[11 August 2006]
I studied at a Thai university during the ‘90s, and came back to Australia with three things: a feeble command of the language, a respect for the good King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and a dislike of “Hotel California”. While I was there it felt as if every radio played “Hotel California”, and every pub jukebox played “Hotel California”, and everyone who was finding their way into an instrument used “Hotel California” as their training wheels. Someone in my building was teaching himself the guitar, strum by strum. Wel. Come. To. The. Ho. Tel. Cal. I. For. Nia. Over and over. The kingdom seemed infected by “Hotel California”.
Radio Thailand proves I was wrong. This two-disc set is a montage of broadcasts taped from the radio in Bangkok, Chaing Mai, Ayudhya, Isan, and a few other places between 2000 and 2005 (that’s disc one), and 1989 through 1995 (that’s disc two), and there’s not one second of “Hotel California” anywhere. There are sentimental tunes and Buddhist chants and pieces of the news and something that sounds like a small boy singing with the most irritating voice in the world, but no “Hotel California”. There are rock songs and mor lam and advertisements and exchanges from Thai-English language lessons and an announcer who tells us that the topic for today is going to be the high quality of local rubber production, but no “Hotel California”. None of the singers and announcers receives credit, so it might just be that The Eagles have better legal representation than small boys or women who talk about rubber, but I don’t think that’s it.
This lack of credits troubles me. I’m sure it’s legally permissible to put out a collection of noises that you’ve taped from Thai radio without telling us who the musicians are—why would Sublime Frequencies have done it if it wasn’t?—Yet it doesn’t seem fair. This is the only time that some of these singers are going to be heard by an overseas audience, and we don’t even know their names. As a listener I know that I might not pay too much attention to rows of names and titles, but as Small Irritating Boy or High Quality Rubber Woman, I’d wish that people knew who I was.
Each track is a segment of the longer montage, which switches rapidly from one item to another as if the listener is wandering down a street catching brief snatches of radio from different doorways. In a single track you might hear a pair of excited American voices from a tourism station (“In search of Thailand’s most esteemed beach and hiking spots? Where to go! What to do! What to see!”), a high gong-like dinging, a woman whose song is being elongated and made jagged by radio interference, and a saxophone. Another starts with a chorus of children singing a cheerful song and ends with a conversation that could have been taken from a talkback show.
The segues between different recordings are often droll. “The End of the News” switches from a group of monks chanting heavily in unison to a woman’s voice saying, “… and that’s the end of the news,” as if the chant itself had been the news. “Giant Catfish Fry” reassures you that “giant catfish will not be threatened with extinction, and will be another source of income for the Thais,” before jumping into a cute piece of pop music. Breathless pieces of radio drama turn into songs.
This montage idea is clever and inventive, a cross between an art project and slide show. It’s the sort of thing that makes you think, “Why haven’t more people done this before?” and “When is the next one coming out?” This should be done for every country, not only the ones like Thailand that get the “ooh, exotica” label slapped on them, but even the ones we think we know. It could be an internet project. People in different countries could get together and turn their local radio stations into collages. Listening to them would be like a tour, blindfolded, in the dark, with every new turn a surprise.
I do have some misgivings about the presentation of Radio Thailand, which makes the kingdom look as puppet-y and garish as the set of a Bollywood movie, but it’s so good to see something in the world music section that shies away from the well-stamped, safe old rut of Africa, South America, Europe, and India, that I’m willing to say that if this kind of packaging gets people interested in South-East Asia then more power to it. More Thailand and Indonesia and Malaysia are what we need, not yet another guitarist from Mali, nor yet another pack of winking and twiddling Celts. More of this, please. More.