Further to Fly: Todd ‘Tongdee’ Lavelle and the Lanna World Festival

 |  March 27, 2013

“I was an ugly kid,” Todd ‘Tongdee’ Lavelle told me, sipping on a glass of fruit juice. “My brother used to say I abused the privilege of being ugly.”

Lavelle grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where he was one of six biological offspring in a family that included 40 foster kids and a deaf autistic sister named Kelly whom he cites as his greatest creative inspiration. His father, a German-American Olympic diver turned Broadway actor turned self-taught industrial engineer, and his mother, a Black Irish paralegal cum nightclub owner, were known around town for their so-called ‘hippie house’ – a haven for creative people, social outcasts and troubled youth. They even headed a family minstrel group, where they would perform at local convalescent homes. While not exactly politically correct, Lavelle says the group was “accidental genius” because it exposed him at a young age to every kind of humanity.

“We grew up with no fears,” he recalled. “Nobody was crazy or old. We saw everybody as a resource.”

After college (where he triple-majored in English, History and Pre-Med) and a short stint as a cruise ship entertainer, Lavelle received a Fulbright Scholarship to study Herbal Medicine in the mountains of Northern Thailand. There, he compensated for his lack of chemical knowledge by trying to impress his teachers with what he could do.

“I was the monkey man,” he said. “I’d climb any tree, gather any fruit, talk to anybody… I wasn’t afraid of snakes… I’d do anything.”

His enthusiasm earned him the respect of the medicine men, so much so that one ended up taking him in like a son, even giving him a new name – Tongdee, which means ‘good gold’ – that he still uses today.

“He was a brilliant man,” said Lavelle. “He was so in tune with people. He told me that every step must contain respect, and you’ll know if you’re welcome or not. And that’s something I’ve carried with me everywhere.”

The Thais That Bind

Lavelle’s plan was to complete the requisite ten month Fulbright programme and then return west for medical school. But of course, things didn’t quite go according to plan.

“I had initially promised myself not to sing in Thailand,” he said. “When I came here as a Fulbright Scholar I said, you’re here to do research. But then one of the last nights I was here, I got up and sang at a cocktail bar in Bangkok and a funky guy in glasses came up to me and asked for my phone number”.

The funky guy in question was Surachai ‘Nga Caravan’ Jantimathawn, lead vocalist and songwriter for Caravan, the influential Thai folk rock band that started the phleng pheua chiwit or ‘songs for life’ pro-democracy protest movement of the mid-1970s.

Three months after their initial meeting, Nga called Lavelle, who had returned to the States, and asked him to return to Thailand to perform at a new hotel they’d just opened. He did, and days later was hired by the UN Refugee Agency (UNRA) to run cultural development programmes at a refugee reprocessing centre in Chonburi. From there, Lavelle was sent to the border camps, and that was where his life really changed.

“Before that, I had never seen war. I had never seen what deeply rooted hatred can do – and it shocked me,” he said. “I was doing a programme in one of the camps one day and they brought in a little girl whose legs were blown off. I’d never seen anyone who’d stepped on a landmine, and it freaked me. But I grew up with this idea of using anger. You gotta be cool, turn the flames into coals.”

Burmese Days

After working in the camps for two years, Lavelle returned Stateside to study Southeast Asian development at the East-West Centre in Hawaii. From there he received another Fulbright scholarship, and once again returned to Thailand to join an Advanced Thai Studies programme at Chiang Mai University.

“I kind of lied to the Thai government and said I was doing this thing on Thai culture, but I was sneaking into Burma every week. You’d have to get to the Salween River and then find a way across without being caught by the Burmese military. If they caught you, you’d be shot.”

It was in this way that Lavelle was able to witness Burma’s ongoing internal conflicts, from the 8888 Uprising in Yangon, where a peaceful military protest turned into a slaughter of students and monks by the dreaded State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), to the burning of Manerplaw in 1995.

“I stood in tears and watched a civilisation burn, filled with tremendous sadness but also the honour of seeing one colour of humanity almost get there,” said Lavelle. “And there it became a conviction: with the time left on this planet, we gotta stand in the name of these colours, because the game isn’t fair, it doesn’t all work out. For me it goes all the way back to my parents fighting for my autistic little sister’s right to sit in the school. And it’s kind of the impetus behind everything that I do. I’m not a good person; I’ve always considered myself scummy. But I think we owe.”

The Beat Goes On

From there, Lavelle began to focus on ways of bringing people together through music and dialogue. He toured Japan with Caravan in 1988 and gained media attention in Thailand when he performed at a 1990 benefit concert for AIDS. (“The media asked, who is this farang that speaks Thai?”)

Lavelle joined up with Caravan and two other prominent protest bands, Carabao and ZuZu, for a Superstar tour across Thailand. “The government banned some of the songs, but that only made our popularity grow,” he recalled. “Pretty soon the military began to follow us around.”

From there he self-released ‘Thailand: Inside-Outside’, the first Thai album printed on recycled paper, which sold a surprising 50,000 copies. “It was world music, although I didn’t know it at the time,” he recalled.

Then came the 1992 Black May protests in Bangkok, a bloody affair that only spurred Lavelle’s very vocal anti-militarism. He got threats, and then invites to do talks, becoming well-known for having honest views about the military, drugs, sex, and other issues.

Musiq with a Q

Lavelle reached mainstream musical success when his album ‘Rhythm of the Earth’ was bought by Warner Records of Thailand. He wrote books and produced rock operas and television shows, including one of Thailand’s all-time most popular cultural variety programmes, ‘Khun Pra Chuay’ or ‘God Help Me!’

“As my popularity grew, my opportunities to perform grew,” said Lavelle. “Eventually I decided that with all these resources I’d gathered, I’d like to start doing my own events.”

In January 2006, Lavelle hosted his first Rhythm of the Earth World Musiq Festival (the ‘q’ denotes “good quality, soul and being borderless”). It was Thailand’s first-ever world music festival, held in a rather unlikely location: under the Rama VIII Bridge in Bangkok. Why? “I wanted to do it somewhere we shouldn’t do it.”

For the festival, Lavelle recruited a variety of musicians from all over the world, as well as local deaf, blind, autistic and hill tribe players.

“In Thailand, there’s a subtle meanness. People avoid the disabled, even though they’re often incredibly talented. Our goal is just to give them a chance to be heard,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be sad to bring kids with HIV or autism on stage if there’s a way to play… if there’s respect there.”

The first Rhythm of the Earth Festival was a huge success. “The first night it opened, I turned to my friend and said, ‘this is history’,” Lavelle recalled. “He looked back at me and said, ‘this won’t stop’.”

And indeed, it has not. In the past eight years, Lavelle and his team have done over 40 festivals throughout Thailand, with 500-600 people performing at each one. The events are built upon the concept of internationalising local cultures.

“It’s about gathering people together and making them believe in their own music,” he said.

Soul of Lanna

Lavelle’s latest project, the Lanna World Festival, is a continuation of his newest TV programme, ‘Lanna: Miracles and More’, which is sponsored by the Ministry of Tourism and Sports of Northern Thailand and aims to celebrate the “heritage, history and hopes” of Lanna culture.

Lanna World Festival will be Lavelle’s first major world music (or musiq) festival in Chiang Mai, and will feature artists from America, Cameroon, India, Korea and all over Thailand, including some hyper-local Chiang Mai bands. Each artist will be required to create something brand new and Lanna-related.

We are trying to get in there and figure out what Lanna is,” said Lavelle. “Also it’s sponsored by Singha – because we want people to have fun.”

For Lavelle, everything that he’s experienced thus far in his life has brought him here, to a place where he has resources and the inspiration to bring people together and give them a chance to invest in their own culture.

“A guy once told me that what my festivals have done is bring all these ideas and concepts that were once in small rooms out into the open,” he said. “We have failed all over the world in convincing young people of their ability and their responsibility to create. But if they do believe in that, a lot of things fall into place.”

The Lanna World Festival will take place 4th – 7th April at Prasertland on Irrigation Canal Road in Chiang Mai. For more information, visit www.lannaworld1.com