Various Artists: Shadow Music of Thailand

Various Artists
Shadow Music of Thailand
Sublime Frequencies

Americans, says the American in the room next to the one in which I’m sitting, have not heard of Cliff Richard, so if you’re American I’m not sure how useful it will be to learn that the 1960s Thai pop genre known as wong shadow, or shadow music, takes its name from Richard’s sometime band, the Shadows. Cliff Richard was a British teen teddy boy who came along a little before the Beatles. He performed like a man who had noticed Elvis Presley. The Nigerian joromi musician, Victor Uwaifo, appearing on Charlie Gillett’s radio programme, told the host that he had been influenced by those same Shadows. A popular band, years ago. If you come from one of the countries where Cliffy — “Cliffy” my mother says — is a recognised name, then it might be useful to know that the wong shadow on this compilation is more “Young Ones” than “Summer Holiday”. In other words it is creamy, surf-guitarish, a little croony, more than zippy-poppy-bouncy.

Thanks to this, and thanks, also, to the fact that most of the songs on the album are played by the same people under different names, there’s a low-key sameness to Shadow Music of Thailand that I didn’t notice in Sublime Frequencies’ earlier Thai releases, Thai Pop Spectacular, Isaan Country Groove, and so on. On one hand this is a downer and I would happily have exchanged Shadow Music‘s “Pama Rum Kwan” for more of Thai Pop Spectacular‘s Onuma Singsiri jumping an angular path through “Mae Kha Som Tum”. On the other hand you can congratulate Sublime Frequencies for not playing to the crowd that likes extreme foreign exotica, unless the idea of Thais playing pop music somehow seems extreme on its own, which god knows it shouldn’t.

The transition into Thai has given the Anglo-American music a penetrating note, as if high-pitched percussive instruments are being quickly struck and pieces of metal are being clashed. It’s a sound you hear in Thai music all the way from country up to courtly piphat. In some of the songs, high-pitched percussive instruments really are being quickly struck because the musicians have brought in local instruments to set among the foreign ones. In other places they hit the folk-note with their guitars, drums, or keyboards, so the mild surfer sound is spanked with a Southeast Asian sharpness, or else used to decorate a country-dance shuffle. Thai country tunes are given a foreign twang. In Johnny Guitar’s “Lao Kratob Mai” they overwhelm it. In other places the blend is more even-handed. The keyboard turns Thai, the guitars move between several continents, the percussion injects its clashing note, then shifts into Shadow-land.

Shadow Music of Thailand is at its most interesting where the mixture is most explicit. Johnny Guitar is maybe more successful in this then the other bands, P.M. Pocket Music, the Son of P.M., and a confusing amalgamation called P.M.7/Jupiter. The P.M. groups were named for their manager, Payong Mukda, who kept a cast of musicians recording under different band names. The compiler Mark Gergis tells us that Son of P.M. employed Mukda’s adopted son Kabuan on keyboard, which means that he’s probably the one to the far left of the photograph on Shadow Music‘s front cover with his hair standing up and his eyes staring at the camera as if it might be coming to get him. As far as musicianship goes, he’s not noticeably better or worse than anyone else, so from the modern listener’s long perspective this piece of nepotism seems fairly harmless. Young aspiring Thai pop musicians of the 1960s would not have been so sanguine.

It seems strange that a compilation dedicated to an entire movement features only four bands, and three of them staffed by the same ménage, but Gergis explains this in the inlay: “Out of the many groups playing Shadow-laced gigs around the country, few saw recording contracts. Featured on this compilation are a handful of the leading recorded artists from the time”.

So there were few records to choose from and he’s tried to pick the best. I’ll take him at his word, but I wonder what the rest of Mukda’s competition sounded like. I’m curious.

RATING 6 / 10