DJ Chris Menist: The Indiana Jones of Thai folk music
When global music nut Chris Menist landed in Bangkok in 2008 he did what all incurable vinyl junkies tend to do in a new city: he went looking for the nearest dealer.
However, even this British DJ, musician and journalist with years of foraging and a couple of obscure music compilations under his belt was taken aback by what, after several dead ends, he discovered -- piles of old Thai LPs and 45s languishing in a strip of old Chinatown shophouses.
“I collect records in every country I go to -- it’s a useful way to orientate yourself in a new city I find,” he says, speaking over a fittingly crackly Skype connection while holidaying on Koh Tao.
“I’ve just come back from Yemen, and there, like most countries, the vintage records are all hidden away in antique shops,” he says. “But in Thailand the scene I encountered was unexpected, unusual ... most of them are stashed away in the old music industry quarter, as they have been for decades.”
Though he was familiar with Thai folk music, it was in these family-run record shops strung along Chinatown’s Saphan Lek that Menist found the raw, ballsy takes on it that fill his new compilation on Soundway Records: "The Sound of Siam: Leftfield Luk-thung, Jazz and Molam in Thailand, 1964-1975."
Some of its 19 resonant tracks will be familiar to those who’ve ever enjoyed a sweaty night of ya dong-fuelled foot-stomping at Paradise Bangkok, the bi-monthly club night he co-runs with DJ partner in crime and ZudRangMa Records mainman, Maft Sai.
But for those who haven’t, it’s an album that will surprise and then seduce you with its exotic kaleidoscope of sounds ranging from motorik morlam grooves with sultry vocals to woozy brass band-style luk thung, lopsided pulp jazz to even a haunting, Bollywood-style siren song.
'I’d only end up buying about 1 in 70 records'
It’s an album that only grows in stature, too, when you learn of the intrepid search-and-rescue operation that went into making it.
“I only found Saphan Lek after I spotted some women wrapping hi-fi amplifier coils on a Chinatown backstreet,” Menist confesses. “I pointed to my portable record player and they drew me a map and pointed me in the right direction.”
Then, having cleared the first hurdle in his Indiana Jones-like vinyl adventure, Menist was facing his next -- the crate-digging. The odd, standoffish nature of the shop owner was water off a duck’s back to him, but the excavation process he had to adopt was a first.
“Because all the artist titles were in Thai script, and the album covers rarely give an indication of the style of music, I had to go through each shop section by section, record by record. Never in all my years of collecting have I had that intense or robotic a record sifting experience.”
As for how often he found what he thought was a gem, his strike rate wasn’t as high as you might think.
“On average I’d end up buying about 1 in 70 records,” he says. “I’d always be listening for something original or that stands out -- be it the production, a vocal, or the instrumentation.”
A time of aural experiments -- and weirdness
If there’s a theme that ties The Sound of Siam together, it is experimentation, the fact that many songs on it are a bit out-there, blending strands of upcountry or urbanized folk with sounds from abroad. Often the results were bizarrely comic (check out The Viking Combo Band’s effort and you’ll see what we mean), other times compelling, even sublime.
Onuma Singsiri’s sassy, countrified take on urban loneliness Mae Kha Som Tam, for example, is a stuttering funk belter with a gnarly surf guitar riff; while one of Menist’s personal favorites, Sao Lam Plearn, melds traditional morlam with -- get this -- the riff from Jumpin’ Jack Flash.
“The mid 60s to mid 70s was a time when musical styles still hadn’t quite been settled upon, when people were rolling the dice and trying to see what works and what doesn’t,” says Menist.
Another reason for the experimentation, he believes, was that many artists then were recording, pressing and distributing records themselves, independently of the bean-counting record exec.
“When you have an artist in control of their creativity like that then they’ll just do whatever they want and see what happens,” he says.
More than just an Indiana Jones-style vinyl escapade
Ultimately though, The Sound of Siam doesn’t try too hard to trace the terrain of experimental Thai music at that time, but instead just wins you over with track after track of what his dapper DJ collaborator, Maft Sai, calls “dopeness."
It’s an approach that’s paying off.
Since its release earlier this month, The Sound of Siam has already amassed a clutch of glowing reviews. And not just from world music blogger beards, but also national newspapers, DJs and mainstream music magazines.
“It’s had great feedback so far,” says Menist. “But what I really hope for this album is that it serves as a catalyst to get Thai music properly documented.”
“Only about 50 percent of the main players are still alive, and many of them may not be in a decade, so time’s running out.”
'The Sound of Siam: Leftfield Luk-thung, Jazz and Molam in Thailand, 1964-1975’ is out now on Soundway Recordings, available online at Amazon.com or in Bangkok's Zudrangma HQ Record Store, 77 Soi Ekamai 21. Tel: +66 (0)88 891 1314. Another compilation curated by Menist, ‘Thai? Dai! The Heavier Side of the Luk Thung Underground,' is also due out on Finders Keepers early next year. Menist spins alongside DJ Maft Sai at the bi-monthly Paradise Bangkok parties, as well as online at ZudRangMa Records. He also writes a monthly column about obscure Thai music for Bangkok 101 Magazine.