing off their military medals), and eccentric types who are running for reasons only known to their family and Facebook friends.

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This campaign has been going on for over three weeks already, and we still have another full two weeks to go before the elections on March 3. As campaigns go, this one may not be ugly, but it sure is loud and annoying. I think most Bangkokians will be breathing a carbon monoxide-laced sigh of relief when this madness finally ceases.

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Bobby Womack’s Staying Power

I found a copy of the 40th Anniversary Edition of Across 110th Street, the classic soundtrack by Bobby Womack, when I was in Kuala Lumpur recently. That got me in a Womack mood all over again. To say that Bobby Womack has been around the musical block would be an understatement. Few artists have collaborated with so many other musicians and have recorded such a wide variety of music as Womack. His songs can have soul, funk, gospel, jazz, rock, blues, and even country touches, and Womack occasionally adds a philosophical rap as an introduction to some of his songs too. Whatever he records, even if it’s a well-known cover such as “Fire and Rain” or “California Dreaming”, you can guarantee it’s going to be special.

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Startling as a ten-year-old singing gospel songs in a group with his brothers, he had the fortune of having Sam Cooke as his mentor, married Cooke’s widow, started a solo career, collaborated with Ron Wood and other members of the Rolling Stones, survived a drug addiction, battled colon cancer and diabetes, sang with Damon Albarn’s side project, The Gorillaz,on their Plastic Beach album, and then just when you thought Bobby Womack was a relic from another era he released the powerful The Bravest Man in the Universe, his first studio album in 18 long years.

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Listening to The Bravest Man in the Universe, you can’t help but notice that Womack’s vocals sound a little tattered around the edges, but they still retain their trademark gritty power and passion. What threw many old fans for a loop on this new album, however, was the producer’s liberal use of synthesizers, drum machines, samples (including one from the late great Gil Scott-Heron!), and other contemporary sonic touches. It sure didn’t sound like a classic Bobby Womack album, which bothered more than a few longtime fans, but once you got your head around these jarring new sounds, it all clicked and flowed. This one grows on you. The fact that is made many “Best of the Year” lists confirmed its quality.

 

Bobby Womack is indeed a survivor, someone who seemingly battles back from every setback or obstacle appearing stronger than before. He recently admitted that he’s been having memory lapses, suggesting to some that he may be in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. But if you know anything about “The Bravest Man in the Universe,” you know not to count him out just yet.

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Bobby Womack began his musical career in 1954 at the tender age of ten, singing in a gospel group with his siblings, aptly named Curtis Womack and the Womack Brothers. Two years later, Sam Cooke saw the Womack brothers and was impressed enough to take them under his wing, later changing the name to The Valentinos to reflect their switch to a more pop oriented style. With teenager Bobby on vocals, the group soon started charting and enjoyed several hits. In 1964, a song written by Bobby “It’s All Over Now,” became a huge hit when it was covered by the Rolling Stones. In December of that year, however, Sam Cooke was shot and killed at a Los Angeles hotel. Only weeks after Cooke’s passing, Womack moved in with Sam’s widow, Barbara, and the two were married within three months. After Cooke’s passing, The Valentinos broke up and Bobby started doing session work before releasing his first solo album in 1968. That led to a long and successful career as a recording artist, with hits such as “Looking for a Love” and “Woman’s Gotta Have It” selling millions of copies.

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Womack also reaped a big hit with the theme song from the film Across 110th Street in 1972. That song enjoyed renewed popularity after being used in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown film soundtrack in 1997. The Anniversary Edition of Across 110th Street that I got in KL is a 2-CD set that includes both the original soundtrack on the first disc (sadly, with no bonus cuts) and two of his studio albums from the same period on the second disc. While Across 110th Street is indeed a classic soundtrack, and it has much more than a few cool Bobby Womack songs, the glue that holds the soundtrack together are the instrumental contributions from jazz trombone legend J.J. Johnson, who composed and conducted the musical score to the film and co-wrote the title cut with Womack. If you like Johnson’s compositions on this album you should also check out another amazing soundtrack he did in the 70s, Cleopatra Jones.

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Forty years after it was released, Across 110th Street still stands as one of the better soundtracks of the “Blaxploitation” era. Although it barely cracks the 30-minute barrier, the music is a scintillating brew of soul and funk, Womack’s distinctive vocals and Johnson’s propulsive score. The bonus disc with the anniversary edition contains two studio releases by Womack; his 1973 album “Facts of Life” and the 1974 follow-up “Lookin’ For a Love Again.” I had heard many of those songs before, thanks to various Womack compilations that I own, but I had never heard each album in its entirety, so it made for a worthwhile listen. As with many studio albums of that era, there are some gems and some filler. Many of Womack’s originals are very solid if not splendid, but some of his cover attempts, such as “All Along the Watchtower” and “A Natural Man”, are not as potent.

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After his mid-70s heyday, Womack’s solo recordings weren’t quite as potent and the hits became fewer, until he bounced back with the critically acclaimed The Poet in 1981. In addition to Womack’s solo recordings, he has collaborated with artists as diverse as Sly Stone, Jim Ford, Aretha Franklin, Gabor Szabo, Wilton Felder from the Crusaders, Ronnie Wood (some of his songs appearing on Wood’s classic Now Look album), and more recently The Gorillaz, the supergroup formed by Damon Albarn of Blur. There is also talk that Womack has been recording a blues album, one that will feature guest appearances by many of his musical friends. Whatever Womack is able to record as this point can only be seen as a bonus, and I look forward to hearing him release more new music.

Mandalay Monastery

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One of the more interesting aspects of visiting Mandalay, at least for me, is discovering the plethora of monasteries scattered around the city. The southwest part of town, in particular, is chockablock with peaceful monasteries of various sizes; from the sprawling Ma Soe Yein (which also houses a Buddhist university) complex to much smaller ones, many of them located on lovely tree-shaded streets.

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Over on the north end of 90th Street, heading toward the central business district, I stumbled upon a mid-size monastery (about 100 monks in residence) about two years ago. This monastery is primarily populated by young novice monks. Some of these youngsters have come from other parts of the country (during one visit, the kids were delighted to point out the sole monk from Shan State) and some are orphans. Living and studying at monasteries like this one assures them of both an education and at least one good meal every day.

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Somewhere in my notes I’ve got the name of this monastery on 90th Street written down, but I can’t find it amidst the debris in my backpack. In any case, I make it a point to stop by there each time I’m town. I’ll take some photos of the monks during their midday break and return a day or two later with prints to give everyone. And yes, even novice monks can get very excited about having a photo of themselves!

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