Alex Piyevsky learned the capital of Thailand in high school
Jeff sent me this compilation, thinking it would be up my alley, and he was right – I enjoyed it a lot. But when I sat down to write something about it, I realized I didn’t have much to say. I liked the songs, but I didn’t know anything about them beyond what I found in the title and liner notes. According to those, the compilation focuses on the music of north-east Thailand. Molam means ‘singing expert’ and apparently refers to a specific vocal style, Luk Thung is a popular variety of rural Thai music. The collection aims to explore the intersection of the two, and the way their combination evolved beyond its country origins. All very interesting stuff from an academic perspective, but very remote from my direct frame of reference. So then I asked myself, why do I even like this kind of music in the first place?
On the very base level, my attraction to this compilation and others of its ilk is rooted in pure cultural tourism, driven by the attraction of the exotic. My knowledge of Thai culture is limited at best. I have seen a few movies, heard a little music, heard stories of other’s adventures there, and that’s about it. I have never had a chance to go to Thailand myself, but would love to go. A folder of mp3s is a poor substitute for a trip, but it does offer a brief glimpse of something, a small window to a world that is so far away and seemingly so alien that it might as well be on another planet.
One of the more fascinating things that can happen while traveling is the discovery of something that is very foreign yet carries some shade of the familiar. Those moments give you something to identify with, allow you to forge a connection between the place you are from and the place you are in. Sound Of Siam 2 has a handful of them. Early in the tracklist, in the midst of strange instruments and stranger voices, I caught a passage of notes very much resembling the opening of Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’. Several similar revelations followed. Some were in form of pieces of familiar western melodies; others took a wider shape suggesting entire American musical genres. Track 5, credited and titled with a string of syllables I can never hope to spell or pronounce, sported a distinctly chunky wah-wah that didn’t even seem to be produced by guitar. The opening of Montien Tienthong’s ‘Kor Kai’ pulsed with Latin beats. Onuma Singsiri’s ‘Lam Plearn Toe Lhong Tong’ kicked off with a dank and dark Italo-disco rhythm before shifting into some sort of demented carnival funk. Thepporn Petchubon’s ‘Fang Jai Viangjan’ impressed the most; clearly a torch song, sporting a creeping bluesy deep soul arrangement that would sound exotic but not out of place if it were found accompanying Syl Johnson or James Carr. A heart break hurts the same in any language after all.
These discoveries were not very surprising in on themselves, the liner notes explicitly mention how influences from other parts of the world were trickling into native music during the time which the compilation explores. But knowing this doesn’t change the ‘OH SHIT THAT SOUNDS LIKE…’ feeling you get when hearing a Thai country song make a left turn into a funk break. And that break is not simply mimicking funk, it’s interpreting it, spelling it out in the songwriter’s own sonic language. In that instant, you start to really believe in all the clichés about music being universal.
And right there we find what may be the key clue to the appeal of ‘world music’. To hear the sounds of distant places, and to discover in these sounds a bridge linking myself to the people who originally made and enjoyed them. Sound Of Siam 2 provides just this.