Hello there – I know I’ve not been posting much recently, but different projects are afoot (more of which later), that have been occupying my time. This Saturday the 25th, myself and Maft Sai will be celebrating our 3rd Anniversary in fine style. Really looking forward to being back in Asia, spinning tunes, catching up with friends, recording digging and (I hope) a whole load of fine food. Upon my return, the blog will get back to its regular updates on events, forthcoming things of interest and obscure musical gems. Until then, look forward to seeing you on the 25th in BKK.
For more on the event, our friend John Clewley has written about it here:
So, at this stage we’re about half way through our dates in Europe, and it’s been a very pleasant surprise for the most part. Before we embarked on this trip, we had little to no idea how people might respond to the full Paradise Bangkok experience in Europe. We had gotten used to crowds in Bangkok and Japan, who already an expectation of the sounds we play – but from London to Geneva, Lausanne, Munich, Nuremberg and Vienna we’ve had people getting down ’til the small hours to Thai Luk Thung, Molam, roots Reggae, Indonesian psych, and Ethiopian vibes.
There have been some funny moments, such as the drunk girl in Lausanne who wanted to ask me a question, sent the needle skidding over the record, whilst not even being aware the music had stopped! Or the inebriated British tourists in Munich dancing round a chair enthusiastically to Molam, after a heavy day at Oktoberfest.
Gratifyingly for me and Nat, people just seem to be having a good time, and want to know more about the music. One punter even told us he’d driven 4 hours to see us. We’ve been made to feel really welcome, been hosted by a cast of generous people, and I’m pretty sure these won’t be our last gigs in Europe.
Hamburg and London are still to come, and we’re very much looking forward to these. In 2012, we’re already starting to plan for a big party in Bangkok, as well as return gigs in Japan and, all things being equal, spreading the word to the US too.
In the mean time, cheers to all those who came down, and hope to see some more of you in either Hamburg or London. After the dust settles, work begins on comp. No. 2 for Soundway. Watch this space….
….and until then, copy and paste the link below into your browser, and you can check this recent mix me and Nat did for The Quietus. Happy listening!
Change is always difficult, and moving is possibly one of my least favorite things. Thus, much as it’s good to be back in the country of my birth, it’s slightly odd also, be it readjusting to climate, food or body language. One constant however, and one that always assists my mental health when faced with life changes (as far as I’m concerned at least) is music, and more specifically, vinyl records! As I write this, I’m taking a break from unpacking the various Luk Thung, Molam and other South-East Asian discs, which recently arrived after their sea voyage from Thailand.
In addition to this, it’s also nice to have been reunited with my not small collection of discs I stored in my parents’ garage once we departed this sceptered isle back in 2006. You might think it odd, but bringing the two collections under one roof and finally linking up the last five years I’ve spent abroad with my previous existence in the UK, has been an important moment. Speak to anyone who is serious about collecting music, and they will, on balance, be able to place their hands on an LP or single and give the background to where it was purchased, maybe some specific attached memory, as well as some info about the band/artist.
Thus, coming across a small forgotten pile of Ethiopian records took me back to a brief trip to Addis, where I interviewed Mulatu and Mahmoud Ahmed, and was assisted in my vinyl search by a guy called Mengistu, who continued to post me records via DHL, even after I’d returned home.
Similarly, as I go through my Thai shipment, so many of those discs tell the story of ‘Paradise Bangkok’, all the numerous tales surrounding hunting down the elusive tracks, running the parties with Maft Sai, and the many happy memories associated with mine and my family’s time in Thailand.
However, this is not about mere nostalgia. It’s about what happens next. Myself and Maft Sai will be playing our first European gig on September 10th, at a warehouse in East London at the Soundway event ‘Dancing Time’, alongside Cambodian Space Project, Miles Cleret, Vamanos and AJ Holmes, as well as DJs from The Quietus.
After this, we’ll be playing in Germany, Austria and Switzerland during September and October, seeing if the Paradise Bangkok formula can adapt to the chilly climes of Europe. Hence the time I’m spending going through the vinyl archives, drawing from tunes I used to play out in London, and how they will slot into the music that has provided the soundtrack abroad for the past few years. Drawing from, and blending, these past experiences, will most likely determine how this ongoing project unfolds in Europe, and, God-willing, back in Asia in the coming months. Hope to see some of you over the next month. Dates and venues can be found below:
16th September Walden Duplex, Geneva
17th Le Bourg, Lausanne
18th Kab/L’usine, Geneva
23rd Import/Export, Munich
24th Hemdendienst, Nuremberg
1st October The Roxy, Vienna
8th Golden Pudel, Hamburg
9th Peacetanbul, Hamburg
Despite my best intentions, it has taken me much longer than usual to post an entry for my recent trip to Indonesia. However, there are at least good reasons for this. First, and most importantly, myself and the family are getting ready for an extended period of leave in the UK at the end of the summer, so there is much to take care of before that happens. In addition, myself and Nat have been organising some dates for Europe in September, that should hopefully see us play gigs in the UK, Germany, Austria and France. Watch this space for details.
We were also privileged to welcome Isan legend Dao Bandon to perform at what will be our last Paradise Bangkok for a few months – it was heart warming to see the crowd’s response to one of my favorite molam artists. We also recently returned from 3 more dates in Japan. Playing there is always a pleasure, as people have such an open mind musically. Each gig is always different (two in Tokyo, one in Osaka) and allowed us to dig deep into our record boxes.
So, why go to Indonesia? Well, firstly it’s the size of the country, and due to its make up, the potential diversity of sounds that might have evolved across the archipelago. The main difference between this and previous trips, though, was that I knew the country had already been a seasoned destination for vinyl hunters, and only recently the Now-Again label had issued ‘Those Shocking Shaking Days’, an excellently researched compilation of Indonesian psychedelia. However, I was also hoping, as with Thailand, that there would be styles that the collectors had overlooked, preferably something below the western radar that had indulged in its own experiments during the 60s and 70s.
I arrive at midnight, and was greeted by a bevy of prostitutes in my hotel reception, casually looking for business over the thud-thud of karaoke in the next door bar. Not quite the welcome I was looking for. I went up to my room, which 30 years ago, must have been quite pleasant. Still, this much you expect from a 2 star establishment at 20 quid a night!
I had chosen this hotel due to its proximity to the flea market in Menteng, a recommended spot for record hunting. The next day I wandered out into the ambient busyness of a Jakarta morning, dodging traffic, and trying to match my map with the slightly skewed streets in front of me. I quickly found the market, which was literally a whole street of permanent stalls and small shop fronts, largely dedicated to the selling of antiques, ‘antiques’ and wooden and porcelain souvenirs of varying quality.
Half-way down I’m met by an elderly man, who asks me what I’m looking for. I explain and he quickly ushers me down the street to a shop run by a man called ‘Harris’. It is full to the brim with records, both familiar and unfamiliar. I rarely do any research prior to these trips. I certainly don’t draw up a ‘wants’ list for fear that I might overlook something. I want to hear the music with as open a mind as possible, particularly when I really don’t know what to expect. Ultimately, I want to be surprised and walk away with something I hadn’t anticipated.
Development in Indonesian music draws parallels with their south east Asian neighbours, such as the influence of American and British music in their surf and rock n’ roll experiments, culminating in a genuine psychedelic rock scene. Then there are the twin evolvements of ‘Melayu’ and ‘Dangdut’, which contain elements of Indian and Arabic music as well as indigenous rhythmic forms.
Preceding both of these, though, was another form called Gambus, named after the very lute I’d first come across in Sana’a, Yemen. Due to the coffee and spice trade, many Yemeni emigres had settled in what is now Indonesia, and indeed it was one of the conduits through which Islam was spread to the country. This is to say that, like the archipelago itself, the music of Indonesia is broad and unique, containing elements that do exist elsewhere, but which seem to blend together in a special way here.
The summary above I’ve obviously concluded in retrospect, but the different sounds and elements could be traced as I started to sift through the piles in Harris’ boxes. There was the odd psyche rock of an artist called ‘Harry van Hove’, the blistering soul/funk stylings of the Sitompul Sisters, the hypnotic sounds of Gamelan drum and gong orchestras from both Java and Bali, as well as Bollywood influenced Melayu by Elvy Sulaesih. The fact that all this was recorded locally, pointed to the astonishing rich seam of sounds, the surface of which I was merely scratching. I took the first of many coffee and kretek (clove cigarettes) breaks in a little stall across the road. My ears needed to rest.
I decided to have a look around at some of the other stalls, and met a man called Lian. He clearly had experienced a lot of western diggers in his time, and had a contact book with the details of the likes of DJ Shadow, Diplo, Alan Bishop and even a couple of friends from Bangkok. As I would discover, he also had a cunning knack of quickly figuring out what you wanted, and produced attuned piles of discs (most of which I’d take) every time I passed by his shop. As I was going through one such pile, a friend me & Nat had met in Japan called Baba, appeared. I knew he was in town around the same time as me, but we hadn’t made any plans to meet up. It was good to see him, and we spent the rest of the day going from shop to shop.
The next day I wandered up to Batavia, which is the old Dutch quarter. Batavia is also the colonial name of what is now Jakarta. Expecting well preserved streets and quaint architecture, I was amazed to note how utterly run down it was. Many hulking buildings had been left to literally rot and decay, and seem mostly utilised for wedding photos and the like. One I went into had a huge tree growing up through its centre, lending it a dreamlike air.
I heard this was a deliberate ploy on behalf of the government, eventually affording them the excuse to expunge the colonial echoes from the cityscape. True or not, this area of the city has a disjointed almost eerie feel, only offset by the affluent Cafe Batavia in its centre. I took a break there over an overpriced beer, listening to a slightly functional jazz band run through its repertoire.
The next day, I continued my search. The further down the market I went, sellers seemed more intent on charging exorbitant prices for LPs featured on the Now-Again comp, though they did bargain down on occasion, albiet with a disappointed air. However, once I’d figured out the names of the rural styles I was after, these tended to be languishing at the back of the shelves, going for next to nothing. The brunt were sleeveless, denoting a promotional copy gleaned from a local radio archive. Dangdut especially is an unashamedly populist form, often coming under criticism for its subject matter from society’s conservative elements, but it’s prolific output and adaptability has ensured its survival. It’s heavy percussion and simple arrangements draw a direct parallel with molam for me, and as in Thailand, dangdut also had its experimental adherents. Bubbling moog synths, spacey percussion and heartfelt vocals peppered the discs I was lucky enough to find, and I shall post up some sounds soon.
One of the total gems that Lian picked for me, though, was a direct and present echo of the influence of Yemeni music, and Islam in general. An LP entitled ‘Qasidah Modern’ by Fantastique Group yielded an astonishing version of the ‘call to prayer’ over ominous synths and measured drumming. The vocal had the same intensity I’ve heard in the best Pakistani Qawwali to the rawest blues or gospel. It contains emotion I think anyone could relate to.
I spend a pleasant evening in a local ‘padang’ restaurant feasting on spicy beef curry, before adjourning to a cafe next door for Javanese coffee. My final morning turned up a few more musical gems, as well as some antique wooden puppets for my kids, before I headed for the airport. A lone prostitute was still after some lunch time trade as I went upstairs to pick up my bags.
Although it opened up another world of music for me, perhaps more importantly, the trip seemed to offer one of the most obvious links that draws together the music of South and South-East Asia, the Middle East and East Africa. Listen closely and its easy to spot the DNA that allows Thai luk thung, Indonesian melayu, Lollywood soundtracks, and Ethiopian funk to sit comfortably side by side. This broad historical sweep that links trade, culture, migration, music and social history hints to a well of possibilities that needs to be properly explored.
As I head back to Europe, this chapter that has unfolded over the last five years seems to be drawing to a natural close. The next one, however, is only just beginning…
Just a short update – work continues apace with the Yemeni & Vietnamese compilations for Dust To Digital. Really looking forward to hearing and seeing how they both turn out. Have also just finished the notes for ‘Life Is Dance’ on Finders Keepers which is effectively ‘Vol 2’ of the ‘Sound of Wonder’ which came out back in 2008. Great to be reminded of the unbridled creativity of Pakistani music.
Myself and Maft Sai will be heading to Europe in the summer – watch this space for details. In anticipation, I’ve just put together a mix for the excellent ‘Paris DJs’ website. You can hear it by clicking the link below, either as a podcast, or as a downloadable MP3 at the bottom of the page. Just cut and paste this URL into your browser:
Gives you a little taste of the Paradise Bangkok sound. Tomorrow night we’ll be holding our 10th party – can’t wait, and looking forward to bringing these sounds westwards in the coming months. Full blog update will be posted soon…
I first travelled to Vietnam in July 2009, spending a few days in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) mostly on the look out for records. I had never heard any modern Vietnamese music, but given the presence there of the US during the 60s and 70s I figured this may well have been reflected in musical trends, evolving technology and the need of bands to adapt their music for a temporary foreign audience.
In one antique shop I ran into a Danish guy called Stefan, who was there on holiday with his girlfriend. To my surprise, he was also sifting through the large piles of vinyl at the back of the shop. I rarely bump into anyone else record digging. Over the last 3 years in SE Asia I have come across precisely 4 people in all that time. As Stefan didn’t have a portable turntable I suggested we team up, and the three of us hung out for a couple of days dividing our time between digging and enjoying some of Saigon’s excellent eateries. On one occasion we ended up in the loft of a lady called Tuan, who had boxes and boxes of assorted memorabilia, including a few dusty stacks of various 45s and LPs from China, USA and Vietnam.
Despite initially looking for funk or soul derivations, the music that caught my attention the most were some strange ‘oriental’ blues recordings by two musicians called Van Vi and Thanh Kim, as well as early R&B/rock n’ roll experiments. (See ‘Forthcoming in 2011’ for 2 clips). The acoustic tracks sounded like John Lee Hooker strumming on the banks of the Mekong, and I was intrigued to know more.
A couple of weeks ago, I’m back chatting to Tuan, this time with the focus of researching and hunting for more music for a compilation for Dust To Digital (of ‘Goodbye Babylon’ fame), which would focus on this early folk/blues as well as the nascent strains of the US before the war left a once thriving music industry in tatters.
Vietnamese vinyl is increasingly in scarce supply, and that which you do find, is more often than not in unplayable condition. There are some simple and grimly practical reasons for that. The music industry effectively ended in 1975 after unification of North and South Vietnam at the conclusion of the war. The industry was centred around Saigon, and after Northern troops occupied the city, many people buried, burned or destroyed any remnants associated with ‘Southern’ culture. Those caught with any of these effects, music or otherwise, often had these possessions destroyed, in addition to facing some jail time.
The new government imposed an ill suited nationwide economic policy, and many people emigrated to the US (including many musicians) as businesses faltered and doors were closed to the outside world. As the ’80s ground on, there was a call for a recycling drive on certain materials such as paper. This naturally included record sleeves, which meant that those discs that then survived were often stored sleeveless, maybe in the ground or in outhouses and lofts away from prying eyes. Not surprising then, that so many display massive marks, gouges and ground in dust.
Tuan said she hadn’t turned up any new stock since my last visit, and so after catching up, I ended up in the next door shop, the same place I had originally bumped into Stefan. I started to listen to a few 45s when an odd thing happened. A tall guy with glasses and a girl carrying a portable turntable walk in!! Needless to say, we start to chat…The guy turned out to be Carter Van Pelt a reggae writer and DJ based in NYC, who coincidentally, knew my good friend David Katz, another reggae writer who lives in London. The girl, Linh, an American born Vietnamese, was on holiday with her family, and had worked for Wax Poetics up until recently. Weighing up the complete unlikelihood of all these convergences we got chatting, and eventually made plans to hook up later for food. Gotta love happy coincidences.
The next afternoon I go with Tuan to meet a friend of hers. I had explained why I was back in Saigon, and she mentioned a collector she knew who might be able to help. We speed into the outskirts of Saigon through a heavy swarm of mopeds and eye watering pollution. We eventually arrive and I’m introduced to a youngish man called Thanh. We talk briefly about the history of 20th century Vietnamese music, how he’d got into collecting as well as some anecdotes regarding the pre-75 music scene.
One fact in particular shocked me, though. It was that this music, officially speaking, was still actually illegal in Vietnam. It had never been properly reissued or reinstated, and technically if a policeman came to Thanh’s house, he could confiscate his collection as well as potentially arrest him. I wondered how serious this situation could be, as in certain second hand shops the music is still sold openly, and buying vinyl here isn’t a clandestine matter. But the fact that it should still even be a consideration was a big surprise. Thanh had a small shelving unit in his front room of 45s, but the main collection was in the back, a room brimming with 45s, LPs, 78s and a big pile of tape reels. It was an impressive sight, and I have to say that it’s gratifying, considering the still simmering politics, that such an amount of the music has been preserved, and is in local hands.
I head up to the central highlands for a couple of days on a tip-off, but a trawl around Dan Ang and Hoi An proves largely fruitless. I do meet people who had once had collections, but they had sold them long ago. Most Vietnamese are smilingly curious as to my requests for these long forgotten artifacts. Only one is nominally hostile, saying “Americans come – bang! bang! bang! Now all finished!!”
Hoi An, despite being a seething tourist attraction on occasion, is still a beautifully preserved 16th century town bearing the hallmarks of early international trade, visible in the mix of Chinese, Japanese and early Vietnamese architecture. Old merchant’s houses line the river, some boasting the eight generation of their family still living in the same spot. I enjoy a day wandering round taking it all in, before heading back down south, despite having my rented moped impounded twice, due to hourly shifting traffic regulations which I failed to grasp during my short stay!
Back in Saigon, I meet up again with Linh, going through the remainder of the records in the second hand shop. Many expat musicians still live in different parts of the US and she kindly offered assistance with translation and further research, as I started to put the compilation together. It was a serendipitous offer of help I gladly accepted.
Thanh had also offered help with interviews and research and at short notice set up a meeting with Ngoc Son a songwriter and producer who had worked throughout the music’s development right up until 1975. He survived the changes and happily still works as a musician and photographer in Saigon today. His full story, like Thanh’s, will be shared in the compilation notes, but he shed crucial light on those Van Vi and Thanh Kim recordings that had initially attracted my attention.
In the search for new music, it’s a regular oscillation between your own perception, interpretation and the challenge to grasp the objective facts about these new sounds, where they come from and what shaped them. To say that this music was ‘blues’ inspired was entirely my conjecture, as it sounded like a cross between a slide guitar, and the ‘dan bao’, a one stringed classical instrument that is controlled by deft finger work and a large ‘tremolo’ arm. To my pleasant surprise, the blues inflections were entirely intentional.
Ngoc Son had been involved in the music scene since the 50s, first working as a dancer, then as a self-taught writer and musician. He was also involved in ‘quality control’ at Continental, one of the main labels of the day. Van Vi and Thanh Kim were primarily players in the classical tradition, and cut hundreds of sides as backing musicians. These solo outings (released on Continental) were apparently an experiment, incorporating blues licks into their normal repertoire with a desire to push these traditions into new territory
And so it would have gone if events had not taken over. The Vietnamese music industry was sophisticated, evolving and forward thinking before the curtain came down in the 70s. We’ll never know how it might have developed and the heights it might have reached. A couple of local musicians had started to perform in Japan to great acclaim. War will almost always snuff out individual ambition, as the time and space to focus on luxuries such as music becomes untenable. Even the very condition of records or other artefacts, it seems, can reflect a national story. The opportunity to discover these little known tales will always be a privilege, and whilst one can’t objectively judge the complexities of what became known as ‘The Vietnam War’, to lay out these different perspectives and personal recollections, for me, is crucial in obtaining an appreciation of the full picture, whilst these stories can still be heard first hand.
Greetings from Ho Chi Minh City. Just a short post, before I send a proper update about my current vinyl hunting efforts in Vietnam.
Post Japan, it’s been a busy time with school holidays and family visits, hence the radio silence. In brief the trip to Japan went really well, with three different parties; 2 in Tokyo, and 1 in Osaka. Firstly, a big thanks to everyone who came down to the nights, as well as our hosts, Disk Union, Grassroots, New Tone, Em Records & Drum & Bass – cheers for making us all feel so welcome. We did a couple of interviews too, one of which, with Groove Meeting, has just been posted on the web:
The first party in Tokyo and the one in Osaka were both ‘Paradise Bangkok’ style events, and it was great seeing crowds bob and weave to music from Thailand, Pakistan, Benin and Jamaica. Grass Roots was a more laid back affair that head nodded its way into the wee hours. Other than seeing people really enjoy themselves, the nicest comments we got were regarding the fact that we were promoting Asian music specifically, and reintroducing tunes that had previously gone under the radar. In Japan, people seemed to particularly appreciate this, and seemed to relate to luk thung and molam on a personal level, even though it was broadly unfamiliar. This felt good, and points the way to some future direction for these events.
Japan is also a perennially dangerous destination for the vinyl junkie, and me and Nat found some real gems, especially on the reggae side! A great selection always, from Disk Union, Small Axe, Carib, Black Ark (Kyoto) and of course Drum & Bass.
Drum & Bass boss, Masa, invited us to do a podcast, which they broadcast weekly. Good vibes all round – you can check part 1 and part 2 here:
Am currently in Ho Chi Minh working on research for the Dust To Digital comp – as with all these trips, it’s the unexpected that hits you the strongest! Full update soon…