Thai music: Joe Cummings

Joe Cummings is one of the best people to talk to about anything Thai. After more than two decades roaming Thailand and Southeast Asia, he sees the scene, high and low, in great detail. In an earlier life, he created the running series of Lonely Planet Thailand guide books. I asked him to talk about the Thai music scene, especially rural music.

Roy Hamric: When farangs first come to Thailand, they eventually hear about look thung music. What is it exactly?

Joe Cummings: The name literally translates as “children of the fields,” but means, in essence, farmers. In many ways, it’s the Thai equivalent of country & western in America in its stories and tightly structured formulae. But just as country western has been moving towards rock and roll, look thung is moving that way from traditional forms. If you’re in a taxi in Bangkok most likely you’ll be listening to look thung. It’s the same kind of lyrics: lost your job, your truck broke down, your wife left you. There are two basic styles, the original suphanburi style, with lyrics in standard Thai, and an Ubon style sung in Issan (northeastern) dialect. Thailand’s most famous look thung singer, Pumpuang Duangjan, rated a royally sponsored cremation when she died in 1992.

 

joe cummings

 

Chai Muang Sing and Siriporn Amphaipong have been the most beloved look thung superstars for several years, with lesser lights coming and going. Other stars include former soap opera star Got Chakraband and Monsit Khamsoi, whose trademark silky vocal style has proved enormously popular.

Look thung has lately been adopted and adapted by long-haired Thai bands such as Carabao, the most popular pop group in Thai history, complete with electric guitars and lots of rock posturing. It’s sort of like redneck rock.

Look thung is popularly heard in the Thai café, which is anything but a coffeeshop in the Western sense, but rather a dark nightclub where a succession of scantily clad female singers take the stage to perform watered-down versions of look thung hits. There are some more grand venues for the music, however, such as the legendary Café Rama 9 in Bangkok.

Q. Some people claim Maw Lam trumps Look Thung for authenticity, originality and a look into the Thai soul.

Arguably the most authentically native strain of Thai music is maw lam which developed in northeastern Thailand and Laos around 100 years ago. Fans in the northeast breath, live and die for this music. The main instrument is still the khaen, a traditional Lao-Thai pan pipe. It has a very dynamic beat, usually a quick 3/8 tempo with a strong bass line reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix’s Third Stone from the Sun. The lyrics are more hard core than in look thung, with more politics, more sex and more violence. It’s almost like Mississippi Delta blues with its rougher language and songs about murder and suicide. Jintara Poonlap and Chalermphol Malaikham continue to reign as queen and king of maw lam.

When you see an authentic maw lam performance live in the northeast (as opposed to on TV in Bangkok), you’ll see how intense the bands can get, with lots of sweat and veins popping out on the forehead. The players really get into it.

It’s most commonly performed at festivals and temple fairs. One of the best festivals for maw lam is the Dok Khoon Siang Khaen Flower Festival in Khon Kaen, also Phi Ta Khon festival in Dan Sai, Loei.

Q. Some groups must have updated both Look Thung and Maw Lam?

Just as Bob Dylan took folk, blues and rock and wove them together with a political outlook in his early to mid-1960s songs, the Thai band Caravan grafted Thai rural folk melodies onto Dylan- and Springsteen-influenced song structures to create a genre of protest-oriented songs called phleng pheua cheewit (Songs for Life), beginning in the late 1970s.

Caravan and their music were banned from public performances throughout the Thai military dictatorship of the 70s and 80s. As Thai politics stablized in the late 80s, the genre was picked up by other groups and commercialized. Much as the sounds of politically oriented Buffalo Springfield were later co-opted by Poco and The Eagles in the USA, Caravan’s musical creation was taken to market by Carabao.

You won’t find much live maw lam in Bangkok or in many clubs even in Issan. Songs For Life can be heard in smaller bars typically decorated with water buffalo skulls and buffalo-cart wheels.  Chiang Mai has one of the better venues for Songs For Life (although not exclusively), a bar called Sudsanan.

Q. The Pai music scene is attracting a lot of interest musically, right?

For such a small town, Pai (Mae Hong Son Province) does have an amazing music scene. Be-Bop Bar, which has been around since the late 90s, attracts musicians and bands from all over Thailand, and some from other countries as well. The place is packed with live music lovers every night, and the roster of bands change nightly. Aside from Caravan and Carabao, both of whom have performed there, Be-Bop has recently hosted Mason Ruffner (former guitarist for Bob Dylan), Aussie bluesman Mojo Webb, and New Orleans-style pianist Mitch Woods. The owner, Sucharat Panpai, is an excellent blues and jazz guitarist himself, and he plays there regularly with his own band.

Parking Pai, a branch of Bangkok’s Parking Toys, offers a variety of live music, usually local or Chiang Mai acts playing international and Thai music, sometimes something a little different, including indie bands from Bangkok. Edible Jazz does live jazz and blues in a rustic bambbo-and-wood setting.

Q. What about contemporary Thai music?

Most popular on Thai radio is T-Pop, meaning Thai pop, a borrowing from Japan’s J-Pop. I don’t find it very original-sounding, with its general emphasis on Western 80s New Wave production style, with heavily processed guitars and keyboard washes and lyrics about teen love. The language features a lot of faux naïve lyrics, again influenced by J-Pop.

Singers who are look khreung – half-Thai, half-farang– and sport Western names are particularly popular. For example, Tata Young, Nicole Theriault and the original look khreung heartthrob, Thongchai “Bird” MacIntyre.

Thai mainstream rock is more unique. Although obviously influenced by Western bands like Guns and Roses, Thai rockers have a way of taking the genre and giving it a Thai twist. Just where you might end the chord progression in a typical Western rock song, they’ll tag on a little something, often taking a minor key song back into its relative major. Loso is still the biggest traditional Thai rock band.

In the 1990s an alternative pop scene known as klawng sehrii or “free drum” in Thail, also phleng ta\^i din, “underground music”––grew in Bangkok. Hip-hop/ska artist Joey Boy not only explored new musical frontiers but released lyrics that the Department of Culture banned. Thaitanium have taken over that territory and are currently the number-one hip-hop act in Thailand. Ska seems more popular than ever. Of course the veterans on the scene are T-Bone, who groove equally well in Thai and English. They’re internationally recognized, even scored a small stage at Glastonbury a few years ago. But there are a whole bunch of new ska bands that take it much closer to the roots of the genre.

Modern Dog, a Britpop-inspired band of four Chulalongkorn University graduates, brought independent Thai music into the mainstream, and their success prompted an explosion of similar bands and indie recording labels. Among the most significant indie rock acts in Thailand, from my perspective, were Day Tripper, Silly Fools and Futon. I think Silly Fools still plays but the other two groups are gone. Gene Kasadit from Futon now does his own thing, more outrageous than ever, while other members of Futon have formed Goo, who put on a seriously kickass rock show.

There’s a new generation of indie bands who are really state of the art for Thailand, often composing songs in English or in both English and Thai. Among these, my present favourites include Zero Hero, Abuse The Youth, Revenge of the Cybermen, Class A Cigarettes.

Q. When you visit Bangkok, where do you go to hear good music?

The situation has gotten pretty dire over the last couple of years. A few special venues like Rain Dogs, The Tube  and Lullaby have disappeared. Saxophone, at the Victory Circle, is an old holdover from the 80s that’s still good for blues, funk and fusion, with occasional acts from overseas like Eddie Baytos and Mason Ruffner. Ad Here the 13th, on Samsen Road near Soi 1, is a personal fave. I love the house blues band, led by owner Pong. Common Ground on Samsen Rd occasionally has a good lineup of indie bands, as does Bangkok Rocks on Sukhumvit Soi 19. Club Culture recently re-located to a spot near the Democracy Monument but has gone mostly DJ, with the occasional live show. DJ culture has just about taken over the city. Parking Toys off Kaset Nawamin Rd has a nightly line-up of bands playing rock, latin and funk, occasionally something more modern. Stu-Fe, near the Nam Kluay Thai intersection of Rama 4, is run by a musicians collective called Monotone, and on the weekends the jams can be pretty good. I’ve become a big fan of Belgian accordionist Matthieu Ha, who has played there. Overtone Music Cave, in the RCA area, has a state-of-the-art sound system and will become a popular spot for fusion and prog rock. I’m living in Bangkok now, but sometimes I have to fly to Chiang Mai to hear good live music at Guitarman.

Q. And what about classical Thai music?

Classical Thai music, known as peepat (the name of the ensemble itself), is based on styles of music imported from the Cambodian royal court during the Ayuthaya era, so it can be argued that it’s not particularly Thai. It’s also not very popular and is for the most part reserved for ceremonial performances, tourist dinner shows and occasional Thai cinema.

Classical Thai music received a huge boost in 2004 when the film Hom Rong (The Overture) was released. Based on the life story of Thai maestro Luang Pradit Phairoh (1881-1954), the film chronicles an era when Thai political leaders were trying to suppress traditional Thai music in favour of Western classical music in order to prove to would-be colonisers that Thais were “civilized.” In the first few months after the film’s opening, new students were practically standing in line to learn ranaat ehk (classical wooden xylophone) at Bangkok music schools.

Q. It seems your music life is picking up and your travel writing life is slowing down. Talk about the music…

I actually started playing in rock bands when I was 15, and by the time I was 20, I was touring with a band called The Fog that opened for the likes of Blue Oyster Cult, Uriah Heep and Edgar Winter’s White Trash. I came to Thailand shortly after that period and have been jamming around Bangkok since dinosaurs roamed Sukhumvit Road.

 

joe cummings and marie dance in a Chiang Mai recording studio

 

A few  years ago I met Marie Dance, a talented singer-songwriter-guitarist from England. We played together a few times with a band called The Jackalans, based in Pai, and as we got more serious about writing and performing originals, we changed the name to The Tonic Rays. We recorded one album, which miraculously made the Billboard Critics Top 10 Albums of 2008, courtesy of rock critic Chuck Eddy. You can download the tunes at Amazon, Rhapsody, iTunes, and CDBaby. You can also hear a few tracks at www.myspace.com/tonicrays. We were based in Chiang Mai and played a lot there (at Babylon, Drunken Flower and Guitarman) and in Pai (Be-Bop and now-defunct Phu Pai), but we also played in Bangkok, Pattaya and Ko Phi Phi. Marie is out of the picture for now, but I may start another band soon. I’ve been jamming with Cannonball here in Bangkok and also in Saigon last year at a music fest. Mason Ruffner is coming back to Thailand in August, and so I’ll join him for a spell. I was in Berlin recently and really stoked by the scene there.

Q. So is Joe Cummings still in the travel writing business?

I guess you could say I have a dual life. My day job now is  writing about art, culture, architecture and people for The Magazine of The Bangkok Post. Also, on my own I do mostly large format books like Lanna Renaisance, Chiang Mai Style and Buddhist Temples of Thailand, rather than guidebooks. At night, I still play music. Sometimes it feels like there’s two of me in one tired body!

Q. Now we fade to silence.

Drum roll…


One Comment on “Thai music: Joe Cummings”

  1. xyreil says:

    I’m really impressed with this guy!!!


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