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

Archive for November, 2014

Sound of Siam, Volume 2

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If you heard and enjoyed the first volume in the Sound of Siam series, I think it’s safe to say that you’ll be pleased with the new volume, The Sound of Siam, Volume Two. More lively vintage folk music — genres known in Thailand as Molam (or Mor Lam) and Luk Thung —from Thailand’s rural Northeast region, covering the period 1970-1982.

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Once again, Bangkok-based compilers Chris Menist and Maft Sai have uncovered some real gems from morlam and luk thung recordings that were made during this fertile period of Thai music. Although the songs are sung in Thai, often in the Northeastern Isaan dialect, listeners not familiar with the language will still find the music invigorating and fun to listen to.

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In the intros to some of these songs, the female vocalists incorporate an extended “warble” (an Isaan yodel, perhaps?) that allows them “to flex their improvisational muscles” according to the CD’s liner notes. Whatever this technique is called, it’s truly an amazing thing to hear. Pavarotti can’t compete with these ladies! Above all there is a playfulness and joy in this music that truly transcends any linguistic boundaries. In addition to the vocal tracks there are a handful of instrumentals on this collection, incredibly lively lam plearn numbers that will inspire some intense living room dancing. Really, I dare you to sit still while listening to this music!

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Another unique factor in this type of music is the instruments that are used; creations such as the Sor (Saw), Khaen, and Phin. The two-stringed Sor has a sound not unlike that of a fiddle. In fact, on some of these tracks, I can close my eyes and imagine the fiddle player from Horslips, the great Irish folk-rock band, swaying onstage and fiddling to beat the band. A truly mesmerizing sound!

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The CD comes with a very informative 24-page booklet that includes an essay about this style of music by Chris Menist, and also a synopsis of each song, explaining the lyrical content (if any) and information about the recording artists. Another great package from Soundway Records. I got my copy here in Bangkok at Zudrangma Records on Sukhumvit Soi 51.

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Kidding Around

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Here they are, the future of the country: the children of Myanmar! Delightful kids who are looking forward to better days ahead. Will they get their wish?

 

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Crime Always Pays

I’ve been on a reading binge lately, mostly devouring a lot of crime fiction novels. I try to balance out my reading with some non-fiction and what might be called more “serious” novels, but when it comes down to it, crime fiction is usually my main entrée. Here are some short reviews of what I’ve read lately: a few recently published novels, along with older titles from the vaults. Some qualify as traditional mysteries or police procedurals, while others drift into spy and espionage territory. Just don’t dare call them thrillers!

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Michael Connelly – The Burning Room

This is another strong entry in Connelly’s beloved Harry Bosch series. I’ve read them all up to this point and I ain’t stopping now. Connelly remains one of the best in the crime fiction business. This time around Bosch is paired with a new partner, a young Hispanic woman who is on the rise in the police department. My favorite part of this book, as in all Connelly novels, is the investigative thread. I enjoy the way that Bosch picks up seemingly random clues and finds something buried in there that turns out to be crucial to the case that he is investigating. Another cool aspect to the Bosch novels is the way the Connelly weaves a music thread into the story. Bosch is a traditional jazz fan and finds that listening to music helps him to maintain a certain “momentum” when investigating a case. At one point in this novel, Bosch puts on a Ron Carter CD, Dear Miles, because he “was looking for rhythm, and Carter’s vibrant bass line leading the quartet would certainly bring it.” My only complaint about this book was the climax to the story. After so much digging and perseverance, not to mention copious amounts of good luck, the ending came much too soon and left me unsatisfied. But, as typical of Connelly, there is a final twist at the very end of the novel that will leave you pondering: what will Bosch do next?

 

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John Sandford – Deadline

I thought that this was one of the better recent entries in Sandford’s Virgil Flowers series of novels set in Minnesota. In all of the other books in this series there was a disclaimer of sorts in the book’s preface, something along the lines of how Sandford wrote the novel in collaboration with a fishing buddy, friend, or someone else. But this time around there is no such notice, so it appears that this novel was written entirely by Sandford with no outside help. Like his novels in the “Prey” series, this is a well-paced story with a few sub-plots amidst all the murders, and this time around some dog-napping. Despite the blood and body count, Virgil’s antics and the witty dialogue keep things on the lighter side. In fact, I thought that this was one of Sandford’s funniest books yet. Yet another strong point to this novel was the cast of interesting if not bizarre characters. I would love to see the likes of Johnson Johnson and young Muddy turn up again in future novels. But of course the star remains “That fuckin’ Flowers”, the goofy but canny investigator who always gets his man — along with a few women. Fans of this series will find this one to be another engaging, page-turning delight.

 

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Walter Mosley – Rose Gold

There is not much deviation in formula or style for Mosley in this latest entry in the long-running Easy Rawlins series. And for fans of Easy and company that’s a comforting notion. As a storyteller, Mosley does a good job of sustaining interest, but I found parts of the plot, and the various sub-plots, either implausible or confusing to follow. Plus, there were far too many characters to keep track of. All those names became a mental jumble after a while. As usual, Easy Rawlins himself is a mess of contradictions and emotions. Sometimes he is an astute, thoughtful fellow, a caring and kind parent, possessing a rare intellectual curiosity and insight into people’s problems. But at other times he is a rash, headstrong, even violent man, unable to control his emotions or actions. Nevertheless, Rawlins and his friends and characters such as Mouse, Jackson Blue, and Jewelle remain enjoyable company, and the story moves along at a brisk pace, taking you back to Los Angeles in 1967, in all its glory and strife.

 

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Tom Franklin – Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

I read this novel on the recommendation of a friend and I need to write him a thank you letter; I totally loved this book. I have no hesitation in saying that this was one of the best books that I’ve read in a year or more. It’s that special. Tom Franklin weaves an intriguing story — one that qualifies as a true mystery, but also as a solid work of literature — and populates his novel with very well-sketched characters. The dialogue is crisp and believable, and the story is carefully paced. In every aspect, this is simply an outstanding novel. Such a wealth of emotions, complex relationships, and sub-plots at work in this novel, that I could write a full essay on it. Suffice to say, this is a memorable read.

 

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Ed McBain – Alice in Jeopardy

For most fans of Ed McBain, those who have enjoyed the fine Matthew Hope series and the outstanding 87th Precinct series, this novel will be a huge disappointment. It’s populated by shallow, unlikeable characters, an unbelievable police investigation, and some totally unnecessary sex scenes. There are moments — very brief ones — where the old magical McBain style jumps off the page, particularly in the second half of the book when it seems like McBain finally hits his stride, only to lapse into ridiculous scenarios and lame dialogue once again. I realize that this was one of the last books he wrote before he passed away in 2005, but it’s really not up to the quality of work that earned him such praise and devotion from readers. If you’re a McBain fan you might want to read this one anyway, but don’t have high expectations.

 

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Alex Berenson – The Counterfeit Agent

I have mixed feelings about this latest installment in Berenson’s John Wells series. On one level, it’s another addictive, gripping read, a solid addition to a very good series. On another level, it’s predictable and offers pretty much the same formula and action that Berenson has used in his other books: an “impossible” assignment that can only be saved by the heroic efforts of John Wells; a bleak situation which looks like the end for our hero; Wells dispersing cash like he is a walking ATM. Some of it gets tedious, but Berenson still has a flair for storytelling and crisp dialogue, all of which help to keep the pages turning. The biggest strike against this novel is the ending … or rather a lack of one. It’s not quite the tidy climax you might expect, or at least hope for. Instead, the story is “to be continued” in yet another novel next year, Twelve Days. I realize that this is a “shrewd” move on the part of the publisher and their marketing weasels, but I think other readers will be as annoyed with this tactic as I am. And yet, I’ll most likely read the next installment … at some point.

 

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John R. Maxim – Whistler’s Angel

This novel is a good companion to Maxim’s excellent “Bannerman” series. Although Bannerman doesn’t actually appear in this book, he’s mentioned several times and some of his associates pop up for cameo appearances. This Whistler novel, however, doesn’t have as hard an edge as the Bannerman series. In fact, there are times when the characters, especially the villains, are so bizarre that it reminds me of a Carl Hiaasen tale. One bad guy in particular fits the Hiaasen mold: a raving right-wing religious nut, sporting gashes in his face from cut glass (but telling people that the cuts were from wasp stings!), who totes around a golf bag that is packed with bombs, sandwiches and bottles of Snapple. Maxim’s writing is so descriptive that you can picture this crazed yahoo walking unsteadily down the street in his golf spikes. The protagonist of this novel, Adam Whistler is a also very memorable character, as are Adam’s father, the curious “twins”, and the angel herself, Adam’s girlfriend Claudia. Maxim is truly a top-shelf crime fiction writer and this is a worthy companion to his other books.

 

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Peter Spiegelman – Thick as Thieves

This is a novel that requires a bit of patience. Frankly, I almost gave up on it several times, putting it down and going back to it a few days later. But I kept plugging away and plowed through it, saved by the fact that the plot finally became more focused and gripping in the second half of the book. I think a good edit would have helped prune some of the sluggish parts of the book and made this a tauter tale. Another problem is that there were far too many characters in the story, most of whom I didn’t care about or like. This was actually an intelligent, well-written novel for the most part, but too much time and effort — too many pages — were spent on detailing the planned heist and not enough on character development.
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Joseph Hansen – Nightwork

I’ve read about a half-dozen books in Hansen’s Dave Brandstetter series and like them, but I usually end up thinking I should have liked them more than I did. Hansen’s prose is lean and tight, a style that has earned him comparisons to classic mystery writers such as Ross MacDonald, and the big “twist” to this series is that the main character, Dave Brandstetter, is a gay private detective (specifically, an insurance claims investigator) and a tough, hard-nosed one at that (bucking against at least one stereotype). This novel has its share of interesting characters, as Dave investigates a series of troubling “accidental” deaths. Sometimes I marvel at Hansen’s deft writing style, and other times I groan at the way he succumbs to stereotypes when portraying a minority character (such as Cecil, his young black live-in boyfriend, or the Hispanic gang-banger in this novel). So no, it’s not all fantastic, but still well worth a read, especially for mystery fans looking for something a bit different than the usual crime caper.

 

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Les Standiford – Black Mountain

I’ve read most of the books in Standiford’s “Deal” series and have enjoyed them all. This novel, however, is not part of that series and introduces us to some new characters. The story is not set in Florida as the Deal novels are, but drifts from the concrete jungle of New York City (in particular, the underground corridors of the subway system) to the beautiful and dangerous splendors of the Wyoming wilderness. Some scary stuff, some funny stuff, plenty of interesting characters, and Standiford does an outstanding job of describing the beauty and danger of the Wyoming mountain terrain. Parts of the story fall into cliché story at times (particularly one aspect of the story’s climax), but overall I thought this was a really good novel, a nice departure from Standiford’s typical fare.

 

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Greg Hurwitz – Trust No One

The first book I ever read by Greg Hurwitz was The Crime Writer, a clever and compulsive read. This stand-alone novel proved to be another very excellent read. The main character, Nick Horrigan, doesn’t seem like a particularly interesting protagonist at first, but the more the novel evolves, the more you find yourself rooting for Horrigan and getting into the flow of the story. In addition to the plot twists — and this one will indeed keep you guessing until the end — I like the way that Hurwitz develops the characters and their relationships in this book. There is the complex relationship between Horrigan and his mother, plus the special bond he had with his late step-father. Throw in a beautiful, brilliant ex-girlfriend and a mysterious homeless man whom Horrigan befriends, and you have a fascinating cast of characters that help to make this novel quite a treat.

 

The Fermented Tea Leaf Express

From off the beaten tourist trail, here is an assortment of photos from my last trip to Myanmar; food, friends, and fantastic places! Take a ride on the fermented tea leaf express!

 

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Lunch spread at Phyo Maung Maung’s house in Bagan.

 

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Nine Nine playing some Linn Linn songs on guitar in Bagan.

 

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A sandstone painter in Bagan displays his wares.

 

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Ko Soe and his son in Bagan.

 

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Lunch at Zin Ko’s grandmother’s house.

 

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The friendly front desk staff at the Hotel Queen in Mandalay.

 

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Explosion of colors at the market in Nyaungshwe.

 

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Mar Mar Aye at the Golden Bowl Bookshop in Nyaungshwe.

 

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Zin Ko and his grandmother in Mandalay.

 

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Myanmar Beer!

 

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Monks! Monks! Monks! in Tat Ein village.

 

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All hail the mighty duck in Mandalay!

 

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Ma Pu Sue and Lesly in Nyaungshwe.

 

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Shelter from the storm at the Tat Ein monastery.

 

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Mandalay’s fire tower on 81st Street.

 

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An afternoon game of football in Nyaungshwe.

 

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A plate of fermented tea leaf salad: a true Myanmar treat!

 

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U Kyaw in Mandalay.

 

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Yes, we have bananas!

 

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With Zin Ko and Baw Ga in Mandalay.

 

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U Tin Chit at his teashop in Mandalay.

 

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Don’t drink that!

 

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Ko Maw Hsi in Mandalay.

 

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Outside the classroom lessons in Tat Ein village.

 

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Kyaw Zin Tun at the Hotel Queen in Mandalay.

 

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Mr. Jerry at his bike rental shop in Mandalay.

 

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Nuns making their rounds in Mandalay.

 

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The first cut is the deepest at the Tat Ein monastery!

 

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Novice monk at the Tat Ein monastery applies ointment to his “haircut” wounds.

 

Curse of the Monk Photographer!

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Today I hand over the camera to the novice monks from Tat Ein monastery in Shan State. I didn’t take a single one of these shots: these photos are all monks shooting monks!

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Normally, I designate one monk as the assistant photographer whenever I arrive. But I think it’s become a curse of sorts; when I return to the village to visit a few months later, that monk photographer has left the monastery. It’s happened every time! Granted, these kids move around to different monasteries quite often, or some ditch the robe, grow their hair out, and resume normal village life with their family. But still, it’s a little bizarre that not a single one has turned up again.

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This time around I didn’t even bother to learn anyone’s name or select a photographer apprentice hoping that might break the curse. I just handed over the camera and let them go wild! And as you can see, they did!

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Actually, one of the novice monks, the boy pictured above, seemed to appoint himself the head photographer and took the bulk of the photos you see today. Wonder if he’ll be around the next time I visit, or become yet another victim of the camera curse?

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Nyaungshwe’s Unique Superb Food House

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For me, it’s no contest: the best restaurant in the Shan State town of Nyaungshwe (which is where most tourists who visit nearby Inle Lake stay) is the Unique Superb Food House. With a name as bold as that, the meals had better be close to wonderful, and thankfully this place doesn’t disappoint.

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I’ve been a customer at the restaurant for almost ten years now and I don’t recollect a single meal that was even close to mediocre; they have all been delicious. The only blip I can remember was one night after the power had been out for several hours and the beer didn’t have much time to chill and wasn’t as cold as usual, but that’s the only negative thing about the restaurant that I can summon from my memory banks. And it certainly wasn’t their fault that the power went out for so long.

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What I like about the menu at Unique Superb is the balance of Myanmar cuisine and Western dishes. They serve local Shan and Intha dishes such as braised chicken with mint and green pepper, tofu salad, pumpkin soup, and various fish dishes and vegetable curries. They also offer western favorites such as fried chicken, pasta, filet mignon, and French fries if you get those cravings too. There is also a selection of tasty soups, flavorful local salads, and a lot more. Honestly, I never get tired of eating here and sampling new dishes.

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Besides superb food, the service is always friendly and efficient. It’s a family-run business and Daw Ni Ni and U Okka, with the help of their children and other relatives, do everything from waiting on tables to preparing and cooking the food. Admittedly, the service can be slow when large groups of tourists descend upon the place. It’s a small restaurant with the proverbial one-wok kitchen, so they can get overwhelmed when too many customers arrive at the same time. But even when that happens, it’s still service with a smile and they will try their hardest to accommodate each diner. You’ll often see one of the little kids trotting out to bring you a complimentary plate of fresh fruit after your meal. A nice touch from nice people at a nice place.

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Unique Superb Food House is located on Myawaddy Road, just a few doors down from the Golden Kite Restaurant (which is on the corner of Myawaddy and the main drag, Yone Gyi Road). If you walk down Myawaddy Road you’ll see a sign for Win Nyunt Traditional Massage on your right side. Walk another 50 feet down the narrow lane and you’ll see Unique Superb Food House on the left. The open-air restaurant may not look like much from the outside, and you won’t be dazzled by the décor, but I guarantee you the food will impress your taste buds. And for me, that’s all that counts!

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Spelunking in Shan State

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Meanwhile, back in the cave, all is pandemonium! The kids from Tat Ein village are exploring and touching, laughing and shrieking. Was that a bat that just flew by? Aaaahhhh!!! And, of course, everyone is posing for the camera. Hey, gotta have some photos to show the folks at home!

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We had over 90 people in the group — mostly students and novice monks from the village, but also some teachers and parents — so I was slightly concerned that we might lose a few of them while traipsing through the stalagmites and stalactites, but I certainly wasn’t to keep count of them all; let the teachers and senior monks round them up if anyone went missing.

 

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The site of our explorations on this day was Htam Sam Cave, a relatively unknown (at least among foreign tourists) cave, but a mighty impressive one, in Shan State, about a 1-hour drive from Taunggyi. The cave boasts huge ceilings and some very cool rock formations. Alas, no flocks of bats flying around inside (at least in the regions that we explored) but plenty of Buddha statues and shrines.

 

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The main concern, other than losing a few kids, was making sure nobody fell down or had any accidents while in the cave. There were shallow pools of water in some areas, making the ground quite slippery. And naturally, the curious children had to touch every wet rock or weird looking stalagmite that they saw, plus they couldn’t resist the urge to run around and chase one another. Just kids being kids!

 

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Admission to the cave is free for locals, but if you are a foreigner, you’ll be forced to pay a $20 admission fee. Comparing that to zone fees at nearby Inle Lake or the more famous Pindaya Caves, the ticket for Htam Sam Cave is way over-priced, but then again it truly is a spectacular natural wonder and well worth a visit.

 

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