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

Archive for January, 2014

Hillary Clinton & Me


I just found out that I have at least one thing in common with Hillary Clinton. According to a wire service article that I read this week, Hillary Clinton hasn’t driven a car in nearly 20 years. Neither have I! Here is an excerpt from the article:

“I have to confess that one of the regrets I have about my public life is that I can’t drive anymore,” Clinton said in a keynote speech at the National Automobile Dealers Association convention in New Orleans.”My husband thinks that’s a blessing, but he’s the one who should talk. Last time I actually drove a car myself was 1996, and I remember it very well,” the former first lady continued. “Unfortunately so does the Secret Service, which is why I haven’t driven since then.”

I gave up driving after I moved to Thailand in 1996. But unlike Hillary, I don’t miss the experience of driving or the hassles of car ownership. I don’t miss the hassles of repair and maintenance, filling up the tank, trying to find parking spots, and making insurance payments. I was never an avid motorist, and I never had an interest in motor sports or any of that crap. A car was just a car; something that got me from Point A to Point B, and nothing more.  I didn’t care how it looked or how it “handled.”

Even if I did have the urge to drive a car, or a vehicle of any type, I just don’t see any sane reason to do it in Bangkok. In addition to the fact that the streets of the city are already impossibly congested, living in Bangkok you don’t need a car. The city boasts a wealth of convenient transport options for those that don’t drive. You have the traditional mix of taxis and public buses, uniquely Asian options such at the tuk-tuk or song taew trucks, and more modern modes such as the Skytrain and subway systems. You can also bypass the streets entirely and take to the waterways of the city, using the klong boats and river taxis. And then there is the grand savior of them all; the motorcycle taxi. Yes, even when traffic doesn’t seem to be moving at all, those always dependable moto-sai drivers can weave through lanes of stalled vehicles and get you to your destination in record time. Just don’t get upset if you smell like the underside of a bus when you arrive. Hey, it ain’t clean, but it’s efficient!

And when all else fails — such as those times during rush hour when the Skytrain is insanely packed asshole-to-elbow with weary commuters or when it’s pouring down rain and taxis are impossible to find and riding a moto will get you soaked — I resort to another dependable mode of transport: walking.

Mali’s Legendary Rail Band


One of the true legends of African music in the 1970s and the 1980s was the Rail Band from Mali. Not only were they a great band, but two of the members went on to successful solo careers. Original Rail Band singer Salif Keita, a legend in his own right, has been called “one of the greatest voices of the twentieth century” by many reviewers. Yes, he’s that special. After Keita left the band in 1972, Mory Kante replaced him as singer, and he was no slouch either. Kante also left the band for a solo career and had a string of popular singles, including a huge hit in the dance clubs in the 1987 with the infectious “Yeke Yeke.” The Rail Band continues to this day, only now they are called the Super Rail Band, and are led by Djelimady Tounkara, widely recognized as one of the greatest living guitarists on the continent.


The Sterns Music label has recently released three sets of vintage Rail Band recordings, the “Belle Epoque” series, covering the years 1970-1983, each of them 2-CD packages. I’ve got the first two volumes and I’m very pleased with what I hear on these discs. The music bubbles, floats, and flows. Plenty of scratchy guitars, lively horns, timbales, bongos, and percussion, all of it augmented by those sweet vocals. There’s just that certain sound, that joyous lilt, that so many African recordings from this era have (some of the music by Tabu Ley Rochereau springs to mind as a comparison) that I find totally irresistible. I could listen to this music for hours on end. I think it’s now time for me to splurge on the third volume.


The Rail Band songs all resonate with an upbeat, carefree vibe that never fails to put me in a great mood. But I also love the succinct, clever descriptions and explanations about each song that are included in the informative booklet that comes with the CDs. Here are a few examples:

“I am feeling happy. Today is the day when we shall dance, when I shall take you in my arms”

“Good looks and sweet mouth: here comes the city’s Casanova”

“Let harmony and peace reign among us”

“A sacred dance of the Bambaras, danced only by kings, chiefs, and generals”

“Soninke merchants display courage and honesty wherever they go.”

“People who sow discord among couples, beware!”

“Courageous men and women of Mali, let us work hand in hand for the progress of our country.”

“The vulture, which eats away dead warriors after Tira Makan’s battles. This song is reputed to bring bad luck to anyone singing it.”

“A tribute to Mamadou Boutiqui, a generous merchant who gave his last cent to the griots.”


Well, now you know; these aren’t your typical silly love songs! But this is certainly fabulous, timeless music.



Dancing Out of Bali


I don’t what it is about Bali that captivates me so much. Maybe it’s the enchanting allure of the exotic Asia of yesterday, back in the times when Bali was a relatively unspoiled paradise in the minds of so many Western visitors. I’ve actually never been to Bali, but I’ve been transported there through literature, most notably after reading Colin McPhee’s outstanding A House in Bali memoir a few years ago. But seeing as how that book detailed McPhee’s life in Bali in the 1930s, I doubt that I’d find many vestiges of the old Balinese culture if I visited nowadays.


I recently read another book that could be considered as a companion to McPhee’s memoir, Dancing Out of Bali by John Coast. The British-born author was interned by the Japanese during WWII, where he was sent to work on the infamous Thai-Burma Railway, an experience that he later made into a film for the BBC. After the war he moved to Indonesia and became a press attaché to President Sukarno. Moving to Bali a few years later with his Indonesian wife, he became friends with many of the same people that McPhee had known during his time there, including dancers such as Sampih and Mario. Inspired by the unique Balinese dance styles, Coast came up with the idea of forming a new dance troupe and taking them on tour overseas. Thus, the “Dancers of Bali” was formed.


In Dancing Out of Bali, Coast writes about his experiences in Bali, ranging from humorous and heartwarming moments to more harrowing incidents. Of particular interest is the way he befriends the locals and discovers more about Balinese culture and traditions. Eventually, he manages to get them excited about his plans for the new dance troupe, although a few people needed some gentle persuasion. At the time of Coast’s arrival in Bali, the legendary Mario was retired from dancing, spending more time gambling at cock fights than working or staying at home with his wife. But Coast talks him into teaching some of the young local girls a few of the traditional Balinese dances. Sampih, who had been one of McPhee’s young “discoveries,” had also stopped dancing, but became a close friend of Coast and the male lead in the new dance troupe.

 Sampih Life magazine

The final chapters of the book describe the preparations — along with the frustrations, complications, and politics — involved in organizing the 1952 “Dancers of Bali” tour, a journey that took the village dancers to Europe and the United States, and back again to Europe. Coast writes engagingly about his experiences both in Bali and on tour. He also has a good ear for dialogue and some of the conversations that he recounts are quite funny. As you can imagine, trying to supervise a large group of villagers, making their first trip overseas, was quite challenging, packed with plenty of funny moments.



Dancing Out of Bali also includes many Black & White photos taken in Bali and during the various overseas tours. It’s pretty cool to see some of the dancers posing with celebrities such as Walt Disney, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Sukarno. We are also treated to photos of one of the star female dancers in the troupe, Ni Gusti Raka, both as a 12-year-old and later as a grandmother in 2004, when she is teaching a new generation of dancers in Ubud.


Coast dedicates this book to Sampih, who was tragically murdered in February 1954, only a few months after the dancers had returned from their latest tour of Europe. The book has some photos of Coast with Sampih’s son (named Belge by his mother after she received a postcard from Sampih from Belgium) and Ni Gusti Raka in 1983. Coast passed away in 1989.

If you haven’t seen it, there is an amazing video of Sampih dancing as a child, taken by McPhee in the 1930s. You can find it on YouTube:

Bali: I Sampih dancing Igel Jongkok 1930s

And another vintage video from the 1930s, this one featuring Mario:

Bali: I Marya dancing Igel Trompong with Gong Belaluan



Isley Brothers vs. Shan Monks

Okay, it’s an unlikely pairing; the funk and soul sounds of the Isley Brothers, and the sweet smiles and infectious laughter of the novice monks at Tat Ein village in Myanmar’s Shan State, and yet it felt like the perfect combination for today’s post!


I was walking home tonight, playing a vintage Isley Brothers “hits” compilation on my MP3 player, walking in step to great tunes like “That Lady” and “Harvest For the World”, all of it putting me in buoyant mood. I passed by the motorcycle taxi stand near my apartment and there was my friend Noy strumming an acoustic guitar, stopping only to wave a greeting as I passed by. Good vibes all night.


Once I arrived home, I was sorting through some of my unposted photos from last year’s trips and I stumbled upon these photos from the Tat Ein monastery, all taken by Htun Lay, one of novice monks in residence (except for the group shot where he is standing to the right of the tall geeky foreigner). Seeing those smiles brought back great memories, and it reminded me that I need to make some prints of these photos to take to the monks when I return later this year. Those kids certainly do love having photos of themselves as keepsakes. A “Harvest for the World” of a different sort!




Here are the rest of the photos that Htun Lay took with my camera last year. Enjoy!














Keeping the Kids in School


Amidst the recent exchange of New Year’s greetings, I got a note from my friend Kazuko in Japan. She is a frequent visitor to Tat Ein village in Shan State, the same village where I sometimes teach English language classes and take the students and novice monks on field trips. Kazuko visits even more often than I do and she has been a very generous donor to various projects in the village and at the primary school over the years.


In a post last month I wrote about Maung Thwe, one of the boys in the village who had been a novice monk at the local monastery for several years. Kazuko knows his family well and has tried to encourage the children (the family has 8 kids!) to stay in school and study foreign languages. I had asked her, now that Maung Thwe was finished at the monastery and back at home, why he wasn’t attending classes. I’ve never asked how old he was, but he can’t be much older than thirteen or so. Not exactly a good age to drop out and start working, and yet that appears to be what’s happened. Kazuko said that she wasn’t sure the reason either. Money is not so much a factor as much as the father wanting his son to work. The father, she added, can’t read or write, so maybe he thinks that attending school is a waste of Maung Thwe’s time.



Whatever the case, children dropping out after only a few years of school is a common problem in Myanmar and other Southeast Asian countries. Despite the persistent efforts of Western governments and NGOs to eliminate child labor, the reality is that many children are working to help their families. For many poor families the children are considered valuable bread-winners and any income they earn helps to supplement the parents’ often meager earnings. In Myanmar it’s fairly common to see boys in their early teens, or younger, working in teashops and restaurants. And those are the good jobs. Less fortunate children can be found working long hours in workshops and factories. And those less fortunate than that are either homeless or walking the streets and collecting bottles, cans, and other recyclable items that they can sell.



A friend of mine in the US sent me a book a few months ago called Teacher Absent Often: Building Sustainable Schools from the Inside Out by Kari Grady Grossman. This book is the “youth edition”, a condensed version that was adapted from the original memoir that Grossman wrote, Bones That Float: A Story of Adopting Cambodia. It’s the story of how in 2001 Grossman and her husband adopted a Cambodian boy, and in turn ending up “adopting” a village in Cambodia. Like many Westerners who visit countries such as Cambodia and Myanmar, Grossman found herself entranced and moved by the kind people she met, but saddened by the lack of educational opportunities that they had in poor communities. She decided to try and open schools in rural Cambodia that didn’t have them. I won’t rehash the whole story, but Grossman experienced a discouraging number of problems, disappointments, and obstacles. But this tenacious woman never quit and her determination finally won over the students, teachers, parents, and administrators. It’s a pretty incredible tale.



Even in “modern” Thailand where I’m living, many kids never finish high school. Most of the motorcycle taxi drivers that I know, for example, are ninth grade dropouts. Back in Mandalay, some of the kids in my 90th Street neighborhood never made it past fifth grade. Sometimes money is a factor, such as the instances when the teachers don’t show up to teach because they have to work another job that pays better, or the students can’t afford to pay the extra money that the teacher needs to supplement their paltry salary. And there are the cases when the children are either asked to work to help earn money for their family, or they decide that making a bit of money is better than sitting through some boring, pointless lesson in an overcrowded classroom. Clearly, the system is broken.


Kazuko is also frustrated by seeing kids in “our village” drop out and she has asked me to help her brainstorm and think of ways that we can encourage the local families to keep their kids in school. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I think I will send her a copy of the Grossman book, hoping that might be a source of inspiration and ideas.


Shin Phyu from Zin Ko

It’s official: my camera is gone! No, I didn’t lose it or have yet another malfunction, but I no longer have it with me in Bangkok. When I was in Mandalay back in late November I left it with Zin Ko, one of the boys who has used the camera in the past. I didn’t foresee any need for the camera in the months ahead, and Zin Ko had expressed an interest in borrowing the camera to take photos at some neighborhood weddings that were coming up, so I told him he could keep it. I stressed to him, however, that I might need to use it again when I come to Mandalay next time, so this wasn’t necessarily a permanent gift. I told him that I was thinking about buying a new camera, but I didn’t have enough money yet. But if I did end up buying a new model, I promised that I’d give him the old one.


Well, business has been very good at my bookshop the past couple of months, and determining that I now had enough money to splurge on a new camera, I broke down and bought one this week. I’ve almost worked out all the functions, but I’m a slow learner, so it’s going to take me a while to figure everything out. Now I need to phone up U Tin Chit’s teashop and leave a message for Zin Ko: the camera is now yours, kid. Go wild!


In addition to weddings, another important tradition in Myanmar is the Shin Phyu, a Buddhist ceremony in which young boys go through an elaborate ritual before temporarily becoming a novice monk. This ritual involves dressing up in elegant costumes and putting on so much makeup that, well, you’d be inclined to think that you were seeing a girl. But no, it’s only a time-honored Burmese tradition and has nothing to do with cross-dressing. When I was in Mandalay last year several of the boys from the 90th Street neighborhood, including Zin Ko, gave me their Shin Phyu photographs as souvenirs. I scanned a few examples for today’s post.



Meanwhile, I’ll be curious to see what sort of photos that Zin Ko has been taking. I haven’t scheduled my next trip to Mandalay yet, but I’m hoping for a return sometime in the first half of this year.


Return of the Fruit Lady and other good omens

The fruit lady is back in town and all is well again. Well, maybe not everything here in the Big Mango is peachy, but I take the fruit lady’s reappearance as a sign that life in Bangkok has returned to its normal, comfortingly chaotic state after the relative solitude of the New Year holiday break, and that the current turbulent political situation will calm down.

This particular lady has been my regular fruit vendor for the past several years. For six days each week (alas, she is off on Sunday and I must seek get my guava and papaya fix from someone else) I stop by her stand and buy a big bag of various fruit, saving it for my lunch later in the day. But for the past three weeks she and her husband have been out of town, their space occupied by another vendor. I assumed that they had gone back to their home, in Roi Et province, and she confirmed that when she turned up again on Thursday. She took the longer break because her mother had been ill.  


In addition to the fruit lady, my regular crew of motorcycle taxi drivers returned this week too. Actually, I hadn’t seen any of them all week, so I phoned one of them, a guy nicknamed “Bay,” on Tuesday night and asked if he was back in Bangkok yet. He said he had returned the day before, then asked if he and his friends could come my place again, that night. I hadn’t planned on visitors that night, having already met my friend Gene for dinner and Beer Lao earlier in the evening, but and I told Bay that he and his friends could drop by when they got off work. He brought another one of the regular drivers, Noy, along with a friend who just starting work with the rest of the taxi crew. Noy had just returned to Bangkok earlier in the evening, complaining of very thick traffic on the highway into the city.

Those traffic woes could get worse this week with the planned protest marches on Monday by Suthep and his PDRC (People’s Democratic Reform Committee). This group has declared their intention to “shut down” Bangkok, with the aim of forcing the current “caretaker government” to step down and be replaced by an unelected “People’s Council”, one that will initiate political reform of some sort. Yeah, uh, good luck with that. Such an ambitious goal will likely take several years. And then there is the problem of who will be suitable for election. Thailand appears to be devoid of any politicians who are remotely intelligent and honest.


So, the beat goes on. My personal beat lately has been listening to Burmese music, most especially the albums by a guy named Linn Linn. His album Sin Za Ba was my personal soundtrack during my recent trip to Mandalay, and now that I’m back in Bangkok I still can’t stop listening to it. I won’t pretend for a second that I understand all the lyrics in the songs, but the positive moods that it invokes, and the good memories that it stirs, are very, very profound. It moves me. I bought a newer CD by him while I was in Mandalay and I’ve only played that a handful of times so far, but I like what I hear so far. It’s certainly more pleasing than the sounds of whistles and people yelling in the streets. Which leads to speculation about what will happen this coming Monday and in the days ahead, if this protest and occupation of various parts of the city is the extended one that Suthep and his “mob” have hinted it will be. For those of us not involved in these protests, all we can do is hope for a peaceful and quick resolution.

Meanwhile, the fruit lady told me that she plans on working on Monday, that is if the market where she buys fruit is open and the roads aren’t all blocked. I’ll be at my bookshop as normal that day too, using one of my motorcycle guys to take me to work, but I expect that business will be fairly awful if not non-existent. Hey, life in Bangkok is NEVER dull!


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