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

Archive for November, 2013

Helping Hands

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An unexpected trip coming up this week: back to Mandalay. As much as I love the city and my friends there, this trip is not one of pleasure, but born of necessity. My friend “H” is still in the hospital in Bangkok, still in ICU, in fact, and his condition has not improved. I’ve talked to the doctors at the hospital, his cousin in Alabama (his closest living relative), and the administrators at the school where he’s been teaching in Mandalay. The consensus is that he will not be able to return to work again, even if he survives this illness.

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The school needs to hire a new teacher and vice-principal to replace “H”, and they also need to use the apartment that they were renting for him in Mandalay. I’ve been appointed to be the one who goes to the apartment and takes care of moving everything out of it. I’ve been exchanging e-mails with his cousin on a daily basis, trying to figure out how we are going to handle this. It’s almost certain that “H” will not be able to return to Mandalay, no matter what happens, so we will have to put his possessions in storage for now, and maybe try to sell some things, or give others away, at a later date. I’ll also take some smaller items and any paperwork back to Bangkok with me.  Frankly, I’m not looking forward to having to deal with this stuff, but it needs to be done and I don’t want to shirk the responsibility. I owe it to my friend.

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I’ll only be in Mandalay for four full days, so I’ll need to organize all of this stuff pretty quickly, plus go to the school one day and clear out any personal items from his office and classroom. In addition to all the things in his apartment — the usual mix of furniture, TV, stereo, microwave, etc. — he has a motorcycle. I don’t even know where to start.

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But I’m lucky to have many friends in Mandalay to help me. People I trust, and who I trust will give me good advice. Through an exchange of e-mails, my friends on 90th Street have been helping me with suggestions on where I can store some of the items. They’ve also been asking about “H” and his condition. He’s not a regular at the teashop like I am, but he’s been there a few times with me, and he’s also helped funnel money to people when I asked him to help. When I wanted to send some money to buy new school uniforms for the kids, “H” drove down there on his motorcycle and gave the funds to U Tin Chit. When young Aung Phyo Zaw drowned earlier this year, “H” also agreed to help me out by taking money to the family. So, needless to say, they know him well on 90th Street.

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Although I’m not looking forward to having to deal with this apartment stuff, I’m very much looking forward to seeing everyone over at U Tin Chit’s teashop and the kids on 90th Street again, plus the waiters at Aye Myit Tar restaurant, and other friends such as Htoo Htoo, Htun Zaw Win, and Ko Soe Moe. This task may not be a pleasurable one, but with the help and comfort of good friends, I’m confident it will all work out.

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This trip was thrown together very quickly, so I wasn’t even aware of the dates, but I’ll be in Mandalay on Thursday the 28th, which is the American holiday of Thanksgiving. And the 28th also happens to be my birthday.  Surrounded by friends in one of my favorite restaurants, I do believe I’ll be ordering an extra beer that night.

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Bangkok: Back in Focus

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I finally got around to fixing my camera last month. The lens had malfunctioned during my stay in Shan State in early September, and nothing I took was properly in focus, so I brought it back to Bangkok and took it to the Canon service center in the MBK Shopping Center. They have another larger authorized service center over on Sathorn Road, but on the handful of times I’ve been there it’s been crazy busy, so I thought I’d chance the MBK branch this time around. That proved to be a good choice; when I showed up, I was the only customer waiting to be served.

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The cost to repair the camera was not cheap. Basically, they needed to replace the entire lens. The camera was no longer under warranty, but the woman at the service desk told me that they offered a 20% discount if my camera had been purchased from a Canon dealer in Thailand. Luckily, that was the case, so I saved a bit of money that way. The service was also very fast; I had the camera back seven days later.

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I normally don’t take photos when I’m in Bangkok, but with a working camera once again I couldn’t resist the urge to use it that afternoon after leaving MBK. I spent some time that afternoon snapping away at all sorts of crap, as well as the following day, walking around my neighborhood, and on the way to work. Nothing earthshaking in the way of images, just a few glimpses of life here in the big city.

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Monk Mania!

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Back at the monastery in Shan State’s Tat Ein village, the novice monks have gone amuck! No, it’s not another tomato salad party, this time they are just hanging with some geeky foreigner who showed up wearing a longyi and started taking photos. Despite the carefree nature of these photos, it’s not all fun and games at the monastery. These youngsters actually do have to study each day, as well as do chores around the monastery grounds. Cleaning, weeding, raking, washing; there is always something that needs done. But when they have their midday lunch break, or later in the afternoon after studies are finished, that’s when silly time commences.

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Seeing the enthusiasm of these kids when they pose for the camera is infectious. They may be novice monks with shaved heads and wearing traditional red robes, but when the camera comes out, they’re just gleeful young boys from the Shan State hills, putting stickers on their shoes (or arms and foreheads!), playing marbles, singing songs, or even, uh, punching one another.

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Whether I was taking the photos, or letting Htun Lay borrow the camera, the results were always fun to see. Enjoy these shots from the Tat Ein monastery, not far from the shores of picturesque Inle Lake.

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Eccentric Soul

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Over the past decade the Numero Group has been reissuing lost or obscure recordings from the 1960s and 1970s as part of their “Eccentric Soul” series. These CDs are a virtual goldmine of rare soul music treasures. Most of fans of Soul and R&B are familiar with the more popular labels that released great music in the 60s and 70s, such as Motown/Tamla, Stax, Atlantic, Chess, and even smaller imprints such as Hi Records, Okeh, Malaco, and Loma. But during this golden era of music there were hundreds of smaller labels scattered around the USA that released music that rivaled the big companies in terms of quality. Many of these regional labels, however, couldn’t get their records publicized due to lack of airplay, distribution limitations, or financial problems. Thankfully, however, the dedicated music addicts at Numero Group are resurrecting these lost jewels.

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One of those regional labels was the South Florida-based Deep City. Numero has released two separate compilations from that label: Eccentric Soul: The Deep City Label, and Eccentric Soul: Outskirts of Deep City. Holy Sunshine State, where were they hiding these amazing songs? I grew up in Florida, but had never heard of the Deep City label, or most of the artists on these thrilling compilations. There are a few recognizable names on here, such as Betty Wright and Paul Kelly, but the rest are mainly “no-name” artists who cut a few singles and disappeared for the most part. The material on the first volume comes from 1964-68, and there is a distinct Motown vibe to a lot of the songs on there. The final track, “Darling I’ll Go” by Moovers, even sounds like a classic Four Tops tune. The second volume includes two tunes by Clarence Reid, an underrated artist who later gained fame as a funky and nasty costumed character known as Blowfly. Those antics aside, Reid was a very talented songwriter and the song credits on this compilation offers proof: he wrote or co-wrote 12 of the 20 songs. Most of the songs are culled from the period 1966-1971, along with one tune from 1963.

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The very first compilation I bought in this series was Eccentric Soul: A Red, Black & Green Production. Oh my, I don’t know where to begin in praising this CD. I bought the excellent Father’s Children CD that the Numero Group reissued and was so impressed with that one that I ordered this collection of tunes from RBG (Red, Black & Green) Productions, the people behind the Father’s Children recording. Actually, it’s pretty much one man, Robert Williams, who was the genius behind this stuff. He produced all 19 tracks on this CD compilation, recorded between 1972 and 1975, including the closing track, the dreamy “Linda Movement” by Father’s Children. Everything I love about 70s soul can be found here, from funky, jazzy jams to soulful crooning, and pop bliss. One group, East Coast Connection, has a track called “Summer in the Parks” that is a brilliant tribute/medley to popular tunes by Kool & the Gang, Isaac Hayes, Earth Wind & Fire, and Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers.

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Another highlight from Numero is their Eccentric Soul: Prix Label collection. The Prix label was headquartered in Columbus, Ohio and most of these tracks were recorded at Harmonic Sounds studios in Columbus between 1969 and 1973. The CD booklet includes this cool tidbit about some of the demo recordings on this collection: “Nearly 30 years after the label closed its doors, a mysterious box of tapes turned up at an estate sale in Columbus, Originally thought to be the lost Prix masters, it turned out instead to be dozens of demos, rehearsals, and few finished songs recorded during the rime of Harmonic Sounds. The tape boxes were, for the most part, unmarked, presenting a puzzle that would require much time and effort to solve.” Thankfully, the folks at Numero Group DID put in the time and effort to figure out who was singing what and the result is this fabulous CD. As with all Numero Group reissues, you get a very detailed booklet with the history of the label and the recording artists, plus a bunch of very groovy old photos. The booklet also includes a 2011 “Postscript” with additional information on the mysterious origins of Penny & the Quarters, the group that was featured on the soundtrack to the film Blue Valentine.

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Another of my favorites in this series is Eccentric Soul: The Nickel & Penny Labels. These labels were founded by a guy named Richard Pegue. I’d never heard of him before, but he qualifies as a certifiable musical genius. Pegue was a songwriter, producer, DJ, musician, and the creator of these two labels. Based in Chicago, his labels released some brilliant soul music between 1967 and 1973. But, as the liner notes tell us, most of these singles went out of print only weeks after they were released, and most of these artists never recorded full albums of their own. Pegue wrote 16 of the 24 tracks on this collection, and the quality is very, very high. Some songs just jump out at you, perfect examples of magical soul bliss. Really, if you played these songs for someone and told them that they were long-long tracks from the Motown vaults, they would be lavishing endless praise on this album. But because they were put out on obscure labels in the late 1960s and early 70s, no one seemed to pay much attention at the time, nor is this timeless music getting much publicity even after the 2011 Numero Group reissue.

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For a double whammy of soul delights, check out Eccentric Soul: Twinight’s Lunar Rotation. The Chicago-based Twinight (and Twilight) label is best known for being the home of soul legend Syl Johnson, who later recorded for Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records label in Memphis. This 2-CD collection highlights the “other” recordings that Twinight put out from 1967-1972. With 40 tracks, there is something for everyone, including a few torrid instrumentals. As for the “Lunar Rotation” part of this album title, the booklet inside this collection explains that this was the late night period on local radio stations when airplay was given to “high school talent show winners, major label cast offs, minor label upgrades, and girlfriends with decent voices … the DJ’s call it lunar rotation, broadcast lingo for radio limbo, all-night airplay for 45s with no chance of making the charts, a nice time for a disc jockey to make good on that fifty dollar handshake.” The booklet goes into detail about the label’s history and the recording acts represented on this CD. There are not any Syl Johnson songs on this compilation, but the essay in the booklet explains his crucial importance to the label, not only as the label’s sole hit-maker, but its foundation. When Syl Johnson left the label in 1972, the label not only lost their main source of income, but it also severed their ability to attract new talent. It’s a shame that the label didn’t enjoy more success. Certainly, the songs on this compilation are good as anything else you’d hear on airwaves at the time.

And those are just a few of the compilations that Numero Group has released thus far. I’m currently listening to Eccentric Soul: The Big Mack Label, and just ordered the newest release in the series, Eccentric Soul: The Forte Label. Based on the excellent track history of what the Numero Group has been releasing, I’m going to be immersed in yet more soul nirvana.

 

Mandalay Jade Workshop

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During my daily visits to 90th Street in Mandalay I was invited one day by Moe Htet Aung to see his workplace, a jade workshop tucked away down a dirt road in the neighborhood. He works every day, from 8 am till 5 pm. Days off? Usually not, except in special cases, or when the rains come. Most of their work is outdoors, so they are at the mercy of the elements. The pay isn’t much but he and the other employees get free meals. Evidently, they can eat as much there as they want and that’s at least one perk. “I had five plates of rice today!” Moe Htet Aung boasted one night at dinner, as he was polishing off his third plate of rice at Aye Myit Tar. No wonder the kid has grown so tall this past year.  

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At this jade workshop, the employees work very hard; cutting up the rocks, sorting out the pieces, polishing the jade slabs, cutting them into smaller pieces, and polishing some more. I’ve seen them make all sorts of cool stuff; ash trays and plates, rings and bracelets, wind chimes, animal figurines, cups and bowls. This place is just one of dozens of similar jade joints in this neighborhood, and there are hundreds — if not thousands — more scattered around the Mandalay area. Jade is big business in these hills.  

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Good Books, Boring Books, More Books!

Here is a roundup of some of the books that I’ve finished reading in the past month or two. They run the gamut from old familiar authors and crime fiction to a few new authors (new for me, at any rate), plus some non-fiction to break up my crime-centric reading habits.

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Lloyd Jones – Mister Pip

This novel was recommended by a friend a few years ago, but I only recently got around to reading it. Wow! This is an amazing little novel, one of the best that I’ve read in recent years. This novel is both a love letter to “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens, and the powerful, uplifting story of a young girl living on a remote island country torn apart by civil war. “Mister Pip” refers to the character in the Dickens novel, but it also ends up as a reference to young Matilda’s eccentric yet inspiring teacher, Mr. Watts, the lone white man living in her village. The book has more than its share of funny, lovely, and tender moments, but before its conclusion the reader is also confronted with tragic and horrific passages. In the end, however, this book is a triumph, showcasing the magic and power of a good teacher and that of a good book, and more importantly the power of believing in yourself. Highly recommended.

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David Baldacci – The Camel Club

I thought it was about time that I read a book by Baldacci, seeing as how he is so popular nowadays. What’s all the fuss about, I wondered? “Baldacci is a master at building suspense … will leave readers breathless” raved a review in Booklist. Another blurb on the back cover of the paperback edition of this novel tells us that “David Baldacci is one of the world’s favorite storytellers.” Well, I read this book, and I’m still puzzled. Baldacci may indeed qualify as an entertaining storyteller, it’s just unfortunate that he’s not a better writer. Judging from this book, his writing skills are mediocre at best. His prose is bland and unimaginative, and the characters don’t quite gel. The simplistic tone of this novel felt like something geared towards middle school readers. And yet this guy is one of the most popular writers around, selling millions of books. Not an author that I plan to read again.

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Francis Wheen – How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World

This is basically a collection of essays in which Wheen deftly critiques the “retreat of reason” we’ve witnessed in the past several decades, particularly in areas such as politics. This is an engaging and stimulating book, but some parts get bit “too deep” and plodding, or at least overly intellectual as to tax my simple brain. But overall this is a very thought provoking, and often very funny book. I especially enjoyed Wheen’s skewering of “Self-Help” and Motivational hucksters — you know the ones; those “visionary” types who write best-selling books on how to transform your life or become filthy rich. Wheen also offers entertaining insights on the double-speak practiced by so many politicians, and accounts of “great leaders” who rely on astrology and religious beliefs for guidance and decision-making. Scary indeed. Wheen’s total demystification of the bizarrely beloved Princess Diana is also a highlight. Well worth reading.

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Ben Fong-Torres – Hickory Wind: The Life & Times of Gram Parsons  

If you don’t know the name, Gram Parsons was a very influential musician, one who pioneered the fusion of country music and rock. He was the leader of the Flying Burrito Brothers and also briefly a member of The Byrds. He also recorded with the Rolling Stones (and did his share of drugs with them too) and Emmylou Harris. It also helped cement his legendary status by dying young, at the age of 26 (watch out for those morphine and alcohol cocktails!), a bizarre incident compounded when one of his buddies stole his body from the funeral home and set fire to it in the desert near the Joshua Tree Park. This biography by veteran Rolling Stone magazine writer Ben Fong-Torres covers all the Parsons bases, from Gram’s childhood in Waycross, Georgia and the citrus groves of Winter Haven, Florida (my old neck of the woods), to his various musical projects. While fairly comprehensive, I don’t think it properly conveys how influential Parsons was, nor tells us why his music appealed to some many people, both fans and fellow musicians. Nevertheless, it’s a good introduction to a talented musician.

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Ed McBain – Like Love

McBain was one of the absolute masters of crime fiction and this 1962 novel is one of the best of his early 87th Precinct episodes. A bit of the dialogue is dated (but delightfully so, in my opinion; I love sentences like “Don’t get sore at me!”), but for the most part the story holds up very well. Once again, we are entertained by the dependable cast of Detectives Carella, Hawes, and Meyer Meyer. This is a typical McBain tale that is equal parts funny, sad, heart-breaking, and joyful.

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George V. Higgins – The Friends of Eddie Coyle

File this book under the “I just don’t get it” category. Higgins was a highly revered writer who has influenced many other writers of crime fiction. Most reviews remark on his brilliant use of dialogue. Well, okay, the guy DOES have a flair for writing realistic dialogue, but this novel consists of about 95% dialogue, much of it just people running their mouths, yapping about things that don’t have much relevance to the plot. Guns, banks, guns, stickups, and more guns. Frankly, I found the whole thing tedious. A true master of dialogue, such as Elmore Leonard, would have used a fraction of what Higgins throws at the reader. From my perspective, this whole story was pointless.  

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David Ellis – Breach of Trust

I’ve become of a big fan of David Ellis’ books recently, particularly the engaging Jason Kolarich series. I’ve read two other books in that series, but belatedly got around to reading this one, the first of the bunch. I’m very impressed with Ellis’ writing style and this novel doesn’t disappoint, packed with both creepy and caring characters, and plenty of intrigue and suspense. You can read a synopsis of the novel elsewhere, but suffice to say, it has plenty of twists and turns. Ellis had me guessing until the end. Ellis belongs on the top shelf of current mystery and crime authors. Don’t dare call him a “thriller” writer; he’s better than that.

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Daniel Silva – The Defector

I’ve been hooked on Silva’s Gabriel Allon books this year and this is another gripping and absorbing addition to that series. Although well-written and featuring the usual charismatic cast of characters from previous Allon tales, in many ways this is also a very predictable tale with too many clichéd passages. Yes, once again something goes wrong with the planned operation and of course it’s up to Allon to save the day. And you can count one plenty of “last minute” heroics and other timely miracles to ratchet up the suspense. But is all that really necessary? Really, it gets a bit tiring. Silva is a good enough writer that he shouldn’t have to resort to such cheap literary tricks to hold the reader’s interest or to create suspense. Those relatively minor quibbles aside, I enjoyed this novel very much. It also helps to have read “Moscow Rules” before tackling this one, as some of the same participants from that novel make encore appearances in this tale too.

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Kjell Eriksson – The Demon of Dakar

A review in the Globe and Mail called the book “riveting … it’s hard to see how the author could do any better. Eriksson is a gifted storyteller and a great creator or character … terrific.” The New York Times Book Review was even impressed, saying “With Kjell Eriksson, what we find is an extraordinary depth of feeling for honest people caught up in serious crime.” My thoughts: This is a bland, predictable crime tale populated by miserable, unlikeable characters. Horribly dry, bland dialogue does nothing to keep the pages turning. Too often, I suspect, something gets lost in the translation with these Scandinavian writers, and this could be a prime example.

 

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Alex Berenson – The Midnight House

I had never read anything by this author, but he was recommended to me by a customer whose opinion I trust, so I decided to give this one a try. Basically, this novel falls in the spy/espionage genre. It’s brimming with plenty of adventure and interesting characters, although some of the scenarios in the story stretch the bounds of credulity. But I enjoyed this quite a lot and plan to read more books in this series, starring CIA agent John Wells. But I’ll need to go back and start at the beginning of the series; there are apparently three other novels in the series that precede this one and I think I missed too much of the back story by starting with this one.

Beyond the Road to Mandalay

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Here is another mish-mash collection of photos taken during my recent trip to Myanmar. Once again, no particular theme, expect for the fact that these shots were all taken off the well-beaten tourist path, beyond the road to Mandalay and other familiar destinations. Not quite into the heart of darkness, but definitely down some dusty roads and into more rustic parts of villages and cities.

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Most days I have no idea where I’ll be going. I just hop on my bicycle — or in some cases rent a vehicle and take along a group of kids — with no set agenda or destination, and let the sights unfold. The sights — and people — never cease to delight me.

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