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

Archive for December, 2014

Wishing You a Monk-ful New Year!


Okay, you may not feel as excited about the coming New Year as my novice monk friends at the Tat Ein Monastery in Shan State, but it’s that time of year so all we can do is hope for a good one.



Despite the many negative aspects of this past year, and the continuing spiral of cruelty and violence that infects many parts of the world today, I’d like to think we all still share some of the optimism and spirit that these young monks exhibit each day.




Wishing everyone most memorable, safe, and enjoyable 2015!


















BT in BKK!

The BT Express pulled into Bangkok this week, and it’s been a wild and most amazing reunion. Sometimes known as “The Human Jukebox” or in a previous incarnation, “The Haunted Laundromat”, my friend BT is indeed a one-band of sorts. An incredibly creative musician and artist, we grew up in the same neighborhood of Orlando, Florida, the area known as College Park, and ran in the same circles of music-minded people for several decades. I’ve known him for a long, long time.


But I had not seen BT since I moved to Thailand, over 18 years ago! While I was in Bangkok, he moved to Atlanta for a few years, and then did a cross-country migration to Los Angeles for over a decade, but we always managed to stay in touch via e-mail. After a few months in Germany this year, he packed his bags again and headed to Southeast Asia for the first time. He spent the first couple of weeks in Malaysia, visiting Kuala Lumpur and Penang, and then arrived in Bangkok this past Monday. Welcome to the Big Mango, baby!

When you haven’t seen a friend in the better part of two decades, you’re not sure what to expect. Would he be the same? Look the same? Act the same? How we would get along? Well, we’ve all aged, but BT didn’t look that much different, and as soon as he walked into my bookshop and started chatting, it was like we were back at Murmur Records 30 years ago and hadn’t missed a beat. No awkward lulls in the conversation at all, just instantly clicking once again.

Within minutes he had me laughing and grinning, thinking about the people we knew all those years ago and the places we hung out and travelled, not only in Orlando, but also in Atlanta and Athens (that’s the place in Georgia, y’all!); Meiner’s Pit Barbeque, South Orange Blossom Trail (OBT!), Freddie and Ray at Rock & Roll Heaven, Fred Schneider, the mysterious Gunther, the various Jims and Daves, the Clermont connection, Chuck’s Jamaican restaurant, R.E.M. and the Athens scene, the religious loonies we know, Mark and Armistead from Love Tractor, Retro Records, Dubsdread, Danny Beard and Wax ‘N Facts, Wuxtry Records, the Fairvilla Diner, April the mortician, Colonial Plaza, Bobby and Adria, Jad Fair and Half Japanese, Quan and  Eddie and Mitchell, Ken and Marty and Paul from Stumble, Nadeem and Anne Marie, the folks in Pylon, Edgewater High, Record Mart, Molly Hatchett and Lynyrd Skynyrd, Northgate Shopping Center, Tom Smith and Peach of Immortality … ah, it was all so overwhelming that my head was spinning. But really good memories.

BT has a 60-day tourist visa for Thailand and he plans to make the most of it. He’ll stay in Bangkok for a few weeks and then maybe head up North to Chiang Mai. He’s already travelled up to the suburb of Pathum Thani, an area he described as a “farang-free zone,” so he’s starting to see different sides of Thailand, not just the bustling tourist zones of Silom and Sukhumvit, all peppered with 7-Eleven branches on every block — or sometimes three to a block. Honestly, sometimes you look around the concrete jungle that is Bangkok, you’d swear that you WERE back in Atlanta or some other large American city. But then the sight of a som tam stand or the waft of an approaching squid vendor shatters that illusion entirely. No, you’re not in Florida anymore. Bangkok truly is a different and magical place.

Joe Bataan: Afro-Filipino Singing Legend


In the world of music Joe Bataan is far from a household name, yet he was a fairly prolific recording artist in the 1970s and helped found an influential record label. To many of his fans, he is known as the “Afro-Filipino guy”, borrowing a line from one of his more popular songs, “Ordinary Guy”. A description on Wikipedia of Bataan calls him a “Filipino-African-American Latin soul musician from New York.” That sounds a bit convoluted, but Bataan’s background was indeed all of that and more.


Joe Bataan (Bataan Nitollano) was born to Filipino and African-American parents in New York City and grew up in the Hispanic neighborhood of East Harlem. Having such a diverse array of cultural influences growing up certainly helped forge Bataan’s own musical style. His songs combine soul and Latin influences with contemporary dance rhythms. His brand of disco, if you want to call it that, was a happy, uplifting one. Plus, he had a smooth, pleasant singing style, equally comfortable in whatever genre of music he played. In addition to being a gifted singer and musician, Bataan was also a producer and music executive, helping to form the influential Salsoul (Salsa & Soul) record label.


Bataan’s 1975 Latin-Funk version of Gil Scott-Heron’s classic “The Bottle,” re-titled “La Botella,” was a very popular club hit at the time. That was the very first song I ever heard by Bataan and it made a very favorable impression. Although Bataan mostly recorded his own original material, “The Bottle” was one of several great cover versions he did. One of his first singles, back in 1967, was a ”Latinized” cover of the Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions’ big hit “Gypsy Woman.”


I recently picked up a CD edition of The Lost Sessions: New York 1976, a previously unreleased album by Bataan that features some re-recorded versions of songs he had done on previous albums, along with a couple of tasty covers, including the Isaac Hayes instrumental “Theme From The Men” and Billy Stewart’s “I Do Love You.” It’s a relatively short CD, clocking in at 42 minutes, but the songs and performances are all of high quality. Seductive dance beats, sweet string arrangements, nimble piano playing, and Bataan’s sweet vocals all merge to make these songs magical ones. The CD also comes with an informative booklet that includes an essay about Bataan and his career written by noted soul music historian Dean Rudland. Another excellent reissue from the BGP label.

By the beginning of the next decade, in 1982, Bataan stopped putting out albums and had pretty much retired from the music business. But in the past decade he has recorded some new material and started performing shows again. Clearly, singing songs is still in his bones. In addition to Bataan’s The Lost Sessions here are the other albums (all them actually purchased as CDs) that have me smiling, dreaming, and dancing lately.


Neil Diamond – Melody Road

Sonny Rollins – Night At the Village Vanguard

Aimee Mann – Whatever

R.E.M. – Unplugged 1991/2001

The Peppermint Trolley Company – Beautiful Sun



Little Beaver – Party Down

Cannonball Adderley – The Black Messiah: Live at the Troubador

Various Artists – Jamaica to Toronto: Soul, Funk & Reggae 1967-74

The Dirtbombs – Ooey Gooey Chewy Ka-bloey!

Bread, Love and Dreams – Amaryllis


Southern Funkin

Various Artists – Southern Funkin’: Louisiana Funk and Soul 1967-1979

Robert Glasper Experiment – Black Radio 2

Sagittarius – Present Tense

Weezer – Everything Will Be Alright in the End

Scott Walker & the Walker Brothers – The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore: The Best of



Mbilia Bell – Bel Canto: Best of the Genidia Years 1982-87

Vic Chestnutt – About to Choke

Various Artists – Sound Stage 7 Soul Story

Chris Spheeris – Desires of the Heart

Bryan Ferry – Olympia



Jackie Mittoo – The Keyboard King at Studio One

Linda Thompson – Won’t Be Long

The Troggs – The Very Best of

Charlie Daniels Band – Midnight Wind … plus

Siouxsie and the Banshees – Juju



Various Artists – Get Your Lie Straight: A Galaxy of Funky Soul

Husker Du – Warehouse: Songs and Stories

Quazar – Quazar

Various Artists – More Lost Soul Gems from the Sounds of Memphis

Pleasure – Glide: The Essential Selection 1975-1982



Nicholas Payton – Payton’s Place

Solomon Burke – The Chess Collection

Maze featuring Frankie Beverly – The Essential Collection

Cate Brothers – The Crazy Cajun Recordings

Toro Y Moi – Underneath the Pine



Various Artists – The World Ends: Afro-Rock & Psychedelia in 1970s Nigeria

Skull Snaps – Skull Snaps

Leon Ware – Musical Massage

U2 – Songs of Innocence

O.V. Wright – The Complete O.V. Wright on Hi Records: Volume 1



Noodles amidst the Ruins


After taking in the ruins at Angkor’s Preah Khan temple recently, my Cambodian friends spied a mobile noodle vendor on the dirt road adjacent to the temple. “I know this lady,” said my friend Chamrong. “I used to buy from her before. Her noodles are very delicious.”


With that declaration, Rong and the Try brothers all ordered bowls of noodles. The woman had arrived on her bicycle, packed with bowls and bags of noodles, vegetables, and spicy condiments. It all looked very tasty, but I passed, seeing as how it was only about an hour until my planned lunch, plus this woman was using her hands to dish out the noodles and frankly, it didn’t look very hygienic.


But my friends all wolfed down their noodles, declaring the treat most delicious, while other customers, including a couple of young women, waited for the lady to prepare their orders. It certainly looked like she was doing a very brisk business there under the trees at Preah Khan. Just another charming Cambodian moment!



Faces and Crowds at Bayon


The Angkor archaeological complex boasts hundreds of atmospheric ancient temples, from small to large. The most famous, of course, is the sprawling icon itself, Angkor Wat. Another very popular spot is Ta Phrom and its distinctive tree-sprouting ruins.


There are plenty of other fascinating temples too, ones that I’ve visited countless times, but the one I’m most drawn to is Bayon, the temple “with all those faces” in Angkor Thom. There is just something about gazing upon those huge enigmatic carved faces that fascinates me. Pick just the right spot and you find yourself surrounded by a gallery of stone faces. I must have visited Bayon about 20 times over the past 15 years and the place still spellbinds me.



The downside to visiting Bayon nowadays, or any popular temple in the Angkor park for that matter, is trying to appreciate the ruins without being trampled by hordes of other tourists. And it’s not a case of a few backpackers getting in your way; it’s the large tour groups — many of them hailing from Asian countries such as China, Korea, and Thailand — that are the problem.




Wanting to see Bayon early in the morning, but not so eager that I wanted to get up for the sunrise, I arrived with my Cambodian friends about 7:45 in the morning one day recently. Too late; the tourist hordes were already swarming all over the place, mostly snapping photos with their smart phones or posing with members of their group for more shots. A few other people could be seen trying to touch the carvings, even though posted signs asked them to refrain from doing just that. Good thing I wasn’t carrying a gun!




Although I love visiting Bayon, after this latest tourist infestation I imagine it will be a few years down the road before I’m brave enough to attempt another visit.










Khun Narin’s Electric Phin Band

Khun Narin’s Electric Phin Band is one of those amazing discoveries that just make you say “Wow” … and then want to kick off your shoes and dance!

My Bangkok friend and fellow music junkie, John Clewley, turned me on to this CD recently and I can’t thank him enough. This stuff rocks … or maybe “reels” is a more apt description. The seven tracks on this CD are all instrumentals and all of them are lively, hip-shaking compositions, a vivacious blend of upcountry Thai music that is both intoxicating and invigorating. If you are familiar with the style of Thai folk music known as “Molam” this stuff is pretty much in the same vein, although even more electric and frenetic, if you can imagine that. Actually, the band calls the style of what they play Phin Prayuk. The “phin” in both that name and the name of the band comes from the name of the 3-stringed instrument (or Lute) that you hear on all of these songs, a very distinctive and hypnotic sound indeed. And yes indeed, this stuff will get you dancing in no time at all!

In the bio for the band on the label’s website (Innovative Leisure dot com) they note that the main phin player uses a string of Boss effects pedals, including a phaser, plus distortion and digital delay to get this distinctive sound. The band also built their own custom P.A. system to help capture the essence of the group and their sound. I can just picture these guys setting up in the village and blasting away. Then again, you CAN see them in action via YouTube and the label’s website. There are four videos of the band posted the label’s website. Video number three, a 9-minute reel showing exuberant villagers dancing in the street, is particularly fun. Man, these guys ARE the party!


By the way, in the new issue of Mojo music magazine, in their year-end roundup of the best albums of the year, Khun Narin’s Electric Phin Band made the Top 10 on the World Music list. Congratulations you guys!


Burmese People Power!


As this year winds nearer to an end, we’ve seen many changes in Myanmar, not all of them positive ones. The general consensus among those folks seeking Democracy and greater personal freedoms — everything from a free press to uncensored Internet access — is that there have been a disappointing number of setbacks this year. All the much-vaunted reforms and progress seem to have strayed from the intended — or hoped for — path.



But Myanmar is not alone in the struggle for human rights, democracy, and a free press. Look at many other countries around Asia and there aren’t a lot of positive trends to be found. Things are looking bleak in Hong Kong, not to mention in the rest of mainland China, Thailand remains under martial law after the coup this year (and don’t get me started about the new rash of police harassment targeting foreigners in Bangkok … very disturbing!), activists are disappearing in Laos, and Cambodia is still suffering under the iron-fisted rule of Hun Sen.



Even across the waters, in the once free country known as the United States, they are experiencing new waves of political protests and racial unrest. Hey, if you are looking for stability there are always the Scandinavian countries. That is, if you can afford the high cost of living and don’t mind being frozen most of the year.



So, wherever you are living, just watch your back (and your wallet!), don’t trust your government, monitor the police, and fight the powers that be … whenever and wherever possible.



Meanwhile, here are some more photos from my last trip to Myanmar: the young and the old, people fighting the good fight, living day to day, and trying to keep from going under, amidst the turbulent seas of ineptitude and corruption, not to mention the spiraling cost of living.























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