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She's a Westerner Who Sings Music of the East

Christy Gibson has helped rekindle interest in a Thai country genre called 'look thung.'

May 30, 2001|VIJAY JOSHI | ASSOCIATED PRESS

BANGKOK, Thailand — Crooning a traditional Thai song, she steps through the white machine-made fog on stage.

The audience at the open-air concert roars and whistles its appreciation of the singer who's dressed in a Thai dancer's costume: a shimmering, sequined, off-shoulder, golden dress with serpent-shaped armbands. Fans in the front row reach out to touch her and hand her roses and jasmine garlands.

A commonplace Thai musical show? Yes.

Except the singer of the sad love song is a long-legged, blue-eyed blond.

Christy Gibson is Thailand's latest singing sensation, a 22-year-old volunteer worker--born to a Dutch mother and British father--who has made Thailand her home and its folk music her calling.

With her perfect enunciation of the Thai language and a critically acclaimed voice, Gibson is helping revive interest in Thai country music, or "look thung"--which is often dismissed by young city sophisticates as hillbilly music.

Typically love songs with rural settings, they're backed by little-known Thai instruments that resemble the xylophone and the Kashmiri string instrument called a santoor. To the uninitiated, the song appears high-pitched and monotonous, and its intonations are difficult to produce for a Westerner used to different tones and scales.

"By adopting their music, I am telling Thai people how beautiful their culture is," said Gibson in an interview in her bus parked behind the stage. "In modern society it is easy to forget one's tradition. We want to tell the Thais that you have a beautiful culture. Hold on to it."

Christy--Kitty to her Thai fans who find it tough to pronounce her name--is not the first Westerner to sing "look thung," which literally means "children of the farmland."

Jonas Anderson, a 27-year-old British-Swede and a longtime Thailand resident, has produced two best-selling albums, and he and Gibson could not have come on the scene at a better time.

Since the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, many Thais have worried that their culture is being overtaken by "farangs," as Westerners are known here. So Thais are trying to rediscover the heritage they felt was being lost during the economic boom years.

Korn Dabbarangsi, a member of Parliament and a former "look thung" promoter, said Gibson's and Anderson's success is opening the eyes of Western-oriented Thais.

"Jonas and Christy have given a psychological boost to look thung. Thais are proud of their culture, proud that even farangs are getting attracted to it," he said.

Gibson and Anderson used to sing Western pop and country together in a band before they took up Thai music. Now they often give joint "look thung" concerts.

Both their parents worked for an international charity, the Family, a Christian group whose work includes helping drug addicts and abused women. The Family organizes musical shows in the belief that a lively presentation attracts more people than boring lectures.

Gibson came to Thailand with her parents when she was 6. They moved to other countries in Asia before settling in the northern Thai region of Issan, the home of "look thung."

Gibson, who had been performing English songs for the Family's programs since she was 14, sang her first "look thung" publicly along with Anderson six years ago.

She still works for the organization, but her professional career took off this year when she was signed up by entertainment company Look Thung Wethee Thai, which distributed her debut album.

During the Bangkok concert, a middle-aged woman and her adolescent son waited with dozens of young men and women to get her autograph. As she came backstage, she was mobbed by children, shouting, "Kitty, Kitty." She posed for photographs with them.

"When I listened to Kitty the first time, I thought it was an Issan girl," said Pukchong Parathonsri, 42, an Issan native who drives a taxi in Bangkok.

"She has made Issan people proud," Pukchong said.

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