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V/A - The Sound of Siam: Leftfield Luk Thung, Jazz and Molam from Thailand 1964 -1975

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Artist: V/A

Album: The Sound of Siam: Leftfield Luk Thung, Jazz and Molam from Thailand 1964 -1975

Label: Soundway

Review date: Jun. 22, 2011

If skylines were made out of cosmopolitan vainglory, Bangkok’s would doubtless tower above New York’s. Ample glassy spires of urban exceptionalism complement the brutal bureaucratic boxes that commanded the galactic polity of centuries past. To date, there’s been no downturn.

Cities in Thailand don’t even bother with a Chicago-esque second city complex. Rural laborers spit sarcastically when leaving their families to dismantle fan belts under the naked sun or dance for a fat Australian’s coins that they’re “bpai Thai” – going to Thailand, as if their hometowns didn’t count as such. Needless to say most people prefer the provinces. Not because the provinces are just as good as Bangkok, but because they’re absolutely nothing like it – peaceful, pious, sabai, sabai.

The only way to like Bangkok, really, is with cash in hand. Thailand has high income inequality, with wealth overwhelmingly concentrated in the capital. Bluntly, the bourgeoisie regard the unwashed masses, who form something like an indentured mobile service sector, with predictable scorn, articulating their superiority through toxic colonialist garbage like skin bleaching cream and Justin Bieber. Some of the poor resent their status, others try to cope, but everybody misses home. So great are the ranks of the displaced that today huge sectors of Thailand’s entertainment industry caters to nostalgia for the countryside, a backlash against the big city’s ego. And in no form more than music.

The Sound of Siam: Leftfield Luk Thung, Jazz and Molam from Thailand 1964 -1975, to the extent that it’s conceptual, features work that lamented and satirized the experience of being a lowly migrant in Bangkok, back when the masses first arrived by the truckload and gazed up at proud towers that did not deign to gaze back. That was exactly when the nostalgia industry boomed. The Thai label from which the compilation takes its name, Sound of Siam, was a boutique operation based in Chinatown that signed up rural artists and peddled their records to a growing constituency of poor laborers in the city. The formula was a hit and launched more than a few careers. If the concept of Leftfield is in doubt, it’s only because nearly every Thai pop song in those years dealt with the very same themes. So what we have here is a group of songs curated for musicality more than subject matter.

The quality of the tracks, for their part, is unimpeachable. Dusted recently reviewed the newer Thai? Dai compilation, in which DJ Chris Menist was also involved. If Chris or Maft Sai lend their names to a release of vintage Thai music, you can take it on faith to some extent, as they’re both extremely selective and tasteful. The sweet tropes of early1970s production — bass into the red, a live and chaotic feel, and warbling timbres everywhere — are not far off from the stylistic elements highlighted on recent re-releases of Ethiopian, Indonesian, Cambodian, and West African music from the same period. (As described in the review above, this phenomenon has at least as much to do with hipster curation as global sound crazes.) There is some playing fast and loose with genres; jazz makes no appreciable appearance, and more Thai styles than just the famous Mor Lam and Luk Thung are represented. But the selections are indeed fringy and fun for being so.

An odd thing about Leftfield is that, despite the suggestion by the Soundways label (and many reviewers) that the musicians featured are obscure and/or dustbin castaways, many of them are actually quite well known in Thailand. Chaweewan Dumnern, whose two tracks lead off the comp, had a hit in the early 1980s with “Dang Krok Dang Sak,” and she was honored with the prestigious title of “National Artist” in 1993. She has a PhD in performing arts and continues to teach at a university. Dissertations have been written about her singing style. Panom Nopporn, also featured on the album, was a successful singer and actor, and recently lent his name to a television talent show called “Nopporn’s Silver and Gold.” The compilers of Leftfield have dug up interesting B-sides by these artists, but they can’t really be given credit for rediscovering them. Others, including (minor legend and current Tennessean) Onuma Singsiri and Dao Bandon, have meanwhile appeared on comps like Sublime Frequencies’ Thai Pop Spectacular. A canon is developing within the Thai reissue universe for a small group of singers who have at least a couple of tracks that fit a raw, far-out mold. Most Thai people, however, would be utterly confused by this Frankensteinian aggregate. Imagine a Chinese label releasing a compilation of unloved album tracks by Little Richard, Cake and The Moody Blues, and then tsk-tsking Americans for neglecting their musical heritage.

As a final aside, the best English-language resource available, online or in print, about mid-century Thai music remains Monrakplengthai.blogspot.com. MRPT has full, downloadable albums by most of the artists on Leftfield, along with contextual/biographical summaries. If you like this compilation, that’s the place to follow up.

By Ben Tausig

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