[11 August 2005]
I went to a symposium on “African Hip-Hop” the other day. In spite of the absurdly broad subject line, I gladly attended knowing that the talk would be led by two young speakers, both of whom specialized in Senegalese hip-hop. Sure enough, their shared backgrounds led them to focus the conversation on this specific case study. As they spoke about the history of pop music, the introduction of Western music and its adaptation in Senegal, in addition to citing the works of specific and varied Senegalese artists, it became clear that a distinct and diverse brand of hip-hop has and continues to be produced there. The information was fascinating, and the prospects were encouraging. Hip-hop had branched off into yet another pocket of the world, only to be flipped once again.
However, of greater interest to me was the nature of the conversation. Bridging the aforementioned speakers was a moderator, an older man who was quite knowledgeable himself on the topic of African pop music, as well as being a producer of a public radio show on the same subject. Admittedly, the announcement of the moderator’s credentials suggested a significant difference in perspective between himself and the speakers: he came of age at the inception of “World Music”, the other two being products of the genre. The intimate audience also reflected these generations, ranging in age from teens to elder statespersons. In short, the conversation could have easily become either too broad or too narrow. Fortunately, the moderator facilitated a cohesive conversation by framing the conversation from both the outsider and insider’s perspective. The symposium did precisely what needed to be done to the World Music genre—break its generalizations down by both providing the music with a context and treating it in an individual manner.
While this isolated incident impacted, at most, the 30 in attendance, fortunately similar strides are also being made from the top down. Several successor labels of the World Music tag have brought a greater sense of individuality, personality, and respect to musicians outside the borders of the English language: Buda Musique’s Ethiopiques series and What Music’s Brasilian reissues have explored past inversions and appropriations of Western pop music, while Palm Pictures has found new newfound beats in the Nortec Collective. Certainly, each label laces their releases with varying amounts of supporting information, and still frames their artists in subtly exotic manners, but they are unequivocally less exploitive.
Last year, Swedish label Subliminal Sounds took a break from breaking cognoscenti hearts, and began making their contribution to the global perspective with Thai Beat A Go-Go, a compilation series that unearthed Thai interpretations of Western popular music from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Certainly, the charming pictures and pronouncements of “Sounds from the Land of Smile!” across its covers both wink at and embrace the quaintness of yesteryear’s exotica. However, the material proved to be well-selected, focused, and downright fun. The series comes to a close now with its third installment, but returns with another grab-bag of American radio hit covers, mutant funk, and other odds and ends riffing on the familiar. After two prior volumes jam-packed with coulda-been/shoulda-been hits, the current edition may seem excessive. However, on its own terms the material proves to be just as conscious of and inventive in their spin on Western pop culture.
The set begins with a nod to the previously heard Muaythai theme, Jiraphand Ong-ard’s “Thai Boxing.” Ong-ard fills this fascinating cut with familiar funk flavors—crisp drumming, wah guitar, and punchy horn charts—but has a distinct sense of ownership of rather than deference to American music forms with a Pi Chawa solo and a decidedly nationalist sentiment: “You say ju-do, you say kung fu, you say ka-ra-te~ / Forget them all, there’s something real / Come learn it now and be proud you were born a man.” Musically, the track feels at home with the obscure nuggets of Schoolhouse Funk, but is emboldened primarily by spirited self-celebration. Even when the boxing theme is revisited in Duangdao Mondara and Chailai’s cover of Johnny Wakelin & The Kinasha Band‘s “The Black Super Man”, Mondara toasts with glee, connecting Muhammad Ali’s symbolism of strength with the pride of the nation’s martial arts. Although both are blunt in their sense of sovereignty, they nevertheless establish a concrete sense of identity for the compilation.
Fortunately for those less interested in the didactic, individuality also manifests itself in manners besides national cheerleading. The cover songs that make up a third of the collection feature highly accurate and creative takes of American favorites. The Royal Sprites recreate minute details of “Evil Ways” in “Noom Rai Por” like the intro’s stereo pans and a snare and hi hat combo to functionally emulate the guiro. Similarly, Flash perfectly channel the pumping confidence of Betty Wright when they tackle her classic “Where is the Love?” It is a spot-on cover, right down to the handclaps in the first verse and the forceful break (although the singer’s wildly vibrating “Whooos!!” could be reigned an inch and a half). The best quality of each artist’s cover though is the personal stamp each places. Supaphorn demonstrates a fine understanding of musical form and parallel themes when she turns “Hang on Sloopy” into the bouncy “Cham Chai”, a recast of the surf standard with shades of blue beat and mento; like going from one coast to another.
Even better still is the original material that manages to reference American pop, but on each artist’s terms. Panatda charges into “Let’s Go!” to the rhythm of the Budweiser break before shattering and panning phased guitars through the channels over a pumping disco beat. By the time Moog lines fart and squeal through the tweeters over shaky shaky tambourines, the mutant disco of the East Village can be seen bowing in deference. Panatda recreates the magic on “Flash Disco”, this time juxtaposing a decidedly native melody with a heavy heavy break filled with timbales, cowbells, and congas that would have Liquid Liquid fans reconsidering their pricey reissues. By the time the recognizable horns come in, it’s Hammer of the Gods time. The jewel of the set is the wordy The Law and the Sandy’s “Paradise in Bangkok”, an adventurous Ventures-style track that breezily jumps between Latin, Jamaican and American influences.
Although not every track necessarily trumps the Western standard, they are often notable in their own right. Erawan Band create a Rock Steady Muaythai theme on “Khon Muangkhan”, while Oriental Funk’s “Come Together” contains serviceable breaks and complex horn charts that deserve a place in Jazzman‘s crates. Vimarn Naeramit’s children’s record “Heoow Sabat” is compared to Zappa in the linear notes, perhaps for its creepy crawly oompa loompa polka tempo and off-kilter soul whoos offset by adults cooing in child voices. The record is hardly as far-reaching, but certainly falls somewhere between Beefheart dementia and Smiley Smile experimentation.
While interpreting the music of Volume 3 yields considerable fruit for the listener, Subliminal Sounds admittedly provides little textual and/or contextual guidance on this edition. However, this is to be expected because concrete information on the Thai recording industry from this period is scant. The linear note writers make a noble effort at providing as much background as possible to give a sense of place to this music, but there is often little listed outside of the anecdotal (which is a shame because a number of these artists are presumably still living). However, with the near simultaneous release of similar compilations covering artists from across Southeast Asia, like Cambodia and Indonesia, perhaps these discs can generate enough interest to properly preserve and share these extraordinary works (the lo-fi recording quality of this disc sounds as if the bulk of the recordings were lifted directly from records, as opposed to master tapes). At the very least, the Radio Thai A Go-Go series is a welcome contribution to establishing the identities of these unique voices.