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

Archive for April, 2016

The Long and Winding Emitt Rhodes


I was playing the new Emitt Rhodes album, Rainbow Ends, in my bookshop last week and a female customer asked me what was playing. When I told her that it was Emitt Rhodes, the predictable response was: “I never heard of him before!” Such a reaction is not surprising. Emitt Rhodes is hardly a household name and this album is the first thing he’s recorded in over forty years. You heard that right: the last time Emitt Rhodes released an album was back in 1973!


Rhodes started his musical career as a teenager, forming a fantastic band called the Merry-Go-Round. After that band disbanded in 1969, Rhodes recorded a self-titled debut album in 1970, one that ranks with the finest recordings of that decade. Rhodes songs exuded a classic shimmering pop sensibility, sounding very McCartney-esque at times. After two more very impressive solo albums, Rhodes released Farewell To Paradise in 1973 and then … nothing more. His reputation as one of the finest singer-songwriters of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s only increased over the years, but Rhodes himself became somewhat of a musical recluse.


But thanks to the encouragement of producer Chris Price, Rhodes — who had never stopped writing songs over the years — was inspired to go back into the studio last year, and the result is the wonderful Rainbow Ends. Backed by devoted fans such as Aimee Mann and members of the Bangles, Jellyfish, and Wilco, Rhodes sounds sharp and assured on these new songs. No, it’s not the best thing he’s ever done, but the album has a couple of songs that certainly do rank with the best of his early output. Welcome back, Emitt Rhodes, and don’t wait so long for the next album!


In addition to Emitt Rhodes, here are the other CDs that I’ve been playing repeatedly in recent weeks. Cool music to combat the intense heatwave we are experiencing in Thailand lately. I like warm weather and have lived in hot climates (Florida, Thailand, Cambodia) all of my life, but the heat and humidity this past month has truly been uncomfortable. Bring on the rains!



Carl Carlton – The Best of Carl Carlton

Considered by many critics as a one-hit wonder (or maybe a two-hit wonder: both “Everlasting Love” and “She’s a Bad Mama Jama” charted) this compilation shows that Carl Carlton had a much deeper reservoir of quality songs than you would imagine. His late ‘60s and early ‘70s material is particularly impressive.


Deerhunter – Fading Frontier

Carole King – The Legendary Demos

Chris Stapleton – Traveller

Various Artists – Kent’s Cellar of Soul: Volume 2



Cait Brennan – Debutante

This talented singer-songwriter makes her recording debut in her mid-forties with an outstanding set of songs: pure pop-rock with hooks galore, much in the vein of artists such as Badfinger and Todd Rundgren. As great as this album is, I was somewhat puzzled by the vocals: Brennan sounded like a man! But after doing some online reading, I discovered that Brennan is a trans-woman, thus the deeper timbre of her vocals. But the bottom line: these are terrific songs, the sort that will stick in your head for days.


Nada Surf – You Know Who You Are

Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers (Deluxe Edition)

Various Artists – Happy Lovin’ Time: Sunshine Pop From the Garpax Vaults

Beachwood Sparks – Beachwood Sparks



Omar Souleyman – Bahdeni Nami

This popular Syrian wedding singer has recently found an international audience thanks to dance remixes of some of his very vibrant music. Indeed, this new collection of songs could be the dance album of the year. Play this at a high decibel level and then let your body do the rest. I guarantee you will NOT sit still. Exotic grooves galore!


Gary Bartz – I’ve Known Rivers

Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Style

Spirogyra – St. Radigunds

Curtis Mayfield – Live in Europe



Gospelbeach – Pacific Surf Line

Boasting a talented lineup that includes Neal Casal and members of Beachwood Sparks, this is a breezy, feel-good collection of songs, not unlike those of other semi-supergroups such as Golden Smog or the Minus Five. The song “Sunshine Skyway” will strike a chord with anyone who has spent time on the West Coast of Florida.


P.F. Sloan – Here’s Where I Belong: The Best of the Dunhill Years

Kurt Vile – B’lieve I’m Goin Down

Various Artists – Pain Goes Deep: More Deep Soul Gems

The Beginning of the End – Funky Nassau



The O’Jays – Survival

The O’Jays were one of the more popular soul vocal groups in the 1970s, enjoying a long run of hit singles. Digging deeper beneath the radio hits, however, their albums all consisted of very strong songs. Survival is another truly great album with many socially conscious songs and those distinctive vocals, in the same vein as other classic O’Jays albums such as Ship Ahoy, Back Stabbers, and Family Reunion.


Bob Welch – Three Hearts

Kimberley Rew – Healing Broadway

Beach House – Thank Your Lucky Stars

Rezillos – Can’t Stand the Rezillos: The (Almost) Complete Rezillos



Junior Murvin – Police & Thieves (Deluxe Edition)

This 1970s reggae classic, produced by the legendary Lee Perry, has been repackaged as a 2-CD deluxe condition, complete with remixes, dub versions, and unreleased material. Many listeners know the version of Police & Thieves that the Clash recorded, but Murvin’s original is still the best. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg on this truly excellent album.


Bill Evans – The Definitive Bill Evans on Riverside and Fantasy

Papa Wemba – Emotion

David Porter – Gritty, Groovy & Gettin’ It

The Disciplines – Smoking Kills



Sam Dees – The Heritage of a Black Man

Dees was one of the finest and most underrated songwriters of the 1970s and 1980s, and also an excellent vocalist in his own right. This compilation from Kent and Ace Records collects some demos and unreleased recordings he had in the vault. Essential soul music!


Smithereens – From Jersey It Came: The Smithereens Anthology

Gene Clark – The Complete Ebbets Field Broadcast

Elton John – Wonderful Crazy Night

Crack the Sky – Live at Recher Theatre



Bembeya Jazz National – The Syliphone Years

Hailing from the West African country of Guinea, Bembeya Jazz National produced a bunch of terrific records during 1960s and 1970s. This 2-CD set covers the years 1967-1977. The music is somewhat similar to the great Congolese music of the same period, combining Cuban and African sounds, reminiscent of Franco and Tabu Ley.


Jesse Malin – The Fine Art of Self Destruction

Sutherland Brothers & Quiver – The Very Best of

The Main Ingredient – L.T.D./Black Seeds

The Ides of March – Vehicle


People Power: School Projects in Myanmar


I recently had dinner in Bangkok with Bernard from the Scintallae Foundation, a charitable organization based in Switzerland. He had just returned from Myanmar, where he has several ongoing projects. This foundation does some very admirable work in developing countries, primarily helping to build or refurbish schools for children and adolescents in communities where education opportunities are lacking. One of the main countries that they focus on is Myanmar, where they have projects in or near Bagan, Chin State, Yenangyang, and Bago.


Bernard and I have several mutual friends in Myanmar, including Win Thuya and his wife Htar Htar, who run Myanmar Mosaic Travel in Yangon, and Ma Pu Sue, who runs the Bamboo Delight Cooking Class in Nyaungshwe. The common denominator that links these fine people is a desire to give back to their communities and improve the way of life for the locals, especially young students.



The Scintallae Foundation’s very newest project is a so-called “Bottle School” in a village near Bagan. Bernard and Thuya were there last month helping to get the project off the ground … literally. The main objective behind the project is to raise awareness among the local people about the damage caused by plastic waste, and to offer them resources to combat this problem, all while improving the level of education in the village. For the construction of the school traditional material such as wood, iron, and concrete are used. But in addition to that, they have developed an ingenious system of recycling plastic bottles and other types of plastic waste instead of using bricks for the building’s walls. This system was developed by a non-profit NGO, operating primarily in Central and South America, called  They work with a sister organization called, who are also offering technical support to the Myanmar project. For this Bagan area school, the Bagan Plastic Campaign was also an important participant.


I’m really proud of the work that Bernard and his organization are doing in Myanmar. And it’s also gratifying to seeing a young business owner such as Win Thuya devoting so much of his time and energy (besides running the travel agency, he works at the French Embassy in Yangon, and helps to oversee the Kuthodaw public library he started in Bagan — a busy man!) to helping coordinate these projects. But above all, it’s very exciting to see these schools being built in rural areas that didn’t have them previously. This is true people power!



Mandalay Calling!


Whenever I return from a trip to Myanmar I am often asked about the situation in the country, specifically what has changed lately. Most everyone is aware of the new government that was formed this month by Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD (National League for Democracy) party, and that’s obviously a big change, and one that hopefully will be a harbinger of many positive changes in the country.


But the biggest change, by far, that I’ve noticed in Myanmar over the last two years has been the explosion in mobile phone usage. In previous years, both the cost of phones and SIM cards was so high that it made their use prohibitive for most of the population. But thanks to new government regulations and the entry of two foreign telecom companies —- Oredoo and Telenor — the price of both phones and especially SIM cards has dropped considerably, enabling millions of people in Myanmar to use phone services and social media. And they are doing it in droves!


With these recent developments, many of my friends in Myanmar now have phones as well as access to a variety of apps, the Internet, and social networking sites such as Facebook. It’s been amazing for me to witness this sudden revolution in a country where even an old-fashioned mobile phone was a rarity five years ago. The free Line texting app is very popular in both Thailand and Myanmar, so that’s making communication very easy for me and my friends. Whenever I hear a beep on my phone nowadays, I’ll think: it’s Mandalay calling — and most of the time that’s the case. It might by Mr. Htoo, also known as Htoo Htoo, a local jack-of-all-trades who mostly works as a motorbike taxi driver in Central Mandalay (just down the block from the Nylon ice cream shop!). Or it could be some of the kids from 90th Street in Mandalay. This week I heard from Baw Ga, Ye Man Oo, and Khang Khant Kyaw. Where, I wondered, were Ye Thu Lwin and Ye Win Zaw? Checking in from Bagan was Nine Nine, telling me about a cool new singer he thought I’d like. In Nyaungshwe I can quickly contact with Ma Pu Sue, or from the hinterlands of Muse, Yan Naing Soe has also been sending me messages. I’m just waiting for the day when I get a call from a monk in the village. And honestly, I imagine that day is not too far in the distant future.


And it’s not just text messages; with Line you can also make free phone calls — and even video calls! Some days I feel like Dick Tracy with a high-tech wrist watch. Honestly, the stuff amazes me. As a result of this app, I’ll often get calls from Yan Naing Soe, Ye Man Oo (who has the best English skills of the bunch), or even Kyaw Myo Tun, a waiter at Aye Myit Tar restaurant in Mandalay. Yeah, some days the connection sucks and it’s almost impossible to hear clearly, but on a good day — or night – when the lines are clear, it’s like magic.


This week has produced a flurry of messages from the Mandalay crew especially, all of them excited about the annual water festival this week. If it’s been as hot there as it’s been in Bangkok lately — and this week has been a scorcher — they are all going to be soaking up as much water as possible. Happy New Year!


Family & Friends in Cambodia


Cambodia boasts many interesting things to see and do. There are the many spectacular old temples — the magnificent ruins at the Angkor complex being the most famous, but that’s only a fraction of what exists — and beautiful natural wonders, from lakes and rivers to caves and mountains. But the reason I keep going back there so often is because of the people. Much like the qualities that endear me to the people in Myanmar, the Cambodians I know are kind, considerate, and unfailingly polite.


During my recent trip to Siem Reap, my friend Chamrong met me at the airport and drove me to my guesthouse. He also works at the airport, but he took the day off in order to greet me and take me around, which I greatly appreciated. The four Try brothers took the bus from Kandal province (near Phnom Penh) to see me, and another friend, So Pengthay, managed to meet me a few times during my stay, which wasn’t easy due to his tour guides duties. A big group one day, a couple of more tourists the next day; he was constantly having to go somewhere.


On the one day that he didn’t have any clients, Thay invited me to the new house he is having built, not far from Psah Leu market. He and his wife just celebrated the birth of their third child the week before, so they are definitely going to need the extra space for the growing family. Plus, it’s getting mighty congested — and noisy — living with the in-laws, so this new home will be most welcome in other ways too.


The ground floor is already finished, but Thay is waiting until the end of rainy season — as well as another infusion of money from summer tourist business — to finish the second floor of the house. Meanwhile, he’s already installed kitchen appliances and a wide screen TV, so the house is pretty much read to live in. While Thay showed me around the house and talked about the changes in Siem Reap, his young son was busy doing some impromptu “landscaping” with rocks he found in the yard,.



I’m enormously proud of what Thay has done in the past twelve years. This is a young man who came from a very poor rural village and has made something of himself in Siem Reap. After working for me at my bookshop in Siem Reap, Thay passed an exam and became a licensed tour guide at Angkor, and now he’s busy all year. He’s also been able to travel to other countries; one company invited him to a training conference in the United States a few years ago, and they have also sent him on tour to Thailand several times. He still hasn’t had time to visit my bookshop in Bangkok, but I’m hoping that will happen later this year.



With the house almost finished, his next goal is getting his children enrolled in international schools, believing that they need to learn English language skills at an early age. Another good idea!




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