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

Archive for August, 2015

Cambodian Musicians Remembered


My Cambodian friend Chiet is working a construction job as a welder in nearby Nonthaburi and we’ll get together a couple of times each month for dinner. Last week, back at my apartment after another big meal at Thon Krueng, we were watching one of those ridiculous “professional” wrestling matches on TV (he loves that stuff, while I am merely amused by it all) when I put on a CD that I thought would grab his attention. When the Cambodian language song started, he did one of those surprised neck swivels and sat up straight. “What is that?” he exclaimed. I showed him the CD I was playing: Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll.


That also happens to be the title of a recently released film from Argot Pictures by John Pirozzi. Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll is a fascinating tale of Cambodia s vibrant pop music scene in the 1950s and 1960s. The filmmaker assembled rare archival footage, punctuating it with interviews with the handful of musicians who survived the genocide of Pol Pot’s notorious Khmer Rouge. In an interview in the New York Times, Pirozzi said: “I wanted to show that this music would endure beyond everything it had been put through. The music is the one thing that has allowed the Cambodian people to access a time when their life wasn’t about war and genocide.”


Another result of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, in which millions of Cambodians lost their lives, was that the thriving music and film industries in Cambodia were also effectively snuffed. Thanks to exhaustive research, and a few lucky breaks, Pirozzi managed to unearth some rare footage of many Cambodia singers and musicians from the pre-Khmer Rouge era. Luckily, for music fans, some of the old recordings were also salvaged.  The 20-track companion CD to the film features famous Cambodian singers such as Sinn Sisamouth, Pen Ran, Ros Serey Sothea, along with a mix of lesser known bands and singers. Listening to these songs, there is a clear nod to Western music styles of the era, but diffused through a distinct Cambodian perspective. Some of this music is, admittedly, an acquired taste, particularly the older more traditional Cambodian songs from the 1950s, before sizzling rock and roll guitars and funky organ riffs became more common in the mix. But even with the older tunes, it’s mighty hard not to be captivated by the spirit and vitality of the recordings, especially considering that most of the artists who sang or performed these songs were killed or disappeared during the Khmer Rouge period.


Sinn Sisamouth, probably the most beloved of all Cambodia singers, began his career as a crooner in the style of a Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett. But once the 1960s arrived, Sinn Sisamouth embraced the changing musical landscape and added guitar-spiced rock songs to his repertoire. He also recorded several duets with Ros Serey Sothea, songs that remain enormously popular throughout Cambodia. Ros Serey Sothea herself was also a music chameleon, singing everything from traditional wedding songs to frenzied rockers. But when it came to spunky, she was no match for the even more vivacious Pen Ran, a singer who, according to the liner notes, “broke the mold of the proper Khmer girl” with her risqué uptempo songs and sexy fashion sense.


One of the more interesting groups on the CD is Baksey Cham Krong. Their surf-guitar song “B.C.K.” owes a clear debt to the Ventures, while “Full Moon” sounds like something that could have come from Elvis Presley’s “Blue Hawaii” soundtrack. Another band, Drakkar, sounds like they were influenced by the harder rock sounds of Cream and Deep Purple. The male singer Yol Aularong, based on the two songs of his that are included on this collection, was an even weirder and wilder singer, sounding like someone that would have embraced voodoo rockabilly. The liner notes say that “he was clearly on the verge of charting a new course in Cambodia’s musical heritage” when he disappeared — like so many of these artists — during the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975. All of the songs on the CD are sung in Khmer, except for Baksey Cham Krong’s instrumental and one English language song, a cover version of “You’ve Got a Friend”, performed by female singer Pou Vannary.

In addition to that fascinating compilation, I’ve been listening to a pleasing barrage of other music each and every day. Here are the latest CDs keeping me bopping and hopping:


Various Artists – Fatback’s Soul Shop

The Diplomats – Greatest Recordings

Funk Inc. – Funk Inc./Chicken Lickin

Ronnie Foster – Love Satellite

Jimmy Holiday – Spread Your Love: The Complete Minit Singles



Toro Y Moi – What For?

Bill Evans – You Must Believe In Spring

Ebony Rhythm Band – Soul Heart Transplant: Lamp Sessions

Various Artists – Listen To the Voices: Sly Stone in the Studio 1965-70

Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free



Dave Hamilton – Detroit City Grooves

Ebo Taylor – Appia Kwa Bridge

Ray Charles & Milt Jackson – Soul Brothers/Soul Meeting

King Floyd – I Feel Like Dynamite: The Early Chimneyville Singles

Peter Bjorn and John – Writer’s Block



Cornell Campbell – I Shall Not Remove 1975-80

Roy Ayers – Virgin Ubiquity II

The Four Mints – Gently Down the Stream

Gene Harris & the Three Sounds – Live at the It Club, Vol. 2

Graham Parker & the Rumour – Mystery Glue



Lightspeed Champion – Life Is Sweet! Nice to Meet You

Bob Frank – Bob Frank

Various Artists – Belle and Sebastian: Late Night Tales

Jesse Malin – New York Before the War

Various Artists – More Perfect Harmony: Sweet Soul Groups 1967-1975



Songhoy Blues – Music in Exile

Tame Impala – Currents

Craig Fuller & Eric Kaz – Various Artists –

Marah – Kids in Philly

Various Artists – Super Funk: Soul Emissaries



Robin Gibb – 50 St. Catherine’s Drive

Eddy Giles – Southern Soul Brother

James Taylor – Before This World

The Royals – Pick Up the Pieces

Harvey Mandel – The Best Of



Various Artists – Rhythm ‘n’ Bluesin’ by the Bayou: Mad Dogs, Sweet Daddies & Pretty Babies

The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World

The Five Stairsteps – The Best of

Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color

Eddie Floyd – Chronicle Greatest Hits


Keeping the Music Alive and the Pages Turning in KL

I returned from a four-day trip to Kuala Lumpur earlier this week. KL has become one of my favorite quick getaway destinations in recent years. I don’t much, if any, sightseeing at this stage of my visits, however. I have a clear agenda upon arrival: buy CDs, buy books, buy more CDs, and eat lots of good meals.


Unlike Bangkok, where retail CD shops have become very scarce, Kuala Lumpur still does have several good shops that sell new CDs, both domestic and imports. Rock Corner sports the best selection and has several branches in the greater KL area, as does the Victoria Music Center, and there is even a branch of Tower Records still open! I had thought that Tower had finally bit the dust (as they have in the US) after their one large store downsized and moved into the corner of an electronics department in KL’s Times Square two years ago. But I accidentally stumbled upon their new location in the Gardens, adjacent to the Mid Valley Megamall, on the same floor at the Rock Corner branch. The stock at Tower is greatly reduced from their glory years, but it appears that Classical music takes up about half of the stock and those sales are keeping the shop alive. Tower also has a pretty good selection of Jazz and World Music, but their pop and rock offerings are pitiful at this point.


Meanwhile, Rock Corner, despite having the largest selection and most interesting assortment of CDs and DVDs, appears as if they are struggling to stay open. Last year they closed their branch in the Mid Valley Megamall, as well as the one in the 1 Utama shopping center, and this year I was dismayed to find that they had also shuttered their original shop in KLCC. The manager at one shop told me that spiraling rents were to blame. But they still have four very well-stocked shops still operating in Bangsar Village, Subang Parade in Subang Jaya, the Curve, and the Gardens. My bulging bags coming back to Bangkok are evidence that they still have plenty of good titles.


The Amcorp Mall also holds a few treasures for music lovers, especially on weekends. The Victoria Music Center branch there has a decent selection of CDs and the employees are very knowledgeable. On weekends the mall has an indoor flea market with several dealers selling secondhand CDs and vinyl records. A little browsing leads to a lot! A further lure at Amcorp Mall is the giant BookXcess store. They sell remainders — all new books at greatly reduced prices — in many categories, and you get a further discount if you have a member card. Speaking of books, the long-running Junk Book Store on Jalan Tun H.S. Lee is still around too. They sell only secondhand books and the prices are a bit cheap for the quality of the stuff they are selling, but it’s a fun place to browse. I am always amazed at the old treasures they have in stock. Any shop that has multiple titles by the likes of Donald E. Westlake, Ed McBain, and Ross Thomas is alright in my book! Needless to say, I usually find something to buy there, even if the book is overpriced and finding what you want is challenging. With its narrow aisles, low ceiling and baffling way of grouping books together, good luck finding what you are looking for. The books are neatly stacked, and most wrapped in plastic, but if they are organized in any manner at all, I have yet to figure out their system!


Quirky or not, it’s still a pleasure to shop in places like the Junk Book Store and CD shops like Rock Corner, Tower Records, and Victoria Music, all of which are managing to stay in business and cater to “old school” customers like me who appreciate a well-stocked shop that is run by people who are passionate about what they are doing. Hey, all of this online crap is fun and shiny and oh-so-easy, but don’t forget about the brick and mortar shops that remain the foundation of the music and book business. They need your support now more than ever!


Bangkok Survives!


Those of us living in Bangkok were both shocked and saddened by the bomb explosion at the famous Erawan Shrine on Monday evening. Then again, in this volatile day and age, such violence can seemingly happen anywhere at any time, and you can’t really say it was unexpected. As a friend in France wrote to me this morning, “we had the same in Paris many times.”

While many people in Thailand have become almost desensitized to the rash of bombings and killings in the country’s “Deep South” provinces in the past decade (an ongoing horror that seems to never end), having such destruction happen here in the capitol is a different story. Nevertheless, it appears as if the majority of Bangkok residents are going about their lives as normal, refusing to let fear win the day.


Despite the Erawan bomb this week, as well as the uncertainty and sometimes troubling aspects of living under the current military government, life in Bangkok is still a pleasure. It’s like a vintage Rod Stewart album: Never a Dull Moment! Of course the people are a delight, the weather is wonderful (some people may disagree, but I LOVE hot weather!), the choice of food is heavenly, and the cost of living remains relatively low (again, some people living in the high-rent districts may defer). The city can be chaotic and crazy, but it also exudes an additive energy and unbridled spirit that can infect the most hardened of people. This city has soul!

Yesterday morning I witnessed one of those random acts of kindness that makes you smile. A young Thai woman walking down the sidewalk unknowingly dropped a 1000-baht bank note. In her wake, a Thai man picked up the money and — weaving through the obstacle course throng of iPhone-clutching pedestrians — gave the money back to the woman, who looked both shocked and pleased by the gesture.


Yes, throughout it all, Bangkok keeps on keeping on. Hell yes, we’ll survive!

Scraps of a Journey


It was another week of work and rain and work and heat and more work. I feel exhausted every day. No time to give great thought to what I can post on this blog, but I wanted to do something, so here are some photos from my last trip to Myanmar, scraps from the journey; people, places, things, and signs.





















Saturday in the Park with Monks & Monkeys


Today is part two of the “Monks in the Park” series, once again from the Eastern Amusement Park in Taunggyi. One very nice thing about going to the park this time; the park management waived the admission charge for all of the novice monks! I suppose this is standard policy, but it was nevertheless a nice surprise and a treat to my travel budget. I only had to pay for my ticket, plus admission for the six teachers. Not that was a bargain!





With nearly 50 kids in tow, keeping them all together turned out to be nearly an impossible task. The park is actually pretty big in size, with lots of rides, weird statues and silly objects, flowers and gardens, fountains and pools, a variety of caged animals, and a swinging bridge; all of which serve as distractions and points of interest.






At the monkey cage we had a bit of a scare. One of the tiniest novice monks wandered too close to the bars, and a very nasty monkey grabbed the kid’s robe and yanked it off him! The money hopped around, baring his teeth, and waving the red robe around, looking more agitated than triumphant. Meanwhile, the poor little monk looked totally petrified. Luckily, a zookeeper promptly arrived, entered the cage, threatened the monkey with a stick, and retrieved the robe. Nevertheless, many of the monks remained gathered around the cage, fascinated by the antics of the monkeys.






As usual, not only did the kids have a great time running around and acting silly, not to mention insisting that I take LOTS of photos, they took the opportunity to eat as much as they could too. Monks, even young novice monks, cannot eat any meals after midday (12:00), but that rule doesn’t stop them from snacking when the chance arises. Packaged snacks, fresh fruits, nuts, candy; they consumed it all! And also, as usual, on the trip back to the village, most of the monks, exhausted from a day of sightseeing and play, slept soundly on the floor of the truck!













Monks Just Wanna Have Fun!


I took so many photos of the novice monks from Tat Ein monastery during our trip to Kakku and Taunggyi back in June that I’ve had to divide them into separate posts. Today is the first part of what I call the “Monks in the Park” series; photographs taken of the novice monks when we visited the Eastern Amusement Park in Taunggyi. The park includes gardens, a small zoo, and a game room, and this year they have added a swimming pool and a bunch of new playground rides. It’s bigger and better than ever!




As you can see from these photos, the boys had a blast at the park. It was a nice break from their normal daily routine of studying and chanting Pali scripture. And for me, it was a joy to see them all cutting loose and having fun. Some of us jaded Westerners have forgotten the joy of simple things like swing sets, merry-go-round, see-saws, and carousels. But remember, these kids all come from rural villages in Shan State and have never visited shopping malls or used an escalator, much less visited a game room, so even something as relatively commonplace as a playground is a revelation to them.





Strewn around the park are also a bunch of statues, both of Burmese folk legends and much sillier fare such as the Smurfs and figures of the Flintstones! In addition to that lot, there is a Justin Bieber karaoke room, plus some horse figures and stationary motorcycles to “ride”. Get your motor running; the monks were thrilled!



















New Breed of Book Shoppers

At my bookshop I’ve noticed a new breed of shopper in the past couple of years. Clearly, there is a generational divide among customers nowadays.


The older customers will sometimes consult hand-written or printed notes to assist with their book buying, while the younger generation almost always prefers using their phones. I see these young customers (mostly those under 30) wandering down the aisles, clutching their smart phones and staring at the screen, looking up occasionally to peruse the bookshelves. The odd thing about these smart phone users, however, is that a high percentage of them seem to have no idea how to actually find a book on the shelves! Give them a smart phone or sit them in front of a computer and they can surf and click and download with ease. But ask them to find a book in a well-organized shop and they are lost.


It’s sad — well, actually, it’s fairly comical sometimes — to watch these people stare helplessly at the bookshelves as they try and find the image the matches that on their screen. They ask things like “Do you have this book?” — thrusting the phone in my face — or “Do you have anything by Paulo Coelho?” In most cases, we’ll reply “Yes, it’s right there in front of you”, or “Yes, it’s filed under the letter “C”. That only puzzles them further, so we end up having to walk them over and pull the book out for them. Not all shoppers are this clueless. Most older customers, those who have been buying books for decades, seem to have no problems finding what they want and will rarely require assistance, but it’s become increasingly obvious that navigating a brick and mortar store is a challenge for many younger ones.


What the hell? Is it really that difficult? Honestly, I’m totally puzzled by these befuddled smart phone shoppers. I keep my shop very well organized, filing the books alphabetically by the author’s last name, and allotting separate sections for various genres of fiction and non-fiction. It’s not like there is no rhyme or reason to the system. Maybe the section dividing gets confusing for some shoppers, but surely not the alphabet? Then again, you go into some Thai-operated shops and they are either totally disorganized or they will file the book by the author’s first name instead of their last!


But hey, at least these people are actually looking for books and buying books, as opposed to downloading digital copies online. So for that, I am grateful. Nevertheless, there still exist the troublesome cousins of the smart phone users, the laptop cretins. While the smart phone shoppers can be amusing, the ones that bring laptops into the shop and sit for hours — yes, 3 or 4 hours at a time is not uncommon! —- while nursing a single cup of coffee and hogging precious seating space, are the ones that are infuriating. These slugs sit there and tap away on their laptops —- working, studying, playing, who knows what they are doing — believing that that they are entitled to do whatever they want for as long as they want, oblivious to the fact that they are monopolizing the only table in my shop. Lately, I’ve run very short on patience and I’ve resorted to telling the laptop squatters that we are a bookshop and not a public library, so we cannot accommodate — or tolerate — people that want to hang out and kill time for hours. In other words, hit the road!


Despite my increasing annoyance with some of the people frequenting my bookshop, most days are blissful. The majority of the customers are a pleasure to have; interesting, delightful, and polite people, curious about the world and wanting to learn more — and read more — about things. As long as the nice people outnumber the creepy ones, I’ll look forward to opening the shop each day.

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