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

Archive for September, 2015

It Takes Two!

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It was one of those accidental incidents of musical convergence, the stars aligning, or something else implausibly silly. Earlier in the week I was listening to a compilation CD that included the 1988 classic “It Takes Two” by Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock, which has been hailed as one of the greatest rap/hip-hop songs of all-time. I don’t listen to much hip-hop at all, but that tune is addictively catchy. Like many creations of that genre, it sampled an older song, in this case “Think (About It)” by Lyn Collins from 1972. That’s an oldie that many people have never heard before, but I was playing that song on yet another compilation CD that I have, James Brown’s Original Funky Divas, earlier this week too.

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That phrase “It Takes Two,” motivated me to post these paired photos today. Yes, here are more photos from my recent trip to Myanmar, and this time all with two people in the frame … or in one case, a boy and a dog! But two it is: classmates, fellow monks, relatives, or just plain friends.

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Vinyl Fever or Buyer Beware?

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There have been many articles in the media in the past year or so, heralding the return of the vinyl record album, a format that many people had long-thought dead, consigned to the dustbin of history, after the heralded arrival of the compact disc in the mid 1980s. But lo and behold, old record pressing machines are being salvaged and refurbished, cranked up and humming again, spitting out hot slabs of wax, and the sales of vinyl records are surging. Who woulda thunk it?

Legions of music lovers, especially those who consider themselves to be audiophiles, will proclaim passionately about how much more superior the sound of vinyl records is compared to that of CDs, or those lowly but prolific MP3 files. I don’t doubt that vinyl records sound better — or at least have more “warmth” and more dynamic range — than the other formats, but my ageing ears certainly can’t detect much difference, at least not enough to give a hoot. Then again, I never was one of those picky audiophile types that paid much attention to stereo separation and EQ levels, or whatever criteria is used to measure sound quality. Stereo or mono, vinyl or CD, boom box or high-end sound system, what matters to me is the quality of the music itself; the melody, the beat, the singer, the musicians, the lyrics, the whole package.

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Back in the United States, I worked in music stores (selling vinyl, cassettes, and CDs) — either as a clerk, manager, or eventually a store owner — for nearly twenty years, and then spent another two years working for Tower Records in Bangkok. I have great memories of the old vinyl era, both as a consumer and as a merchant. But personally, I don’t miss vinyl records one iota. Sound quality aside, with vinyl you always had to deal with a variety of nuisances, ranging from the possibility of warped records to defects such as pops, skips, and scratches. Records are fragile and they can break. Then are the issues of storage and mobility: records take up more space and they are heavier to haul around.

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Yes another factor that many people caught up in the current wave of vinyl fever forget is perhaps the most important one: the cost and availability of the record needle. Hey, you can’t play records without a working needle, right? And if you play those records with any sort of frequency you are eventually going to wear out your needle — depending on usage this can necessitate a replacement in a matter of months versus a year or longer — and will need to buy another one.

Okay, that brings up the cost of the needle. Obviously, the better quality of the turntable you have, the more the needle will cost. But wait a minute; can you even find the damn needle that you need? Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, we used have these reference books that would help us find the correct needle that customers needed. There were literally hundreds of different needles listed, and most were not compatible with other turntables. Finding the correct needle was sometimes a difficult task. Sometimes you had to wait until the replacement that you had to order would arrive. I can’t imagine the availability and compatibility of needles has suddenly gotten better. So what are these happy new turntable users doing? Are they playing their records sparingly or causing further damage to their precious vinyl by playing the records with a worn stylus?

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An additional twist to this vinyl renaissance is the cost of the records themselves. Man, they ain’t cheap! In a tactic that is typical of a greedy, clueless industry that grossly over-charged consumers for CDs for far too many years, the cost of vinyl records is now more than that of CDs. Colored vinyl! Limited Edition! More money! Honestly, it’s like these record companies have schemed up another new scam in a desperate attempt to rake in profits.

So no, I have no desire to return to those “glory days” of vinyl records. I’m quite satisfied with my burgeoning collection of compact discs, even if those too are becoming an endangered species in this era of file sharing and digitized downloads.

Here is an article on the subject of the vinyl resurgence that appeared in the New York Times this week:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/15/business/media/a-vinyl-lp-frenzy-brings-record-pressing-machines-back-to-life.html?ref=music

City Faces, Country Faces

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During my last trip to Myanmar I was spent most of the time in two places: the chaotically comfortable city of Mandalay, and the lovely and laid-back countryside environs of Nyaungshwe in Shan State. Whether I was in the city or in a village like Tat Ein — just down the bumpy dirt road from Nyaungshwe — there were always plenty of children wanting to have their photo taken.

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Having a camera isn’t such a novelty in these days of photo-equipped smart phones, but the kids know that when I make a return trip several months later, I’ll bring them all prints of the best shots, so that creates a demand. Plus, it’s fun for me too. Yeah, making hundreds of prints each time gets a bit expensive, but it’s worth it for the additional round of smiles that results!

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Through the Eyes of Novice Monks

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In a post last week I mentioned that the novice monks at the monastery in Shan State’s Tat Ein village will sometimes borrow my camera. Well, here today are some of the results from the most recent camera session that the monks conducted back in June.

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Once I turn the camera over to the monks, I never know what will happen, what they will take photos of, or where. The results can be wild and silly, and sometimes pretty darn impressive. But through it all, you can’t help but admire their enthusiasm and playfulness. Monks just wanna have fun!

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Giving Back to the Village

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Whenever I visit Myanmar, I spend a lot of my time in Shan State, specifically the little village of Tat Ein, just down the dusty (and at this time of year definitely muddy) road from Nyaungshwe, famous as being the “gateway” to scenic Inle Lake, one of the country’s most visited tourist spots.

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Over the past six years I’ve taught English classes at the village’s primary school, donated shoes and first-aid boxes and medicine, and taken the village kids and monks on field trips to places in the area such as the Pindaya caves, the annual balloon festival in Taunggyi, the Pa-O ruins at Kakku, and other places of interest. I also spend a lot of time at the village’s monastery, taking photos of the novice monks or handing over my camera and letting them take the shots. Good silly fun. Monks and students, parents and teachers; they are all a sincerely kind and friendly group of people, and I feel privileged to know them.

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My friend Ma Pu Sue lives in Nyaungshwe, where she works as a tour guide and runs the Bamboo Delight cooking class with her husband Lesly. She also makes frequent trips to the village, visiting her brother (who is a senior monk at the monastery) or making donations to the school and monastery. I value her opinion and listen to her suggestions. After getting to know some of the novice monks and students in the village, I wanted to do more for them, so I asked her what I could do to help some of them continue their education. Too often, many of these kids are forced to drop out of school at an early age — sometimes as soon as they have finished the fourth grade — because either the parents can’t afford to keep the child in school or they are needed to work and help earn money for the family.

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Sue talks with many of these students and novice monks (some days they walk by her house during their morning alms rounds). After I made by request to help, she asked some of the older students what they needed for school and came up with a list of items and how much it would cost. When I was in Nyaungshwe back in June I gave here some money for this “program” and last month I wired her another chunk of money to help top-off the fund. Diligent as always, Sue made the donation, bought the items needed, and presented them to U Sandimarr (the saya daw, or head monk, at the monastery) and the students themselves. She also sent me these photos of the recipients. Hopefully, this will be the start of a continuing program to help these kids stay in school.

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