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

Posts tagged ‘Thonglor’

Laughter in the Rain

It’s not often that a Neil Sedaka song pops into my head while walking the streets of Bangkok, but the deluge of rain that I found myself overwhelmed by on Wednesday night triggered Sedaka’s mid-1970s hit “Laughter in the Rain” to run circuits around my brain for several hours.

sedaka_laughter

It was one of those freak rain storms that didn’t come and go quickly, as they usually do. Instead, this intense and persistent strorm lasted several hours, raining hard enough to ensure flooded streets and traffic gridlock. I had been dining with my friend Michael at Soul Food Mahanakorn, a Thai restaurant on Thonglor. Ten o’clock came and went and it was still raining, so we both ordered another round of Beer Lao, the dark variety. Eleven o’clock threatened to rear its head and it was still raining hard. Rain or not, it looked like the restaurant would be closing soon, so we paid our bill (the food is quite good at that place, but it’s not cheap, and portions aren’t very big either; I had the odd feeling of leaving a restaurant still a bit hungry!) and marched outside to face the elements.

For Michael, getting home wasn’t going to be that difficult a task, even in the pouring rain. From the restaurant, he had only a short hike to the Thonglor BTS Skytrain station, and then a dry ride back to his place near Sathorn Road. For me, however, the transport options weren’t looking as simple. I live on New Petchburi Road, not an area serviced by the Skytrain or subway. In heavy rains like this one the number of available taxis decreases dramatically, and even if you do luck into finding one, the traffic is so backed up that you are looking at a very long ride home. The rain also means that taking a motorcycle taxi is not a particularly desirable option. Yeah, you can take one, but without a raincoat, which I didn’t have with me, you’re going to get soaked. And at this time of night, even motorcycle taxis are almost impossible to find.

Thonglor was already quite flooded, so with umbrella in hand, I decided to walk back to the Sukhumvit intersection in hopes of finding a dry stretch of pavement where I could wait and possibly flag down a taxi. I waited under an awning for nearly 30 minutes, the rain never letting up and no taxis stopping. That’s when I started laughing and that Neil Sedaka song began playing in my head. I mean what else could I do but wait out the rain and laugh about it all? It was that ridiculous.

Another reason for laughter was the sight of the cockroach dance. While I was waiting under the awning I noticed a woman standing nearby who started twitching and slapping her back, and then screaming. What the hell? But she wasn’t the only one. A young man standing next to the woman commenced into doing an exaggerated slap and shuffle of his own. At that point I noticed the source of this chaos; cockroaches. Dozens if not hundreds of the little critters, skittering across the pavement … and up legs and arms and backs and heads! Things got so bad that the man yanked off his shirt and tried to brush off the intruders. While I was laughing at this scene I felt a crawling presence on my own shoulder. Yep, the cockroaches had found me too!

I finally gave up on a taxi and decided that there wasn’t much I could do at this point but to start walking home. It’s a bit of a hike, but I’ve done it before, and hey, it’s good exercise, right? The clock was pushing midnight by this time and the rain had let up enough that I put away my umbrella and just donned a baseball cap as protection from the elements. But there was still no sign of any vacant taxis, either the regular ones or the motorcycle variety.

The walk home was, shall we say, soggy. Several of the sois and driveways that I had to cross were so flooded that the water came up almost to my knees. Needless to say, these old Reeboks were going to need a thorough drying afterwards. Actually, I need a new pair anyway, but I’ll wait until after rainy season has safely retreated until I buy anything new. Marching down Thonglor, I passed vendors who were packing it in for the night, pedestrians seeking shelter, and swirling pools of garbage. But I pressed on, laughing in the rain, that song still playing in my head.

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Upcountry Thai Tunes

One of the most spirited and danceable types of Thai music is a genre known as Molam (or, I would argue, is more accurately spelled Morlam). This music is particularly popular in Thailand’s rural Northeastern provinces, the area called Isaan (or, alternately, Isarn).  Thus, you could accurately liken morlam to “country” or “folk” music. It’s the music of the working people. Morlam has been around for many decades, some say it’s been centuries, having originated in neighboring Laos and imported by ethnic Lao people who came to live in Thailand. 

 

A Bangkok-based label, Zudmangra Records, has just released an album of vintage morlam tunes on CD and vinyl: Theppabutr Productions: The Man Behind the Molam Sound 1972-75. These are songs that legendary producer Theppabutr Satirodchompu released on his own label, but the 17 tracks on this compilation are only a fraction of this amazing man’s output. He’s been dubbed “The Berry Gordy of Thailand” (Gordy, being the legendary founder of Motown Records) for good reason: at one point he had signed over 200 bands, releasing 7-inch singles and sometimes albums from almost every one of them. Some singles were so popular that Theppabutr reportedly pressed more than 10,000 copies of each, a huge number for the Thai music industry at the time.

 

But what does this morlam music sound like? For anyone that hasn’t been to Thailand and heard these unique sounds, I’d go out on a very long limb and liken it to the hillbilly sounds of Merle Travis colliding with the full band sound of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys … only with much stranger stringed instruments, cheesy organ sounds, and Thai vocals. Morlam may not sound much like Texas swing or Appalachian country, but it’s got a similar spirit and dance-stepping joy. For a better description, try the booklet inside the CD for Theppabutr Productions. In his excellent, liner notes, Bangkok-based writer John Clewley describes being in a village and hearing “the bubbling, unmistakable rhythms of molam blaring out from cracked speakers. Soaring vocals full of haunting ornamentation, vamping chords of the church organ-like khaen (a traditional free-reed mouth organ), the driving riffs of the phin, temple bells and percussion all combine into one delightful sound.”

 

And delightful it truly is. Perhaps morlam will not appeal to all music listeners, and indeed, it may rank as an acquired taste, even for those who have been exposed to “world beat” rhythms and other ethnic sounds. But there is no arguing the liveliness and fun factor of this music. And you don’t have to be sipping the village homebrew to enjoy it either — although that may enhance the enjoyment factor! If you want to hear the real sound of rural Thailand, morlam is where it’s at.

 

Theppabutr Productions can be purchased online via dealers like Amazon, or if you are in Bangkok, stop by the flagship Zudmangra Records shop on Sukhumvit Soi 51 (the first block on the left side, where the soi angles again to the left) and pick up a copy. The shop stocks mostly old Thai vinyl singles, but they also carry a variety of CD compilations from cool import labels such as Analog Africa, Light in the Attic, and Soundway. Even if you don’t dig morlam music, it’s a good way to get your Afro-Beat fix while living in Thailand!

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