Celebrating three decades of discovery – John Clewley’s World Beat

Charismatic phin player Khammao from Paradise Bangkok Molam International Band.

Celebrating three decades of discovery – John Clewley’s World Beat

A look back at how the music scene has changed and what the future holds in store

World Beat celebrates 30 years on the music trail this month. The column started in Feb 1994 when Chuan Leekpai of the Democrat Party was in his first term as Prime Minister.

It was a time of CDs and VCDs and the tail end of compact cassettes (Japan and the US still use cassettes). Local markets were full of pirated movies and music on these digital formats. Fast forward to today and markets have very little in the way of pirated international popular music, although you can still find vendors hawking DVDs of recent movies and TV series. In Klong Thom Market in Chinatown, an area I like to go to take photographs, most of the popular music available is Thai and comes in pirated compilations of famous luk krung and luk thung acts and singers — an entire career on a digital flash stick.

Most people now rely on streaming services to get their music fix through international sites like Apple Music (which replaced iTunes on Mac) Spotify and Bandcamp, and local ones like Joox. Even my father, at 95, still a keen pianist and die-hard vinyl fan uses Spotify to find jazz he likes.

What I liked about the early years of writing World Beat was that there were bricks and mortar stores in Bangkok like Tower Records (still going strong in Japan) and local chains where you could find plenty of music from around the world. I worked as the world music buyer for the four Tower Records stores at the time and the stores would sell up to a thousand CDs a month from the world music racks. Interestingly, a few vinyl reissues began to appear at that time but they were mainly from ageing rock bands who wanted to reissue their back catalogues.

National Artist Chaweewan Damnoen.

So, as the public switched to digital formats to enjoy their music, which weren’t played on home stereo systems, music fans also shifted to consuming the music on a mobile phone. At the same time, small independent record labels who had been at the forefront of the world music boom in the 1980s and 1990s began to add vinyl to the digital downloads they offered. These days, you can buy a compilation of, say, Somalian popular music, in vinyl format, and the package comes with a code for the digital download as well. Some companies have dropped audio CD releases completely.

And as the revival of vinyl gathers pace, mainstream rockers and indie bands have begun to dominate the vinyl reissue market, making it much more difficult for small labels to get their vinyl pressed and distributed.

The vinyl story has also led to a lively vinyl-only DJ scene in many cities, including Bangkok. Smaller clubs like Studio Lam are now a regular fixture on the DJ scene. These clubs combine DJ nights with live music gigs. Obviously, lockdown led to the closure of some clubs and the scene has not yet fully recovered from the social and economic disturbances caused by Covid.

Another exciting development is the emergence of local roots bands that actively seek to work with musicians from other countries and cultures. You can see this in the new molam bands that are experimenting with different sounds, led by Paradise Bangkok Molam International Band, who have blended dub and rock to a molam root; the band also pioneered touring Europe to take their music to new audiences.

In recent columns I have written about so-called post-molam bands like E-San Fusion who mix molam and funk, or Rasmee, who adds jazz and rock to her blend of molam and kantrum. Reggae band Lamai Hansa also mix reggae with elements from molam. These are just a few examples of an exciting trend that is set to continue and hopefully, blossom in the coming years.

Thai bands offer both traditional styles and fusion experiments. I think that this trend will only increase as Thai bands play overseas festivals and go on tours to Japan and Europe, where they meet other musicians and see how they perform. Thai bands are behind Japanese or even Korean roots bands in this respect. Bands like Japan’s Minyo Crusaders (traditional minyo singing mixed with Colombian cumbia music) and South Korea’s ADG7 (traditional Korean minyo played with a punk spirit) are well ahead of their Thai counterparts but the gap is closing.

To celebrate 30 years of World Beat, I plan to hold a DJ night at Studio Lam in the next few months to showcase some of the great music that has appeared in the column (more details when I have a date). Today, there is a lot of interest in music from far-flung places in Thailand from both music fans and musicians, which is in contrast to the situation back in the early 1990s, when it was hard to get people interested in, say, African or Latin music. That is the positive message I take from the columns I have written over the past 30 years, and as long as that interest remains, I will keep searching for exciting new (and sometimes very old) music to report on.

John Clewley can be contacted at clewley.john@gmail.com.

Source: https://www.bangkokpost.com/life/arts-and-entertainment/2748956/celebrating-three-decades-of-discovery