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

I suppose it’s inevitable, given my own advancing age and the passage of time, but it seems as if every week I notice another musician that I like has passed away. Last week we lost Russell Smith, the lead singer of the Amazing Rhythm Aces. He was 70 years old

If you are one of those people of a certain age, like me, who cut their musical teeth in the 1960s and 1970s, you will recall the Amazing Rhythm Aces, especially their bit hit “Third Rate Romance.” But in addition to that tune the band had plenty of other great songs, and many fine albums too. Stacked Deck, the album that contained “Third Rate Romance”, was their best selling one, but my favorite was the follow-up effort, Too Stuffed To Jump, a terrific album that contained my very favorite song by the band, the majestic “The End is Not in Sight.” And my soul cries out for rest … and the end is not in sight. Beautiful stuff.

The description of the Amazing Rhythm Aces found on Wikipedia is an apt one:

“The band’s music is distinguished by its eclectic scope, literate and often quirky lyrics, and distinctive vocals by lead singer and songwriter Russell Smith.”

 

And eclectic they were. The band was often labeled as “Southern Rock” or “Country Rock”, but they effortlessly blended country with generous dollops of blues and soul, as well as touches of gospel and even reggae. And it all worked. Great musicians, and as noted in other reviews, Russell Smith was a helluva good singer. Not to mention an outstanding songwriter. After the breakup of the band he enjoyed many years of success writing hits for various other country acts. After the Aces called it quits (for the first time; they later reunited) in the early 1980s, Smith went solo and released several good albums, although in my opinion none of them captured the magic of the Amazing Rhythm Aces.

I had the privilege of seeing the Amazing Rhythm Aces in concert at the Great Southern Music Hall in Orlando, Florida back in the late 1970s. Man, they put on a fabulous and very energetic show. Smith himself was very personable and charming onstage. Honestly, I don’t think he and the band ever got the proper respect and attention they deserved. They were certainly much more than one-hit wonders.

 

After the breakup of the Aces, Smith also released another interesting side project in the early 1990s, called Run C&W (a tongue-in-cheek poke at the popular rap group Run DMC). Dubbed by one reviewer as a “parody bluegrass” group, Run C&W’s two albums, Into the Twangy-First Century  and Row vs. Wade, gloriously blended county/bluegrass and vintage soul music, covering (mostly) classic Motown songs such as “Reach Out, I’ll Be There”, “My Girl” and “Hold On, I’m Comin’.” Good fun!

Yes, once again, we have lost another great songwriter and musician. In recent months Dr. John and another New Orleans legend, Dave Bartholomew (who was 100!) also passed away. Gone but never forgotten.

Next time you hear someone complain that there are no good secondhand bookshops in Myanmar, tell them about Chinlone Books, which just opened their biggest and best branch yet in Mandalay. Not only is it one of the very few bookshops in Myanmar, it’s a very good one too!

After opening their first branch last year in the Shan State town of Nyaung Shwe (located inside Aye Aye Travel), Chinlone Books decided to take a really big step and open up a proper bookshop in Central Mandalay. This took many months (well, a few years, all things considered) of planning, but earlier this month Ye Man Oo and his father, U Khin Maung Lwin, finally got the doors open!

Chinlone Books in Mandalay is not your typically disorderly secondhand bookshop that one finds so often in Southeast Asia. Instead, this is a very well organized, and surprisingly well stocked bookshop. They have a variety of fiction and non-fiction books in stock, including many books about Myanmar and Burmese history. They are also well-stocked with plenty of dictionaries and phrase books, and also have many titles for children, students, and young adults. In a cooking mood? They have plenty of books about cookery too.

In addition to books in English, they also stock books in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Swedish and other Nordic languages. You might even find some Japanese, Turkish and Portuguese books if you look hard enough. And now that the shop is officially open, you can only expect the stock to grow and grow.

This has been a difficult and turbulent year for Myanmar, highlighted by the much-publicized problems in Rakhine State. Expectations for tourist arrivals are now much lower than expected at this time last year. Knowing that he can’t depend on a dwindling number of tourists to stay afloat, Ye Man Oo has astutely decided to also cater to the local market. You might be surprised or not, but a growing number of people in Myanmar enjoy reading books in English. In addition to adults and students (Mandalay is also home to an international school and several universities), Chinlone books also has some teachers and monks as regular customers. As any visitor to Myanmar soon discovers, the locals are incredibly curious and motivated people, and having a resource such as a secondhand bookshop in Mandalay, has been a delightful surprise for many.

Chinlone Books is located on 82 Street, between 33 and 34 Streets, just around the corner from the Hotel Queen, and within walking distance of the famous Zeigyo Market and Aye Mtyi Tar restaurant (which is on 81 Street). They are open daily from 9 am till 9 pm.

If you are in Mandalay, drop by the bookshop and give Ye Man Oo a hard time, or better yet, buy some books and enjoy a pleasant conversation with this impressive young businessman!

http://www.chinlonebooks.com/

I’ve been listening to Outlaw, a wonderful album by Eugene McDaniels a lot in recent months. One song in particular, “Love Letter To America” struck a chord with me. Here are some of the lyrics:

 

“Hey America

You could have had it

Any way you wanted it

You could have been a real democracy

You could have been free, oh

 

Hey America

Could have had me for your friend

And not your enemy

Through your perversion

You insist I have to be

Your enemy, oh

 

Hey America

The only thing you can respect

Is violence now

You lost the gift of love

Don’t ask me why

But you’ve lost it now, oh”

And there’s plenty more. McDaniels astutely wrote about subjects such as racial profiling and police violence … and this was back in 1970 when Outlaw was first released. For those in the math class, that was 47 years ago! Considering the sad state of racial relations and the pathetic people running the country these days, that song and the other pieces that McDaniels so deftly composed could just as well have been written this past year instead of in 1970. A very sobering realization. One has to wonder: Has America really “progressed” in the past forty years?

In addition to “Love Letter To America”, Outlaw is packed with plenty of other potent tunes too, including the classic “Silent Majority.” A real gem of an overlooked album, as is his other collection, Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse. Rumor has it that one song on that album so angered President Richard Nixon and Vice-President Spiro Agnew (back in 1971), that they tapped McDaniels’ phone and asked Atlantic Records to pull the album from circulation! Ain’t that America, indeed!

If you are a fan of the late great Gil Scott-Heron, Eugene McDaniels is also someone you need to hear. One review I read called his music “a boundary-defying fusion of funk, jazz, rock, and soul.” Throw in protest folk and a bit of psychedelia, and you have a wonderfully vague idea of what this guy was all about. Any way you label it, this was impressive stuff.

McDaniels was also a gifted producer and songwriter for many decades, and many of his songs have subsequently been sampled by various hip-hop artists. He wrote “Compared To What?”, which was a Top Forty hit for Eddie Harris and Les McCann, and “Feel Like Makin’ Love”, which was a hit for Roberta Flack. In his earlier years he recorded under the name Gene McDaniels, enjoying a minor hit himself with “A Hundred Pounds of Clay.” Sadly, he is seldom mentioned among the greats of music, a distinction he most certainly deserves. He passed away in 2011.

http://eugenemcdaniels.com/

The first book I read by Dervla Murphy was The Waiting Land: A Spell in Nepal. The book detailed Murphy’s work with Tibetan refugees in the 1960s. Very interesting book, but I found this one, In Ethiopia with a Mule to be even more captivating.

This travelogue is Murphy’s account of her 1966 excursion from Northern Ethiopia, near the Red Sea, to the capital of Addis Ababa, a journey of 1,024 miles. Nearly all of that was spent on foot, accompanied by her faithful pack mule, Jock. Along the way Murphy, a native of Ireland, describes her meeting many kind and hospitable natives, plenty of poor and sick people, some thieves and nasty characters, a few wild animals, and lots of uncertainty. There were nights, while trekking across sparsely populated areas, when there was no village to shelter her and the mule, forcing her to camp out under the stars. But the reader gathers that Murphy never considered that a particular hardship.

It’s hard to imagine anyone trying, or being able, to making a trip like this nowadays. Definitely an account of a bygone era, but maybe not that much of an innocent one, even in those days. If nothing else, this woman, traveling on her own with very little in the way of assistance or provisions, was a brave, intrepid soul. Wary of some people, trusting of others, she deftly relied on her natural instincts and ability to bridge cultural differences to ensure that she stayed out of harm’s way.

Murphy’s writing is both vividly descriptive and acutely insightful. She’s never afraid to praise or condemn the variety of people she meets, depending on the circumstances. And she supplements her adventures with plenty of thoughtful observations too. Here are a few lines that struck me when reading this book:

“In this country, as elsewhere, the best currency for purchasing kindness is trust.”

 ‘Nuclear weapons seem no more terrifying than the zeal with which we are chasing everyone else towards our own materialistic sewer.”

 “What damage are we doing, blindly and swiftly, to those races who are being taught that because we are materially richer we must be emulated without question? What compels us to infect everyone else with our own sick urgency to change, soften, and standardize? How can we have the effrontery to lord it over peoples who retain what we have lost — a sane awareness that what matters most is immeasurable?”

I love this woman! I was so smitten with this book that I plan on trying to find the other 20 books by her that I’ve missed. And as of this writing, she is still alive — and traveling — at the age of 85.

https://www.travelbooks.co.uk/shop-online-books/?category=Dervla+Murphy

 

 

When I was in Kuala Lumpur a few months back, I packed up a trio of recently released Neil Young CDs, including The Monsanto Years and Earth. Both albums are highly recommended and feature Neil playing with his new band, Promise of the Real. That band, interestingly enough, features two of Willie Nelson’s sons, Lukas and Mikah. And these guys rock as hard as Crazy Horse, the legendary outfit that played on so many of Neil’s best albums.

 

To my ears, Neil and Promise of the Real are a great fit, merging tight musicianship with Neil Young’s distinctive guitar playing and of course the equally distinctive vocals of the man himself. And, as you would expect, the lyrical content makes a statement too. Plus, on Earth, which is a live recording, the songs are supplemented by the sound of crows cawing, and a few other barnyard sound effects. If that sounds weird, well hey, it’s just Neil Young being Neil Young, and the crow stuff actually enhances the vibe and works pretty well. Thank heavens we have still have Neil Young out there and making vital music and caring about what happens to our environment. More people should listen to him and ignore all the bloated politicians spewing their dated rhetoric and other nonsense.

 

Speaking of Kuala Lumpur, I picked up the Neil Young CDs at the Victoria Music outlet in the Amcorp Mall in Petaling Jaya. On weekends at Amcorp Mall you can also find many dealers selling vintage vinyl and used CDs at the indoor “flea market.” While in KL I also made my pilgrimage to a few of the Rock Corner branches, the number of which are sadly on the decline. After the closure of their branches in KLCC, the Mid-Valley Megamall, and 1 Uttama, the store at the Curve also closed, and now the ones in Bangsar Village and Subang Jaya are also slated to shut by the end of this month. After that retail decimation, the only branch open will be the one in the Gardens, the smaller shopping center adjacent to the Mid-Valley Megamall. Considering how difficult it is for retail music shops to operate in these downloading, streaming times, it’s not shocking to see those wonderful establishments shut their doors, but it really depresses me all the same. Meanwhile, here are the other albums that have me pumping my fists in the air and doing silly dances in the living room:

 

Patty Loveless – Sleepless Nights

The talented singer-songwriter turns the tables and does an album of classic country songs, covering tunes made popular by George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Hank Williams, Dolly Parton, Conway Twitty, and more. Delightful stuff.

Bash & Pop – Anything Could Happen

BNQT – Volume One

The Velvet Crush – Heavy Changes

Nada Surf – Peaceful Ghosts

 

Billy Butler – The Right Tracks: The Complete Okeh Recordings 1963-1966

Jerry Butler’s brother shows that he was a fine singer in his own right on these vintage Okeh label songs. Plenty of great soul tunes, many of them written and produced by Curtis Mayfield, plus some groovy unreleased backing tracks.

Eugene Record – The Eugene Record/Trying To Get To You

The Brian Setzer Orchestra – Vavoom!

Bonnie Raitt – Dig In Deep

The Primitives – Echoes and Rhymes

 

Drive By Truckers – It’s Great To Be Alive!

Can I call these guys the best band working in the USA? I’m gonna do it anyway. They’ve been through several lineup shuffles over the past decade or so, the band does indeed keep on truckin’, thanks to the outstanding songs of Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. And some impressive guitar playing too. The live setting on this sprawling 3-CD set only makes their songs all the more powerful. Life affirming music.

Joe Haywood – Warm and Tender Love

Mary Chapin Carpenter – The Things That We Are Made Of

Teddy Thompson & Kelly Jones – Little Windows

Cait Brennan – Third

 

Khun Narin Electric Phin Band – Khun Narin Electric Phin Band

From Thailand’s Northeastern Isaan region, Khun Narin’s band is back with another intoxicating collection of instrumentals. They fuse traditional Thai morlam music with a propulsive, almost psychedelic groove. This album changes tempos more than their last one, but still plenty of tunes to get your booty shaking. Check out their videos of YouTube! Lively up yourself!

Kenny Burrell & Jimmy Smith – Blue Bash!

Natural Four – Heaven Right Here On Earth/Natural Four

Dexter Wansel – Stargazer: The Philadelphia International Records Anthology 1976-1980

Calexico – Edge of the Sun

 

Rozetta Johnson – A Woman’s Way: The Complete 1963-1975

Where did this lady come from? Listen to hear belt soulful song after soulful song and you wonder why she didn’t make bigger waves in the music industry. Great songs and a great voice. Dig in and love it!

Various Artists – One Track Mind: More Motown Guys

John Jarvis – Something Constructive

Walter Jackson – It’s All Over: the Okeh Recordings Vol. 1

Royksopp – In Inevitable End

 

Artful Dodger – The Complete Columbia Recordings

The underrated and now defunct power-pop group from the US get a justly deserved 2-CD retrospective of their 1970s recordings. Catchy as hell.

Over the Rhine – Discount Fireworks

Chuck Berry – Chuck

The Feelies – In Between

Aimee Mann – Mental Illness

 

Various Artists – Next Stop Soweto Vol. 4: 1975-1985

Subtitled “Zulu Rock, Afro-Disco and Mbaqanga, this is another impressive collection of vintage South African music, the fourth in this series from Strut Records.

Jimmy Castor Bunch – Butt Of Course/Supersound/E-Man Groovin’

Father John Misty – Pure Comedy

Cotton Mather – Wild Kingdom

Shawn Colvin – All Fall Down

 

John Holt – 4000 Volts of Holt

This must have been where UB40 got the idea for their “Labour of Love” albums. Pop and Soul hits covered by the sweet-singing John Holt. It’s not all fabulous, but you’ll find plenty to like on this 2-CD set.

Gerry Beckley – Horizonal Fall

The Well Wishers – How I Won the War

Isaac Hayes – Out of the Ghetto: The Polydor Years

The Jesus and Mary Chain – Damage and Joy

 

Pat Thomas – Coming Home: Ghanaian Highlife & Afrobeat Classics 1964-1981

Another underrated African musician, this time a guy from Ghana who played in several groups before going solo. Another fine 2-CD reissue from Strut Records.

Chet Ivey – A Dose of Soul: The Sylvia Fun Recordings 1972-75

Charlie Haden & Pat Metheny – Beyond the Missouri Sky

The Creation – Action Painting

Don Covay – The House of Blue Lights

 

Various Artists – Afrosound of Colombia: Volume 2

I loved this first volume of this series, highlighting the extensive catalog of Colombia’s Disco Fuentes label, and this one is equally as fun. A lively stew of Salsa, Boogaloo, Afro-Beat, Cumbia, Soul, and Funk.

The Fantastic Four – Alvin Stone/Night People

Link Wray – 3-Track Shack

Various Artists – Highlife on the Move: Selected Nigerian and Ghanaian Recordings 1954-1966

Dionne Warwick – The Essential Dionne Warwick

And a Time for Feasting

One of the great joys of visiting Myanmar, at least in my opinion, is sampling the various types of food. There are plenty of good restaurants serving traditional Burmese fare, such as Aye Myit Tar in Mandalay. You can also find places specializing in dishes from Shan State and other regions from around the country. The sheer variety is amazing.

You can also get very good meals at teashops. Most teashops in Myanmar have a nice variety of noodle and rice dishes, as well as bread and fried snacks. Get there early in the morning to taste some of the scrumptious noodles dishes such as monhinga, mondhi, and ohno kauk swe. Finger licking good indeed!

While I love dining at restaurants and teashops, I can honestly say the absolutely best food I’ve had is at the homes of friends. In Mandalay, I might be invited to Ye Man Oo’s for dinner, or to his uncle, U Nyunt Tun’s house. Incredible food! If I’m in Nyaung Shwe I have to juggle invitations, enjoying home-cooked treats at Mar Mar Aye’s house or a feast at Ma Pu Sue’s place. When in doubt; just say “yes” to them all … and prepare to eat a lot!

 

 

Yeah, it’s been a while. A long, long lonely time, as the song says. What can I tell you? Too much work, a bit of travel, yet more work, a couple of health issues, and a continuing spiral of work. I’m damn exhausted. The last time I posted anything on this blog was back in January and since that time it seems as if I have had no time to do all the things that I want to do, or at least the things that I used to do, which includes this blog.

At this point I’m not sure how much effort I’m going to put back into this thing, but I hate the thought of just letting it wither and die, so I’ll try and post a few things in the near future in the attempt to sustain it. Today’s post harkens back to November of last year when I was in Nyaung Shwe, the picturesque town in Myanmar’s Shan State. My friend Ma Pu Sue, who runs the Bamboo Delight Cooking Class with her husband Lesly in Nyaung Shwe, and I join forces each year in late November (our birthdays are a day apart) and offer a donation to monks from the nearby monastery at Tat Ein village.

Instead of making tracks to the monastery itself and offering physical donations such as school supplies or shoes (which we’ve done in the past), we invite the monks to Sue and Lesly’s home for a hearty breakfast of monhinga, the savory noodle dish that could be dubbed Myanmar’s most iconic culinary treat. You can find variations of monhinga all over the country, but Lesly’s special recipe is one of the best I’ve ever tasted. And I’m not just saying that because he’s a friend of mine; the guy can cook up some mighty fine food!

Actually, the novice monks from the monastery usually walk by Sue’s home each morning during their regular alms rounds. But getting the chance to sit down and rest, enjoy a bowl — or three — of this delicious monhinga, is undoubtedly a treat for the youngsters. Ye Man Oo, my friend from Mandalay, was also on hand to help serve the food to the monks. I just tried to stay out of the way while everyone else cooked and served — and ate — and simply enjoy the event, only actively participating at the very end when it came time to offer each monk a small cash donation.

Organizing this little donation breakfast every year is very gratifying, something I look forward to doing, but if you travel around Myanmar you will see similar donation meals and ceremonies nearly every day of the year. I’ve never met more generous people. I read an article recently that said that a higher percentage of people in Myanmar make donations to monasteries than in any country in Asia. I believe it.

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