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

Archive for June, 2016

Let Us Praise Guy Clark!

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The casualties in the music world continue unabated this year, with the deaths of Prince and Merle Haggard being among the most recent high-profile losses. But one death that many people missed — or perhaps one that didn’t ring a bell with the masses — and the one that saddened me the most, was that of Guy Clark on May 17.

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Okay, Guy Clark was far from a household name. But in certain circles of the music world (country, or “outlaw country”, folk music) Guy Clark was a legend, both a songwriting genius and an exceptional singer-songwriter in his own right. He hailed from Texas, running in the same musical circles as Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Willie Nelson. I first heard Guy Clark on an episode on Austin City Limits back in the late 1970s and was instantly smitten. I went out and bought his debut album from 1975, Old No. 1. That album featured classics such as “L.A. Freeway” (a song that was a hit for Jerry Jeff Walker), “Desperados Waiting for a Train”, “Rita Ballou” and other gems. Truly, that ranks as one of my favorite albums of all time. His following album in 1976, Texas Cookin’ was just as great, packed with more wonderful songs that other songwriters could only envy, or at least record their own cover versions.

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After those two albums for RCA, Guy Clark switched labels and started recording for Asylum Records. The next three albums (1978-1983) weren’t quite as strong as his first two sets (hey, it would be almost impossible to top those two gems!), but they still boasted classic songs such as “Homegrown Tomatoes”, “Randall Knife”, and “New Cut Road.” After leaving the major labels behind, Clark recorded a consistently good to great series of albums for independent labels in the 1990s and 2000s. His final album, 2013’s My Favorite Picture of You,” was a tribute of sorts to his late wife Susanna (who passed away in 2012) and ranks among his very best efforts. A truly moving collection of songs. Then again, you would expect no less from someone like Guy Clark. His style was far from the cartoonish, sappy country music that so often tops the charts. Instead his songs shone with honesty, emotion, and intelligence. Cerebral country?

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For a sample of how engaging he was in concert, check out Together at the Bluebird Café, a 1995 show held to benefit a dental clinic in Nashville that he recorded with Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle. The set featured tender love songs, emotionally powerful tunes, and plenty of humor (thanks to some very entertaining “tales” the musicians told between songs); hallmarks of Guy Clark’s songwriting. For another fascinating look at the early years of Guy Clark, look for Heartworn Highways, which is both an acclaimed documentary (much of the footage recorded during live jams in Clark’s home) and a live album featuring Clark and the other musicians.

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Another “must listen” is an album of other artists performing Guy Clark songs, This One’s For Him: A Tribute To Guy Clark. Among the participants on this musical love-fest from 2011 are Willie Nelson, Rosanne Cash, Lyle Lovett, Rodney Crowell, Shawn Colvin, Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Steve Earle, Kris Kristofferson, Patty Griffin, Radney Foster, Jerry Jeff Walker, and many more. It’s a 2-CD set, so rest assured that there are plenty of great songs to he heard.

 

Meanwhile, here are the other CDs soothing my soul and getting heavy play at my home and bookshop recently:

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The Jayhawks – Paging Mr. Proust

Hank Thompson – Vintage Collection

Eleanor Friedberger – New View

Jimmy Buffett – Coconut Telegraph

Pete Yorn – Arranging Time

 

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Dexter Story – Wondem

The O’Jays – Family Reunion

Cannonball Adderley Quintet – Pyramid

Cheap Trick – Bang Zoom Crazy Hello

Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression

 

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Various Artists – Angola 2: 1969-1976

Fleetwood Mac – Tango in the Night

Hank Crawford – Down on the Deuce

Jim Lauderdale – Soul Searching

Black Uhuru – Sinsemilla

 

 

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Various Artists – Dave Hamilton’s Detroit Soul Vol. 2

Little Barrie – King of the Waves

Johnny Hammond Smith – Legends of Acid Jazz

Cornel Campbell – Original Blue Recordings 1970-1976

Nektar – Sunday Night at London Roundhouse

 

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The I Don’t Cares (Paul Westerberg & Juliana Hatfield) – Wild Stab

Various Artists – Another Late Night: Kid Loco

Little Beaver – When Was the Last Time

Lee Michaels – Highty Hi: The Best Of

The Bats – Volume 1 (3-CD set)

 

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The Counts – It’s What’s In the Groove

Commodores – Live

The Toure-Raichel Collective – The Paris Sessions

The Posies – Solid State

Paul Simon – Stranger To Stranger

 

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Various Artists – Harmony of the Soul: Vocal Groups 1962-1975

Waco Brothers – Electric Waco Chair

Dungen – Allas Sak

Tracey Thorn – Solid: Songs and Collaborations 1982-2015

Leon Bridges – Coming Home

 

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Specials – More Specials (2-CD Special Edition)

Harpers Bizarre – The Complete Singles Collection

Lana Del Rey – Honeymoon

American Music Club – Love Songs for Patriots

David Bowie – Blackstar

 

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Chinlone Books in Nyaungshwe

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It’s official; the town of Nyaungshwe in Myanmar’s Shan State now has a proper secondhand bookshop, that being the newly re-stocked and re-named Chinlone Books.

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Known as “the gateway to Inle Lake,” Nyaungshwe has long been a popular place for tourists to stay when visiting the famous lake. Due to its laidback atmosphere, proximity to hill tribe villages, and general beauty, Nyaungshwe has ecame one of those places where tourists end up spending more time than they had originally planned. And if you have time to spare, why not read a book … or three!

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Mar Mar Aye and her husband actually had been selling used books in their little travel services shop in Nyaungshwe for several years, but the stock never really grew much.  About two years ago the couple separated and the husband went away, only to come back briefly last year for a few months before leaving for good earlier this year. But when he left this time he also took the remaining stock of books and bookshelves — plus a few of the bicycles that they rented to tourists — with him. This of course left Mar Mar Aye with practically nothing, expect for a few photocopied books with various Burmese and Myanmar themes that she had bought from a dealer in Bagan.

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When I visited Nyaungshwe in May I was shocked to see the dearth of books in her shop. “Can you bring me some books the next time you come?” she asked me. Well, I thought, that’s no problem, but maybe I can do better than that. I’d been thinking about the possibility of opening a small bookshop in Myanmar, and had my eye on Nyaungshwe in particular. I have access to plenty of books and Mar Mar Aye has a great location right on the main street in town, so why not combine forces with her?

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We talked things over and came up with a plan. I had several hundred books in storage at Ye Man Oo’s house in Mandalay and I decided to send a portion of those books to her when I returned to Mandalay. Next step was getting some new bookshelves made, put up a new sign, and rebrand the shop as Chinlone Books. For more on the shop see our new website:

http://www.chinlonebooks.com/

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Unfortunately, one of the signs that she had made had a spelling mistake (instead of saying that we were “the only place in Nyaungshwe” with books, the sign said “the only palace … ”), so that will have to be changed, but everything else is proceeding according to plan. We still need to add a few hundred more books to the stock and reorganize the shelves, a project that Ye Man Oo will help me with next month. We also plan to print up some T-shirts (boasting a very cool logo designed by Ye Man Oo!) and sell those in the shop too. Hopefully, this will be the start of a fantastic bookshop.

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Meanwhile, Mar Mar Aye is also devoting plenty of energy to her main business, Aye Aye Travel Services. She’s up at the crack of dawn each day, cooking and cleaning, before opening the shop. She still rents bicycles and sells tickets for boat trips on Inle Lake or canoe trips on the town’s canals (highly recommended!), in addition to arranging treks to villages nearby and further away. She also provides a laundry service and can arrange a massage in your hotel or in an upstairs room. Needless to say, she is one very busy woman!

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Chinlone Books is located in the same building as Mar Mar Aye’s other business, now known as Aye Aye Travel Services. The shop is located on Yone Gyi Road, next to the Indra Indian restaurant and the One Own Grill. It’s directly across the street from an old monastery (Yangon Kyaung) and one block from Myawaddy Road and the Golden Kite restaurant. The bookshop is open daily.

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Please spread the word about our bookshop and come and visit us if you are in Nyaungshwe or the Inle Lake area. And keep reading!

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Paleik rhymes with Snake!

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A little further down the road to Mandalay — it’s about a 45-minute drive — is the hamlet of Paleik, famous for its “Snake Pagoda.” And true to its name, there are indeed some snakes in residence at this old pagoda. And large ones they are; two rather lengthy Burmese pythons. If you had heard there were three snakes, well there were, but one of them passed away a year or so ago.

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Paleik has always been one of my favorite spots to visit when I’m in Mandalay. The biggest draw is the bizarre daily ritual at the pagoda, where the snakes are bathed and fed, and then escorted to a platform where tourists can take their photo holding one of the long, slippery creatures. That whole spectacle is pretty cool, but the bigger attraction for me is the grove of ancient stupas that can found a few hundred yards behind the pagoda. The site is very atmospheric and tranquil, without hordes of tour groups trampling about and getting in your way.

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I hadn’t been to Paleik in about five years and expressed an interest in going back, so my friend Ye Man Oo talked his father into taking us there one morning, along with one of his cousins. Expect for the young cousin — who apparently wasn’t used to riding in motor vehicles —- spewing the contents of his morning bowl of noodles on the floor of the pickup truck when we rounded a curve, it was a pleasant drive. We got there too late for the morning snake-bathing ritual, but we still got to see both snakes slithering around the grounds and curling around the Buddha figure where they usually stay.

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As for the nearby ruins, some of the stupas look like they have been refurbished since my last visit, which was somewhat of a disappointment. I prefer my ruins looking old — the more crumbling and dilapidated the better — and am not too keen on seeing shiny new versions of ancient structures. Nevertheless, it’s still a nice place to walk around and soak up the tranquil atmosphere, something that’s getting increasingly harder to find with the rising number of tourists visiting Myanmar.

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Marionettes at the Temple

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Touring the ancient temples in Bagan with the novice monks from Tat Ein village was a very memorable experience, both for the sights themselves and the monks’ reaction to it all. None of these youngsters have ever been to Bagan before so they were quite excited to see these historic places. But of all the temples we visited and things we saw I think the little grove of Burmese style marionettes and puppets was what interested the novice monks the most.

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These marionettes were hanging from tree branches just outside one of the large temples in Old Bagan. Don’t ask me to tell you which temple it was because I wasn’t paying enough attention at the time to remember. Hey, blame it on the heat! At first I thought maybe some enterprising vendor was selling the marionettes, but no, they were just out there for decoration.

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In any case, there were hundreds of these cute, colorful marionettes hanging from the tree branches, and the monks were utterly fascinated by it all. The monks were either taking photos of the marionettes with their cell phone cameras or asking me to take some shots of them posing with a marionette of their choice.

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Beating the Heat in Bagan

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The road trip with the monks from Tat Ein village was lots of fun, but we had to contend with extremely hot weather once we were in the Bagan area. Temperatures surpassed forty degrees Celsius each day, hitting 43-44 at times (that’s about 110 degrees Fahrenheit!), which was not very conducive to traipsing around in the great outdoors. Many times we would reach a sacred site that required taking off our shoes, and if the entrance had a stone or concrete surface, it was so blisteringly hot that we had to practically race to get inside.

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My longtime friend in Bagan, Nine Nine, tagged along with us and proved to be a great help in recommending “cooler” destinations to see during the more scorching times of the day. Thus, we spent a lot of time wandering around indoors, looking at murals and wall paintings, or interior Buddha images. At one temple, they provided huge electric fans that blew a cooling mist over you, something that the novice monks found fascinating and comforting.

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We brought along two huge water dispensers for each truck, but they were mounted on the outside of each vehicle and by midday the water was almost too hot to drink, so I ended up buying more bottled water for the crew several times each day. I certainly didn’t want any of them to faint from heatstroke, and luckily nothing like that happened. But the oppressive heat certainly did slow those rambunctious youngsters down a bit!

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Mount Popa summit: Monks & Monkeys Meet!

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For the past several years I’ve been taking groups of children — including novice monks — from Tat Ein village, near Nyaungshwe in Myanmar’s Shan State, on field trips to places and festivals in the area. They are a well-behaved, appreciative bunch of kids and I always enjoy these outings.

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When I was in the village late last year, one of the teachers told me that the novice monks wanted to visit Bagan next time. Would I be able to take them, she asked? Bagan is one of the most famous destinations in Myanmar, home to an estimated three-thousand ancient Buddhist temples. The only problem is that Bagan is a bit far away from Nyaungshwe, about 7-8 hours by car, so an excursion there would have to be a multi-day trip.

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Well, we ended up doing it; a three-day trip, there and back. I rented two trucks, which was enough for about fifty passengers. We had thirty-plus monks — both novice monks and a few senior monks, one of the teachers from the village, a couple of high school girls, one of the village elders, two drivers, and a one befuddled foreigner. The perfect group!

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Before reaching Bagan, we stopped at Mt. Popa, an extinct volcano that is now a major tourist attraction and Buddhist pilgrimage sight. Mt. Popa is home to dozens of nat shrines (a nat is considered a spirit of sorts, and believed by some to possess powers) along with some sacred Buddhist shrines. Visitors can walk up a covered stairway to the top of the mountain (more of a big hill, actually) and enjoy some fantastic views, all while trying to maneuver the obstacle course of frisky monkeys that dart up and down the stairs and from the rafters overhead. Literally, there are monkeys everywhere, most of them looking for food, packets of which are conveniently being sold by vendors everywhere you turn. Some of the more bold monkeys will literally reach into your pocket if they see something edible or colorful!

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If it’s not the monkey food vendors, it’s the flower vendors that will get you. All devout Buddhists will feel the need to buy some flowers for one of the shrines, so those vendors end up doing a brisk business too. The those monkeys must also work up a thirst running up and down those stairs, I noticed more than one of them sipping a soft drink!

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Well, the monks had a great time interacting with the monkeys and seeing the sights. Miraculously, I saw more than a handful of the youngsters produce smart phones from under their robes and snap a few photos. Where did those phones come from?!

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Orlando to Bangkok to Mandalay

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Where have the last two months gone? It’s been almost that long since I posted anything on this blog. During that time I’ve taken a trip to Myanmar and returned to Bangkok, hosted a friend from Mandalay, and worked myself into a stupor at my bookshop. Then came along this past weekend when news came of a singer being shot to death in my hometown of Orlando, Florida, and less than a day later another news flash about dozens of people killed at a gay nightclub in Orlando (initially, I was confused, believing that both incidents were linked). As of this writing, there are 49 people confirmed killed and nearly that many more injured or hospitalized. This happened in Orlando? The sleepy town we used to jokingly call “Bore-Lando. The mind boggles. Honestly, I can’t fathom such a horrific crime — they are calling it the worst mass murder in US history – occurring in my placid hometown back in Central Florida. But that only goes to show you that such madness can occur anytime and anywhere. But maybe more so in the gun-crazy environs of the USA.

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There have been many insightful, eloquent, and thoughtful articles and blog posts already written about the Orlando incident, that I can’t think of much more to say. All I can add is that I hope everyone in Orlando, and in gay clubs, straight clubs, and clubs catering to every musical and ethnic persuasion, remain open and do a booming business this week. Don’t let the lunatic fuckers intimidate you and prevent you from enjoying yourself and being around people you care about. Fight the power. Fight the insanity. And keep on dancing, dammit!

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Meanwhile, there was my trip. I’ll try and post some more photos from that trip in the coming weeks, but honestly, work has been so time-consuming in recent months that I’m not sure how much time I can devote to posting articles and photos. But, as usual, I had a very memorable time in Myanmar and there are some pretty cool tales to tell and fun shots to share.

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After spending two weeks in Myanmar — the  highlight of which was taking those irrepressible novice monks from Shan State’s Tat Ein village on a 3-day road trip to the ruins of Bagan — I returned to Bangkok … but not alone. Accompanying me on the flight home was my friend Ye Man Oo from Mandalay, taking his first trip out of Myanmar, not to mention his first time on an airplane. For the past couple of years he has been talking about how his dream was to come to Bangkok and see my bookshop. Well, defying all obstacles, we made that dream come true. More about his trip in a future post, but the two weeks he spent with me in Bangkok was an incredible experience — for both of us. Having him around constantly was a bit tiring — exhausting might be more accurate! — but his upbeat nature and boundless enthusiasm was contagious and by the time I took him back to the airport I was very sad to see him depart. But hey, there’s always a next time, and Ye Man Oo is already trying to convince his parents that he needs to make a return trip this summer. And frankly, he was so helpful at my bookshop every day that we would be thrilled to have him back again.

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