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

Posts tagged ‘Obama’

Politicians, Friends, and other Delights

Blink and you missed it. Barack Obama made a whirlwind tour of the region earlier in the week, spending a half-day in Bangkok, about six hours in Yangon, and the better part of two days at an ASEAN summit meeting in Phnom Penh. Hillary Clinton also put in an appearance at each location, but then had to fly off to the crazy lands — The Middle East — in an attempt to pacify the Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians, and possibly other aggrieved nationalities. Does that woman ever get any sleep?

 

It would be an understatement to say that Obama’s visits to Thailand and Myanmar were met with great excitement — and approval — from the populace in each country. People in Asia really like him. And it doesn’t hurt that he has a great smile. Obama himself appeared to be delighted by the warm reception, and looked like he was enjoying the visits. Thai Prime Minister Yingluck “I Love Democracy” Shinawatra couldn’t keep from beaming in every photo that I saw, looking like a schoolgirl getting to meet a famous pop star. And then there were several photos of Obama in Yangon, hugging and kissing Aung San Suu Kyi … uh, rather fervently. The Lady appeared a bit taken back from such an overt display of affection from Barry, but hey, it’ll certainly sell more newspapers in Yangon and give the fellows in the teashops something to talk about. And it sure beats having some creepy overweight dude, wearing a snorkel and flippers and carrying a bible, showing up on your doorstep late one night, dripping lake water and asking to spend the night. That’s one incident — and in case you missed it, yes, it really happened — that I’d love to know more details about.

 

Obama made visits to such sacred sites as Wat Pho in Bangkok and Shwedagon in Yangon, but by contrast, once he arrived in Phnom Penh he didn’t stop for any temple tours, but headed straight to the ASEAN-US Leaders Meeting, where serious business was discussed. The tone was set when Obama greeted Hun Sen — Cambodia’s Prime-Minister-for-Life and don’t you dare think otherwise — with a firm handshake, absent of any back slapping or pleasantries. Even if it was “Give a Thug a Hug” week, I don’t think Obama would have lowered himself to embrace Hun Sen. And good for him. Hun Sen is one of the creepiest “leaders” in the region and it’s about time people started standing up to him. By all accounts, the meeting with Hun Sen was “tense,” Obama giving the old Khmer Rouge foot soldier a dressing down on the subject of land seizures, human rights, freedom of speech, and other such sticky issues that the Cambodian government brushes under the bamboo mat. Despite the millions of dollars in foreign aid money that floods into Cambodia each year — it reportedly receives the highest percentage of any country in Asia — poverty in the country is still rampant and infrastructure well behind that of Thailand. It’s the same old broken record: the rich get richer … and they drive SUVs and get away with…

 

On another Cambodian note, I’ve been flooded with phone calls from friends there this week. The subject of Hun Sen and/or Obama never came up, however. Nowadays, my Cambodian friends have more important things to worry about; like paying school tuition, paying hospital bills, and affording to eat. I talked to three of the Tri brothers, and also Chamrong in Siem Reap. His wife just gave birth to their first child, a boy, but the baby was born one month premature, necessitating a multi-week stay in the hospital for mother and child. Rong took off from his job at the airport for over a full week to help take care of them. Happily, they are all home now and Rong is back at work. Another friend, So Pengthai has also had to help his wife and children recuperate from various illnesses. Blame it on the rainy season, which thankfully, now appears to have run its course.

 

Yet another Cambodian friend from Siem Reap, Chiet, has been calling me almost every day … from Thailand! He’s working in another province as a welder, trying to earn some extra money, Hell, trying to earn any money at all. He’s had a problem finding steady work this year in Siem Reap, so somehow he got hooked up with a job broker that brought him to Thailand. I don’t think he has legal working papers, which makes him one of thousands (perhaps the number runs into five or six figures … or more?) of Cambodians and Burmese who are working in Thailand without proper documents. Not exactly slave labor, but don’t think these people are getting paid a fair wage either. Whatever the case, Chiet is working every day of the week — no days off — and is quite tired, but in pretty good spirits overall. There is another Cambodian working with him, but the rest of the workers, I gather, are Thai. He’s obviously lonely, being away from friends and family, so I’m one of his few daily social contacts, albeit one that’s on the phone. If I can figure out exactly where he’s working — trying to get him to distinguish Sakhon from Nakorn and Pathom from Phanom and other similar words is a difficult task — I may visit him next month. He plans to work here until mid-April, the annual Khmer — and Thai — water festival period, before going back to Siem Reap. In the meantime, we talk each night, which is helping to improve my rusty Khmer skills; word and phrases I haven’t used in years are coming back to me. We joke about eating grilled dog for dinner, plus he’s learning some Thai words too, which he is thrilled to impress me with. I only hope he doesn’t fall into any bad habits — drinking and drugs come to mind — during his exhausting labor stint in a different country. It ain’t an easy life for people like him.

 

Politics and Lunch … with Ry and Ian

One of the many great albums that Ry Cooder recorded in the 1970s was Paradise and Lunch. That album included inspired covers of jazz, blues, and country standards such as “Mexican Divorce,” “If Walls Could Talk,” and “Ditty Wah Ditty,” along with some pop and R&B tunes such as Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now.”

 

Since his early, more folk-influenced recordings in the 1970s, Ry Cooder has veered all over the musical map; witness his various soundtrack projects and world music albums such as his recordings with the Buena Vista Social Club in Cuba. But in recent years he has returned to his roots, recording original material, many of the songs focused on politics and social issues. In fact, he has just released a new album of originals that is his boldest political statement yet. It would have been appropriate to call it Politics and Lunch, but instead Ry settled for Election Special. The album includes tracks such as “Guantanamo”, “The Wall Street Part of Town,” and “Mutt Romney Blues” (yes, that’s “Mutt” not “Mitt” in the song title!). Cooder is an unabashed Democrat and proudly affirms his allegience, along with his views on the state of the nation over the course of this lively album.

 

Naturally, Cooder has alienated any right-wing fans that he might have had with these politically-charged tunes, but I doubt that he’s losing any sleep over it. Instead, he’s doing interviews to both plug the album and wake up the voting public. He’s pulling no punches, urging voters to choose Barack Obama and not to put up with the crooks on Wall Street, or the creepsters behind these nefarious PAC funds. In a recent issue of Mojo magazine, Cooder urged Obama to “give up the idea of bipartisanship and kick ass now.” In the same interview he declared that “the foundations of society are being dismantled before our very eyes, brought about by four years of think-tank fascism funded by the Koch Brothers.” The Koch Brothers, for those out of the US political loop, are described by the magazine as “billionaire industrialists and right wing propagandists.”

No matter how you feel about Ry Cooder’s music, you have to admire him for speaking his mind and using his music to illuminate various social, financial, and political issues. To my ears, Ry Cooder is a throwback to folk singers like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, musicians with a strong social conscience and equally strong backbone, guys who were not afraid to take a stance on matters of importance to them. I wish there were more artists like that in this me-my-mine age. Too many of them play it down the middle, wary of voicing an opinion for fear of a backlash from fans with opposing views. Some people seem to think that it’s wrong, or a mistake, for musicians to get involved in politics, but I think such a view is balderdash. Musicians should not only feel free to voice their opinions without getting slammed for it, they should be encouraged to do so.

 

Meanwhile, at the age of 73, Ian Hunter still continues to amaze with his boundless energy and the high quality of the music he is recording. Hot on the heels of the amazing Man Overboard album, he has released another yet strong group of songs, some with a decidedly political slant, on his new album, When I’m President. Ian, being a Brit, won’t be able to vote in the US election (unless, of course, he managed to become a US citizen in between tours and recording sessions), but he still feels strongly about what’s going on in this crazy world, and ain’t afraid to speak up. In the fist-pumping title track to the album, he sings:

I’m gonna lean on the one percent — when I’m president

I want a 28th amendment — when I’m president

No more bargains in the basement — when I’m president

Everything’s gonna be different — when I’m president

Veto this, veto that — when I’m president I’ll stick it to the fat cats

 

Politics and music have always been awkward bedfellows but each election year, countless artists either play benefit concerts to help the candidate of their choice or publicly declare their support. I’m reminded of another Ian Hunter venture into American politics, when he toured with Todd Rundgren in 1980, raising money forthe campaign of  John B. Anderson, an independent candidate for president that year. I was fortunate to see the Ian Hunter-Todd Rundgren tour when they stopped in Tampa, Florida for two shows at a small club called the Agora. Ronald Reagan, of course, defeated Jimmy Carter in the November election. Anderson finished far behind with less than 7% of the national vote. I didn’t vote for either Reagan or Carter in that election, but I can’t recall voting for Anderson either. Most likely I stuck to my usual stubborn habit of voting for a write-in candidate such as Bill the Cat.

 

I forget where on the net last week that I saw the retouched photo above, but it’s just so brilliant, that I had to post it! Kudos to whoever actually created it.  Don’t know what it is, my friend, but something odd is blowing in that wind!

 

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