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

Archive for February, 2014

Dropout Dilemma

One of the boys in the photo below just dropped out of school. He was in the sixth grade at a school in Mandalay.


I know these kids well, and this boy in particular. They are among the regulars that I take on trips in the area when I’m in Mandalay. Over the years I finally learned all their names (not an easy task, I assure you!) and I’ve gotten to know a little more about them each time I visit. Needless to say, I was shocked to hear that this one kid had dropped out of school at such a young age. According the report I got from a mutual friend in the 90th Street neighborhood where they all live, this boy has not been going to school for a few months already.

When I was in Mandalay the last time this boy told me that he wasn’t happy living at home. I don’t know all the details, but I know that his parents are divorced and that his father has a drinking problem. No indications of any physical abuse, but again, I don’t know the full story. But I think there were/are problems with the mother also, and this boy had been living with the grandmother and/or an aunt. In any case, the grandmother and the aunt are the ones who seem to be trying to take care of the boy.

My friend told me that this boy was now working at a car body shop on the outskirts of time. Far enough from “home” that he was also now staying and sleeping at this shop each night. What can you say about this situation? Bad … sad … tragic … outrageous … heartbreaking. It’s all of that.

My first instinct was to ask; What can I do to help? How can we get this kid back in school? Well, it’s not so easy. He was apparently “signed out” of the school by the principal after his lengthy absence and his only recourse, if he DOES want to go back to school, is to wait until the next term starts in June and try to enroll again. I’ve gotten mixed signals about what the boy wants to do. At first he seemed to have no desire to return to school and only wanted to work. But the latest I heard was that he was open to the idea of going back next term, but to a different school. Perhaps he feels embarrassed about dropping out and doesn’t want to face his friends from the old neighborhood.

I asked for advice from two trusted and wise friends; Ma Thanegi and Khin Nwe Lwin. They were both very helpful, but also very honest and realistic in their suggestions. They reminded me that there are a lot of kids like this boy in Myanmar nowadays: teenagers, or children even younger, who have stopped going to school and are working in teashops, restaurants, factories, and workshops. Nevertheless, the typical Westerner is outraged at such situations, thinking that the child should be in school and not toiling away the day in some sweat shop. But the reality is that many of these kids either need to work or want to work. And if the child is able to learn some sort of trade by working, it may actually be beneficial for him in the long run. Going to school doesn’t pay the bills or put food on the table, and many families benefit from having their children employed. No, it’s not ideal, but it certainly beats seeing a child homeless, living on the streets, begging, or resorting to crime.

On a related topic I read an article in the Bangkok Post last week. The headline read: Fishery Working Age to be Raised. The article reported that the Thailand Labour Ministry was raising the minimum age of workers from 16 to 18, part of their efforts to suppress human trafficking, help deflect criticism about human rights violations, and to help curb the high brokerage fees that job brokers charge migrant workers. Again, this sort of thing sounds good on paper, but to put the minimum age as high as 18 strikes me as much too strict. It’s also a lazy and rather ineffective way of trying to fix these problems and penalizes teenagers who would like to work.

I’ll say it again: staying in school is not always the best solution. Children’s “rights” should reflect what the children wants, not what some NGO or government bureau thinks they need.


Rosanne Cash Returns!

My worship of Rosanne Cash began in 1980 when I heard her debut album, Right or Wrong. I was working at a branch of Record Mart in Orlando, Florida at the time and we had a promo vinyl copy of that album that I played every day. I was totally smitten and have since bought every album that she’s recorded. I cherish them all. Last month she released her long-awaited new album, The River and the Thread. This one is another jewel. I need to give it more time to digest, and time to reflect, before offering a final judgment, but this could be her finest work yet. And that’s saying something!


On the new album Rosanne’s voice sounds as effortlessly warm and comforting as ever, the lyrics are poetic and moving, and her astute song choices, mostly originals plus a couple of “bonus” covers (including Jesse Winchester’s classic “Biloxi”) are once again brilliant. This woman takes her time between albums, never content to churn out “product” on an annual basis. The quality and craft that goes into every album, this one included, is always impressive. Being the daughter of the legendary Johnny Cash must have felt like a huge burden at times, but Rosanne has courageously forged her own career path, never watering-down her music or trying to be something she’s not. It’s difficult to categorize her music, and I like that about her. You can’t pigeonhole her as “country” any more than you call her “folk” or “pop.” She has that unique ability to both straddle and transcend specific musical genres. No matter how you want to label her music, Rosanne Cash continues to be one of America’s greatest musical treasures. For those of us that still enjoy the thrill of “real” packaging, as opposed to sterile downloads, the deluxe version of the new CD comes with a beautiful 36-page booklet that contains song lyrics, photos, and comments from Rosanne about the new project. Well done!


Meanwhile, here are a few other marvelous CDs keeping me company during Bangkok’s recent turbulent days of political protests and “mob” mentality:


Jaco Pastorius – Punk Jazz: The Anthology

Jules Shear – Longer to Get to Yesterday

Various Artists – Soul in Harmony: Vocal Groups 1965-1977

Change – Greatest Hits & Essential Tracks

Aimee Mann – @#%&! Smilers


Two Things In One – Together Forever: The Music City Sessions

Cut Copy – Free Your Mind

Tommy Keene – Excitement At Your Feet: The Covers Album

Various Artists – Eccentric Soul: The Forte Label

Brendan Benson – You Were Right


Various Artists – King Northern Soul Vol. 3

Tim O’Brien & Darrell Scott – We’re Usually a Lot Better Than This

Brass Construction – Movin’ & Changin’

Hank Mobley – Workout

Babyface Willett – Mo Rock


George Jackson – Old Friend: The Fame Recordings Vol. 3

Merry Clayton – The Best Of

Gram Parsons – The Complete Reprise Sessions

Chumbawamba – Readymade

Peter Green – In the Skies


Charles Wright & The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band – Live at the Haunted House

Terry Edwards – Cliches

Andrew Bird – Hands of Glory

Van Morrison – Common One

Bread Love and Dreams – Bread Love and Dreams 


Nils Lofgren – Acoustic Live

Guided By Voices – The Bears For Lunch

O.M.D. – History of Modern

Fitz and the Tantrums – Pickin’ Up the Pieces

Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt – Soul Summit


Skids – Sweet Suburbia: The Best Of

The Bongos – Phantom Train

Mikal Cronin – MCII

Dead Boys – We Have Come for Your Children

Pete Donnelly – Face the Bird


Various Artists – The Divas From Mali

Prince Phillip Mitchell – Make It Good

J.J. Jackson – The Great J.J. Jackson

Antena – Camino Del Sol

Camera Obscura – Desire Lines

Last Tales of the City?

I can’t remember the first time I read Tales of The City, the first novel in Armistead Maupin’s engaging series of novels set in San Francisco. The novel, which originated as a newspaper serial, was first published in 1978, but I think I didn’t discover the series until sometime in the mid-1980s.


Like most readers of that novel, I was smitten with the not-so-conventional cast of characters and their many not-so-conventional adventures, and was eager to read more. I soon rounded up the other books in the “Tales of the City” series that were out and devoured those quickly. I enjoyed Maupin’s description of life in San Francisco in the 1970s and 1980s, a city that ranks as one of America’s most unique and beautiful places. But after six books, the series stopped with Sure of You in 1989.


After nearly two decades of silence, the series was resurrected in 2007 with Michael Tolliver Lives, followed by yet another installment, Mary Ann in Autumn, in 2010. Both novels were fun reads, but ultimately failed to capture the magic of the early books in the series. I just finished reading Maupin’s latest book, The Days of Anna Madrigal, which is apparently the end of the line for the beloved series. The Days of Anna Madrigal is sure to please most fans of the “Tales of the City” series. The title character, Mrs. Madrigal, is now 92 years old, but still sharp as a tack, and still surrounded by a loveable if slightly eccentric cast of characters.


Not surprisingly, if you know the background of Mrs. Madrigal, the book focuses on transgender issues, not to mention the not-so-conventional relationships — homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual — of the other characters. Really, there are times when it helps to have a scorecard. There are also times when I felt that Maupin was trying too hard to be too unnecessarily hip or in tune with modern trends. The book is littered with copious references to things like Twitter, reading on a Kindle, watching the “Breaking Bad” TV series, and going to the Burning Man Festival. Ultimately, I think too much of this stuff detracts from the flow and vibe of the story. I’m not going to rehash the plot or offer a synopsis, but suffice to say Maupin throws in a few surprises to balance out the congenial familiarity of these characters and their relationships. All in all, a satisfying addition to the series.

Reading Maupin’s latest book brought back my own memories of San Francisco, a city that I’ve visited four times. Of course my memories are a bit different than those of the Tales of the City cast; watching baseball games at the old Candlestick Park, shopping for books at City Lights, buying records wholesale for my shop at the Rough Trade branch, visiting the mysterious Ralph Records (home of The Residents) office, and walking around the Mission District. I also saw a few great concerts, usually doubling up on shows in the same night. One time I started off by going to an amazing NRBQ show (and talked to Todd Rundgren, who was also in the audience) and finished the night off with a hot set by Chris Isaak and his band in another small club. Another time, during my first trip to the city in 1982, I attended a Depeche Mode concert, probably the first “rock” show I ever saw that didn’t feature a drummer. Later that same night I walked a few blocks and witnessed a wild performance by The Cramps. The opening act was the Method Actors, a band from Athens, Georgia in which my friend Mike Richmond (also a member of Love Tractor) played.

At this point in my life I doubt that I’ll ever return to the US, much less see San Francisco again, but I can pay a vicarious visit anytime I want by reading Maupin’s novels.


Good Hearts & Loving Kindness

I had dinner last Tuesday with two of my favorite people; Janet Brown and Ma Thanegi. Janet, now living in Seattle, had been in town for a week already, but Thanegi has just flown in from Yangon that morning. We met at my bookshop and then made plans to eat at a Thai restaurant on Thonglor. To make the journey easier I called one my motorcycle taxi friends, Bay, and asked him to bring a couple of other moto drivers to the shop to pick us up. Traffic was looking scary-bad, but within 20 minutes he and his buddies arrived and then whisked us away to the restaurant. I tipped the drivers generously and told Bay that he and his friends were welcome to join me for dinner whenever they had free time. Of course getting that free time is no easy task for these guys. They work insane hours with no days off. Anyway, Janet and Thanegi and I had a feast at the restaurant. Good food and good conversation; it was the perfect night.


The next day Thanegi stopped by my bookshop to buy a few more books. This time I remembered to snap a photo! A few days later I was treated to a surprise visit from Beth Goldring from Phnom Penh. Beth founded the Brahmavihara Cambodia Aids Project in 2000, the same year I met her. She’s also there in the top ranks of my favorite people category; a truly amazing, inspirational lady. It was a busy Saturday when she dropped by my bookshop, but I made time to sit down and chat for a while. As usual, Beth is in the middle of several projects and planning another fundraising trip to the US later this year, but she stocked up on mystery novels while she was in my shop.


And later that night, Bai and three of the motorcycle taxi drivers on my street dropped by my apartment to hang out and listen to music, the usual “Songs for Life” fare such as Pongist Kampee and Carabao. They’re a curious bunch — I don’t doubt I’m their first farang friend — and they pepper me with all sorts of questions, and I return the favor and ask them a bunch of stuff too. My Thai is still not fluent, so some of what they are saying doesn’t always register, but for the most part, we can carry on a semi-coherent conversation … and that thrills me. I truly enjoy their company.


Today is Valentine’s Day of course, but here in Thailand the date this year also falls on an important Buddhist holiday, Makha Bucha. Loving kindness and love the one you’re with; a great combination! That got me thinking that I should expand the theme of my post today and write about life and love and good friends, all those things that I often take for granted. This year I’m reflecting more on this sort of stuff as one of my best friends remains bed-ridden in a local nursing home, basically waiting to die. And mortality reared its ugly head last week when I got an e-mail from another good friend, So Penh Thay in Siem Reap, Cambodia, telling me that his father had passed away the day before. I wrote back, and also called him, but I feel that any words of sympathy on my part were inadequate.


Another one of my favorite people, Khin Nwe Lwin in Mandalay, sent me a couple of e-mails last week, attaching MP3s of some Burmese songs for me. She’s also been helping me keep track of people and things around the 90th Street neighborhood in Mandalay where I have many other friends. There’s a troubling issue with one of the kids there, but I’ll save that story for another post. But the main thing is that she is supportive of my efforts to help these kids and I really treasure our friendship.


Also in Mandalay, I can’t forget about Zin Ko and Moe Htet Aung, two stalwarts of the 90th Street crew who I take on field trips when I’m in town. During the past two trips to Mandalay, Zin Ko and Moe Htet Aung have also become my nightly dining companions, usually at Aye Myit Tar Restaurant on 81st Street. It beats dining alone, and they are nice, polite kids, so I’m always happy to have them tag along. My birthday happened to fall during the time I was in Mandalay last trip and Zin Ko and Moe Htet Aung gave me gifts, one of which was this cute little stand with plastic swans and hearts that lights up when you flip a switch. “When the light comes on you will remember us,” Moe Htet Aung told me. Indeed I will!


On this Valentine’s Day, I send out hearts and arrows of love to all the friends and fine folks who continue to put up with me. And a Happy Makha Bucha Day too!


Tabu Ley Passes Away

The music world lost another great artist recently with the passing of Tabu Ley Rochereau. That name will probably draw blanks for most people, even those who consider themselves music buffs. The reason: Tabu Ley came from the Congo and most of his recordings from the 1960s through the 1990s were on small labels that didn’t have worldwide distribution. But to hear this man’s addictive music, and especially his sweet vocals, was to experience something akin to musical nirvana. Tabu Ley was a great one, considered to be one of the pioneers of Congolese music styles such as rumba and soukous.


Tabu Ley Rochereau died on November 30 last year at the age of 76, but I only heard the news yesterday when I read a tribute to him in the Bangkok Post written by “World Beat” columnist — and all-around groovy guy — John Clewley. I was both surprised and disgusted that the death of such an influential artist was not headline news in major newspapers and online sites. I could blame not having heard about Tabu Ley’s death due to the fact that I was in Mandalay that week, but even if I had been home in Bangkok, where I’m apt to be more connected, I still don’t think the news would have immediately reached me. Plus, I style haven’t read anything about his passing in music magazines such as Mojo or on any online music blogs. But such is the fate of many great African singers and musicians. If they weren’t well known in the West, they weren’t considered important enough for an obituary.  


One obituary that I did read on the online site of The Guardian, said that Tabu Ley had written more than 3,000 songs during his long career, one that began when he started playing in local bands as a teenager in the mid-1950s. You could call him a musical pioneer and that wouldn’t be a stretch. He was the first Congolese singer to use a trap drum kit, the first to develop a choreographed stage show, and the first to perform at Paris’s prestigious Oympia Theatre. His musical style fused traditional Congolese rhythms with Western and Caribbean sounds. To my ears, some of his songs even had a slight Cuban vibe. The combination of these exotic sounds, even if you couldn’t understand the lyrics, was mesmerizing. Hearing those slinky guitars and seductive rhythms, all of transported by Tabu Ley’s effortlessly melodic voice was a totally addictive combination. Really, I could listen to this music for hours on end and not become bored.


I own several compilations of Tabu Ley’s music. Two of the best ones are both 2-CD sets that the Stern’s African label has released: The Voice of Lightness: Congo Classics: 1961-1977 and The Voice of Lightness: Congo Classics: 1977-1993. Both collections come with a deluxe booklet that features essays about Tabu Ley and his amazing recording career. Another very good CD collection is the single disc African Classics: Tabu Ley Rochereau, part of the Sheer Legacy label’s Cantos Collection.


Ironically, just two months ago — not yet knowing of Tabu Ley’s death — I purchased Bel Canto: The Best of the Genidia Years, a 2-CD compilation by M’bilia Bel, one of the singers who Tabu Ley discovered and was featured in his band in the 1980s. Yet more Congo classics to savor.


Nursing Home Blues

It’s been almost four full months now, and one of my best friends, an American who I will refer to as “H”, is still hospitalized in Bangkok. The long story short; he collapsed and was unconscious for a few days and was put in ICU, some tests discovered “masses” in his brain, he was treated with heavy-duty antibiotics, a biopsy revealed no tumors but instead a very serious brain infection, more treatment, more tests, but no improvement. At one point his doctor told me frankly, “The damage has been done.” Even if my friend survives this infection, and isn’t struck by a secondary infection (he’s also had breathing problems and is using a tracheal tube to breathe), he’s going to need round-the-clock care for the rest of his life.


So, it’s a pretty depressing scenario. This guy is in his early 70s, but until very recently he was teaching full-time at a school in Mandalay, riding a motorcycle around town, and generally living a pretty full, healthy life. And then, wham, bam, boom; he’s in the hospital, and within a few weeks is not able to talk or communicate, or seemingly aware of who’s been visiting him. At this point, he’s maybe never coming out, and most certainly never coming back, at least in terms of his mental capacity. In a situation like this, you almost hope for a quick end to it all.

And then at the end of January, his health insurance policy expired. Uh, what now? Since I’m his closest friend in Bangkok, I’ve been acting as a go-between between his closest relative — a cousin in Alabama — and other participants in this drama; the hospital (we’ve also had to arrange with Thai Immigration to get his Thailand tourist visa extended every month, now every 60 days), his school in Mandalay, the insurance company, and his bank in Bangkok.

And that’s the catch. He had a considerable amount of money in two separate savings accounts in Bangkok, but how could we access those funds to pay for either a renewal of his insurance policy or to pay for his medical care? I discussed the logistics with a local law firm, and then we contacted the bank who in turn got in touch with the hospital. The bank agreed to pay the hospital for any additional charges after the insurance coverage lapsed.

Which was good news, expect for the fact that the daily charges at Bangkok Hospital Medical Center, where “H” has been most of the time, are quite expensive. He eventually was moved out of ICU but still needs special nursing care. The hospital called me and suggested moving him to a private nursing facility in Bangkok that was managed by one of the hospital’s doctors. The monthly rates, including medicine, would be a fraction of the cost of keeping him at the hospital. Great plan!

But then there was another catch. The bank’s head office said that they would authorize payments to the hospital but not to the nursing home. Urrgghh!!! The hospital then came up with the idea of the bank billing the   hospital and then the hospital would bill the nursing home. Sort of a roundabout way of doing it, but perhaps that would work.

On Thursday this week I got this e-mail from the hospital:

Good news! The bank manager has just confirmed to me this afternoon that the hospital could be the mediator between the bank and the nursing care facility. We are preparing to move him to his new place within tomorrow.

And indeed, it finally happened. I never thought that moving to a nursing home would qualify as good news, but in this case it certainly is a positive thing. However, I’m still concerned about how much money is remaining in my friend’s bank account. Between the time when the insurance expired and when he was finally moved to the nursing home, nearly two weeks elapsed. Using the figures that the hospital quoted me on the phone, that two-week total is the equivalent of about six months at the nursing home. Ouch!

Obviously, this whole situation has been very depressing. But everyone I’ve talked to at the hospital — the nurses, doctors, and administrators — have been extremely kind and helpful. “H” was never a very social person and didn’t have many friends. I wouldn’t exactly call him a misanthrope, but he didn’t care for the company of most people and was pretty much of a loner. And yet teachers from his school came to visit him a few times, as did a few guys from his apartment complex. I also got really sweet notes from a childhood friend of his now living in Georgia, and a woman who used to teach with him, now retired in Spain.

Friends and strangers, living in faraway places, connecting and sharing memories, trying to help a friend in need. It’s been both agonizing and comforting. But hey, such is life.


Teashop Comfort


During my last trip to Mandalay in November, I spent most afternoons at U Tin Chit’s teashop on 90th Street. I’ve written about this teashop many times in the past, but suffice to say it remains one of my favorite places in the world. Maybe it’s not cozy by most people’s standards, but for me it’s one of the most comfortable and relaxing places I know. The laidback atmosphere, the tasty tea and snacks, and the delightful company of U Tin Chit, the regular customers, the parent’s showing off their babies, and the local kids; it all makes for an unbeatable combination.

















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