To some the sound track of Thailand is nothing more than a proliferation of earnest but relentless acoustic covers of Wonderwall in coffee shops all over town, but plucked from the dusty corners of libraries, radio station back stock, and forgotten crates in antique shops around the country, record collectors and DJs are rediscovering a funky and freaky era of Thai music that is earning international attention.
Far from the lulling, day dreamy feel of luk thung, but not without its influence, the 60s and 70s was a time of incredible experimentation for electric music in Thailand. The Vietnam War brought with it the funk, psyche, surf, rock, R&B, country and British invasion music that Australian and American soldiers couldn’t be without. The result was an explosion of influences that changed electric Thai music forever, but not without losing its Thainess.
Music of this era is often coined simply “string” music, “Thai modernised music”, “universal songs” or “big-band style”. “Shadow Music” also known as “Wong Shadow” is another sub-genre of the times in which Thai bands emulated sounds from abroad but added Thai lyrics. These classifications at least signify a time where Thai music began to change drastically due to international influences.
Because such sounds had yet to gain ample popularity and financial support, most electric bands were also independently funded, manufacturing short two song records and full length records in limited quantities. The freedom of paying for manufacturing independently gave Thai bands the liberty to explore a variety of sounds without having to worry about record executives that demanded radio friendly hits.
The result has been a demand for vintage records by collectors and DJs and a surge in reproduction of rare albums. This simultaneously makes vintage records extremely rare and costly, but also introduces new pressings of old recordings into the market.
Local barber and vinyl enthusiast Sai, classifies himself as a “user” of vinyl in Thailand. “There are users, and there are sellers. The user plays the record, and enjoys it, the seller just wants to make money,” he vents as he lathers shaving powder into a cream in a tiny bowl.
“A lot of the people in the 60s and 70s that had records in Thailand were rich. They had to order the record player from somewhere else and have it shipped in. When they passed away, their son or daughter just sold the record collection, because its old music they don’t really care about. Who knows where the records end up?”
These lost collections can end up with either the “user” or the “seller” or someone in between. A quick search for “Thai Funk” on eBay for instance, retrieves results of vinyl going for over 25,000 baht, but averaging at around 2,000 baht.
These prices frankly make record collecting inaccessible to many who would be interested. But thankfully, due to the devotion of DJs and record labels both locally and internationally, curious listeners won’t miss out on these pieces of musical history before they are lost or snatched up and stored away by obsessive collectors forever.
Dj Zulu is a Barcelonian now based in Taipei who, while fighting in martial arts competitions around Thailand, couldn’t help himself from digging into Thailand’s vinyl history.
“I first found a compilation that was made at the time called “Thai Beat A Go Go” (Subliminal Sounds, 2009) and kind of went from there. I thought that the compilation was something exceptional, a rare time in musical history, but when I really started digging I was surprised to find a lot of really great funk records, even reggae and mambo made by locals. It’s amazing to find these musical connections between Thai and Western cultures, especially due to the great difference in history and politics, especially in the 60s and 70s!”
In the end, he walked away with a great deal of albums he considered gems, and compiled them into something he called simply, yet appropriately, his “Funky Thai Mix” and since then, Zulu’s Thai records are in constant rotation during his gigs around the world including Taiwan, China, Japan and Vietnam.
Besides live mixes from DJs, vintage tracks of Thai funk, surf, psyche, a gogo, R&B and others have begun to be compiled and repressed by record companies all over the world, often selling out shortly thereafter.
For one, Seattle, USA based record label Sublime Frequencies released a recently sold out vinyl compilation entitled “Shadow Music of Thailand.” Subliminal Records, a Swedish based record label, compiled three volumes of the “Thai Beat a Go-Go” compilations, now a world renowned collection of Thai treasures. Thai record labels such as Soundway Records and Paradise Bangkok both offer reissues of vintage gems and hand-picked compilation vinyl at around 500-700 baht, proving that the advent of repressing records has opened up a new opportunity for fledgling vinyl users.
Being an expat, and not necessarily wanting to acquire a massive vinyl collection, nor an elaborate home stereo system, I like to let the DJs and record labels do my digging and buying for me. My personal favourite discovery has been the vintage Thai selection of Thai DJ Maft Sai, owner of Zudrangma Records, who posts his own selections and others’ from the Thai vinyl community at zudrangma.com.
These days, I can spend hours online sifting through music reviews trying to find new artists I can appreciate. Unfortunately I often give up and resort back to simpler times when people played instruments live, and couldn’t rely on auto-tune to sing a song. There’s a human element to it that seems to have been lost amidst the computer programmes and over-production used in music today. Cheers to those that have done the digging, inhaled the mould spores, and exhausted their ears finding the musical gems of Thailand’s past.
Want to do some vinyl digging of your own in Chiang Mai?
Check out the Prince Royal flea market Saturdays and Sundays. Look for the boxes of vinyl behind the record players and gramophones laid out in the street for sale, you could find a gem of your own!
How about a shave and haircut to some sweet crackly vinyl tunes? Book a haircut at The Cutler with Sai or any of their other master barbers: facebook.com/thecutlerbarber
For some premium hand selected tracks, check out the monthly mix by Maft Sai and others at zudrangma.com.