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

Archive for December, 2014

Wishing You a Monk-ful New Year!

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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.

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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.

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Wishing everyone most memorable, safe, and enjoyable 2015!

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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

 

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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

 

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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

 

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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

 

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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

 

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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

 

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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

 

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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

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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.”

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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.

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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!

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Faces and Crowds at Bayon

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!
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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!

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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!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZFIUNxX71aM&list=PL0DtV_dCGOlNOTXfJnuAKxYHj31tPPC5-#t=169

http://www.innovativeleisure.net/artists/khun-narin/

 

Burmese People Power!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Sand Art at Preah Khan

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One of the most impressive things that I saw during my recent visit to the Preah Khan temple at Angkor was not a bunch of ancient carvings but some creative “sand art”. On the dirt path leading to the main entrance, several children have put their artistic abilities to use and are making drawings in the sand. The sand art all has a distinctive Angkor and Khmer look.

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I thought that this was a supremely cool idea and a good way for the children to make a bit of money (hopefully, a few passing tourists will see fit to tip them). It sure beats being pestered by flocks of kids peddling postcards.

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Motorcycle Taxis Save the Day!

I got an unexpected phone call at my bookshop last week. It was from a Thai man calling to let me know that he had received a CD for me in the mail. “I have your CD,” he said, “but it was sent to me by mistake.” Apparently he had ordered some vinyl albums from Amazon and when he opened the package he found a smaller package containing a CD tucked inside. Upon further examination he realized that the CD was addressed to someone else … which would be me!

Luckily, this guy was honest and also made a very sincere effort to track me down. The address had the name of my bookshop on it, so he found the telephone number for the shop and called me. He said that he could send the CD to me, but wouldn’t have time to go the post office until the following week. I got his contact information and told him that I’d see if I could make arrangements to pick up the CD myself so that he wouldn’t have to pay for the postage.

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Later that night, I called up one of my motorcycle taxi driver friends, Bay, and asked if he could pick up the CD for me. The guy’s office was way out on Vibhavadi-Rangsit Road, not exactly in my neck of the woods, so I gave Bay the guy’s phone number and address. I told Bay that there was no hurry, but I’d make it worth his while if he could pick it up for me as soon as possible.

The following afternoon Bay dropped by my store, holding up the package with a big smile. “Got it!” he exclaimed. “I didn’t know how to go there,” he admitted, “but my father gave me directions. It was no problem.” No problem or not, I tipped him some extra money and thanked him again.

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Later that week, I was informed by the company that handles my visa and work permit paperwork that my new annual work permit could not yet be issued because the medical certificate that I submitted was out of date. Huh? I double checked the requirements on the form I had been given and it clearly stated that the medical certificate must be issued within six months. The one I had submitted was from September, less than 3 months old, so that should have been fine. But it wasn’t. Apparently, they work permit office has adopted a new policy of allowing only medical certificates that are 30 days old or less. Urrrgghhh!!!

So that meant getting another medical certificate. I could either go back to Bangkok Hospital, where I got me previous one, or go to a local clinic and get the some certificate for a fraction of the price. Which is what I did. I called up a clinic that I’ve used before and requested a new medical certificate saying that I was healthy, did not have Ebola, or any other life threatening diseases.

I needed to go see the doctor and pick it up but the clinic was a bit out of the way, so I used one of those trusty motorcycle taxi guys again. As luck would have it, it was Bay’s father, also a driver at the same taxi stand, who took me to the clinic on Monday morning. He waited outside while I went in and got my medical certificate, and then drove me the rest of the way to my bookshop. I tipped him extra, handing him 120 baht, but he shook me off, saying that was too much, and handed a 20 baht note back to me. Wow! That’s a great example of how honest most of these guys are, and also how dependable they are.

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Really, the motorcycle taxi drivers and messengers are saviors here in Bangkok, not only for helping to get you swiftly from place to place amidst the traffic gridlock, but for making deliveries and running errands of all sorts. I ordered a pizza last night that was delivered by motorcycle, and my work permit was returned to me — finally! — also by motorcycle messenger yesterday. Long may they run!

 

 

Preah Khan Surprise

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While I was in Siem Reap, Cambodia late last month, a spent a half-day touring various temples around the Angkor archaeological complex. One of my favorite temples there is Preah Khan, a spot I visited with my friends Chamrong and the four Try brothers; Hach, Hoich, Channo, and Pov.

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From the road there is a long path leading to the first gate of Preah Khan. While walking down that path I heard a woman call my name. I looked to my left and say a young Cambodian woman waving at me. Who was she, I wondered? She repeated my name again and asked I was indeed that person. I replied in the affirmative, still wondering who this lady was. “You remember Lyna and Moey?” she asked. Indeed I did. “You took us to Kbal Spean when I was little. I still have the photos you gave me.”

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Ah, it suddenly dawned on me. This girl — er, rather young woman — was one of the group that I took to the waterfall at Kbal Spean one time. Must have been a dozen or more kids in that group, all from the same village near the West Baray reservoir where I had first met them. This must have been 2001 or early 2002, before I opened my bookshop in Siem Reap. I asked the woman two questions: What’s your name? How old are you?

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She reminded me that her name was Serey Nieng, and she was now 27, married with a young daughter of her own. Damn, does time fly or what? I did some quick mental calculation and figured that Nieng must have been about 14 years old when we took that trip to Kbal Spean, a fairly remote location, but one of the more tranquil and atmospheric spots in the Angkor area. Or at least it used to be. If even a small percentage of the hordes of tourists now trampling the ruins of Angkor are also visiting Kbal Spean, the tranquility has probably vanished completely.

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Thankfully, Preah Khan wasn’t completely overrun with tourists when we visited. Step off the main paths and there are plenty of fun detours and rubble to explore, and you feel like you have the whole place to yourself, a rare feeling in Angkor nowadays.

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