19 April, 2016

Surviving Popular Music in Thailand

Paul Bierman is 2015-16 Fulbright-AMCHAM Thailand ETA, currently teaching at Mae Chan Wittayakom, in Chiang Rai, Northern Thailand. Born in Iowa and raised in Alaska, Paul graduated from Swarthmore College in May 2015 with a B.A. in Sociology & Anthropology, and a minor in Interpretation Theory. Until he can read books in Thai, Paul contents himself with reading books about Thailand.

I have known some people in the U.S. that do not like music, but I haven’t met any such people in Thailand. Often when people talk about social life in Thailand they talk about the ubiquity and importance of food, but they neglect to mention that with enough food and enough people, music is sure to follow. While living in Thailand, I have seen music performed in many places, at my school, at bars, at weddings, at markets, on double decker buses. I have listened to it while with students in my classroom, while sitting alone at cafes, while on trips in cars. As with many “Thai” things I’ve experienced with the U.S. at the back of my mind, “Thai” taste in music sits in an uncanny valley, almost like its counterpart in the U.S., but just different enough that you don’t forget that you’re in Thailand.

I first arrived at Mae Chan Wittayakom School at the end of October, where I would live and teach for the next year. I did not realize at the time that I would soon participate in one of my truly memorable experiences, even before teaching. My first day, I was invited by student teachers in my department from nearby Mae Fah Luang University to join in a dance number for teachers’ Sports Day, two days away. I hesitated at first, but my eagerness to participate at my school won out. I practiced with them for the first time that afternoon, learning choreography from a YouTube video of university students performing to a Thai rap song. I practiced with the student teachers again the following afternoon, and again the morning of the performance. In between I practiced the dance by myself at home because I was determined not to make an ass out of myself.

Maybe like you at this point in my narrative, I had no idea what Sports Day was. Sports Day is a common Thai school event and competition, normally involving students rather than teachers. Like its name suggests, sports are played, from “chair ball” to volleyball, but the “sports” also include making somtam and putting on music and dance performances. Though some might argue that the sports are the key component of the day, in my opinion, the performances are a lot more interesting. On our teacher’s sports day, the sports were mostly finished by 11am and we were already moving onto the main event: an enormous lunch (seven courses total) and then the performance competition. Every school came with full musical routines: singers, dancers, music, costumes. (That said, the student teachers and I held our own. I even received a rose for my performance.)

Me in the middle of my solo

The teachers from my school performed a popular Thai classic. In front sang the teacher already introduced to me as “the best singer in the school” while the rest of the teachers danced and performed behind her.

As for the other schools, I don’t remember what all they performed. One school performed to a song with an ocean theme, and performed in swim shorts and Hawaiian shirts. Another performed their own cover of a viral YouTube video. I don’t remember which school actually won for best performance, which doesn’t really matter.

I was completely shown up by my students on their Sports Day a few weeks later.
These are pictures of only a couple of the performances from that day

What mattered to me at the time, and still does, is how radically different this event was compared to school staff events in the U.S. For one, it was actually an opportunity for community to happen. Growing up, my dad worked for our local school district, and the only time that teachers or other school staff got to interact with each other in an official capacity was when they had to do some form of “professional development.” Something like Sports Day wouldn’t have happened because it didn’t have “a point” (as if encouraging community between schools isn’t enough of a point). I also can’t imagine teachers in the U.S. agreeing to prepare for elaborate performances like the ones that the Thai teachers performed. In the U.S. I think that the most one could hope for would be teachers singing at a karaoke event.

Speaking of karaoke, karaoke is often the go to entertainment for a party. Are you having a housewarming party? Ask one of the school’s technicians if you can borrow the school’s karaoke machine. (Yes, my school owns a karaoke machine, and they get their money’s worth out of it too.) Once, I went on a fieldtrip with students from my school to Chiang Mai, over four hours away. We left at four in the morning, and took enormous double decker buses, often used for long distance travel in Thailand. After a full day in Chiang Mai, guess what we did the entire drive back that evening? Karaoke, in the dark, with a laser show, because there isn’t a single double decker bus in all of Thailand not fully equipped for a non-stop karaoke dance party. I think I refused to sing on that trip, but following demands from students, I danced with them. By the time we got back, I was flying high, but utterly exhausted.

Not everyone was dancing all the time.

I have been asked to sing a number of songs during karaoke, including some that might seem odd: “Zombie” by the Cranberries and John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” From talking to other ETAs and other foreigners in Thailand, the consensus is that these two songs are karaoke staples. But why? I asked another American once about why he thought “Zombie” was such a popular karaoke song, and he said, “probably because it doesn’t take much English to sing well.” After trying to sing that song myself, I’m not convinced that he’s correct. What about “Take Me Home, Country Roads?” Could it be a legacy of the American military bases that spanned Thailand during the Vietnam War era? Or maybe the song simply appeals because it has the love for the countryside that can be found in many Thai songs, even today? I cannot say for sure, and I don’t know that I ever could.

Even if I don’t think there is an indisputable answer to the appeal of these songs, I have tried to make sense of them for my own sake. I have certainly been exposed to many musical tastes. One of the consequences of being an ETA is that I don’t really have a good way of transporting myself around. I don’t have a car, and I’m forbidden from using a motorcycle to get around out of safety concerns. I do have a bicycle, which I can use to go to the market, but beyond that, I am dependent upon the modes of transportation offered by others. Almost all of the Thai cars I have ridden in have a USB port for inserting a flash drive and playing a personal music mix. Riding in the fronts and backs of cars I’ve heard everything from U.S. country music, to Isaan love ballads, to disco music (e.g. Boney M’s “Rasputin”) to rock to pop (Thai, American, and otherwise). It seems that like me, the teachers and friends kind enough to take me places prefer songs with vocals to songs without: I don’t think I’ve heard any “classical” music (even with vocals) or any electronic dance music. I am willing to suggest that non-Thai music listened to in Thailand tends to have vocals rather than not: not exactly a revelation, but something anyway. I certainly never expected to hear “Rasputin” in Thailand, but when on a trip with one of my host teachers and I asked if she could play the song again, she told me that it’s one of her favorites.

For the most part, songs like “Rasputin” or “Zombie” remain unaltered aside from existing in their new cultural context. As a consequence of their new context, songs like these lose some meanings while gaining new ones. My 14 year old students in love with Justin Bieber may not understand the entendre behind Justin Bieber singing “oh baby, you should go and love yourself” in his song “Love Yourself,” but they listen to the song nonetheless. Yet, surprising or not that my students would like Justin Bieber, more obscure artists capture their attention just as much. One of these “obscure” artists is the Norwegian pop duo M2M. Though the duo released only two albums and dissolved in 2002, many of the girls in my classes were captured by their singles “Pretty Boy” and “The Day You Went Away” as if they had come out in the last six months. Atypical for pop music (at least in the U.S.), these two lovelorn ballads latched onto life in Thailand and became songs for a new generation. It might be inappropriate to suggest that all these songs I’ve discussed have something in common, but I think there is an aesthetic shared by them that we might think of as “Thai.”

When I first came to Thailand, I could not stand listening to “slow” music. Before I ever majored in anthropology and sociology, I studied computer science, and blasting pop music in my ears was how I got through long hours of programming. Out of all the things that I got from studying computer science, a compulsive need for dance-pop music while I work is one of the things that has stuck with me the most. (I even listened to some of my favorites while writing much of this narrative.) But, either out of a genuine attempt to embrace new things, or simply being surrounded by them, I can now honestly admit to seeing the appeal of a song like “Pretty Boy.”

Songs, as art and as cultural artefacts, gain and lose meanings as they move through time and space. This process becomes even more obvious once those songs have been changed to suit the needs of a new audience. Outside of music this typically happens through translation, taking something and reconstructing it in another language. With music, one of the ways “translation” happens is through live covers.

Cover bands are popular at Thai bars, and not in the way that they typically appear in the U.S., with one cover band covering the catalogue of one artist or a select few of them. Cover performers in Thailand perform wide catalogues and also accept requests. While most of the time these bands attempt to emulate the feel of the group they are currently performing, it is not as if they try to imitate the members of the groups themselves. There is also latitude in these performances: while singers can mostly perform in perfect English depending on the song, a song can be subtly altered, its tempo changed, or its rough edges buffed out.

Sometimes, though, songs do get radically changed to suit “Thai” tastes and appear as background music at cafes. Cafes are everywhere in Thailand, appearing nearly as often as 7/11s (which are almost everywhere). In some places, cafes even dominate. My own school has three cafes almost directly across the road while the nearest 7/11 sits 2 km / 1 mi away (surrounded by even more cafes). It is a very strange experience to realize that the gentle, breezy, background music of a cafe is actually someone singing Rihanna’s “S&M” to a different arrangement. For whatever reason, rooftop bars seem to call for this same form of music. Just a few weeks ago I sat at a rooftop bar in Bangkok while being constantly distracted by the background music, which consisted solely of a woman singing slowed down, gentle versions of Lady Gaga’s greatest hits.

Attaching “Thai” to culture is unavoidable when living in Thailand. Similarly unavoidable is the debates over what Thai culture is and isn’t, and who it does or doesn’t belong to. A key way that this debate is often framed is in terms of Thai-ness (kwaam bpen Thai ความเป็นไทย). One of the aspects of Thai-ness that seems to be agreed upon by conservative Thais as well as academics is that “Thais have long been, and still are, adroitly strategic and selective in their adoption and use of Western forms” (Michael Herzfeld on page 178 of “The Ambiguous Allure of the West,” an anthology published in 2010). It is not the case that “Western music” has drowned out an indigenous Thai music industry. The two exist side by side. Outside of their original contexts, Western, English, American, songs are listened to, sung during karaoke, imitated for bar-goers or transformed into light-as-air versions of themselves to be consumed alongside espresso and desserts.

Of course, this adeptness is not limited only to music, but to other pursuits as well, cultural and otherwise. King Rama VI, (King Vajiravudh) famously translated works of William Shakespeare into Thai. These few lines from Merchant of Venice (in their Thai form) have become so canonical, I am told that most Thais aren’t aware that they are translations. Maybe they offer another explanation of the Thai love of music, a love that has slowly worked on me.

The Merchant of Venice, Act 5, Scene 1, Page 5

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.

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