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Thais reconnect with a 1970s-era sound

Luk thung and mor lam, Thai musical genres closely associated with hardscrabble life in the poor, rural northeast, are gaining new popularity in the cities.

July 21, 2012|By Dustin Roasa, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Nattapon Siangsukon, left, and Chris Menist, co-founders of Zudrangma Records.
Nattapon Siangsukon, left, and Chris Menist, co-founders of Zudrangma… (From Nattapon Siangsukon…)

BANGKOK — — On a recent Saturday evening at the Cosmic Cafe here, young Thais with pixie haircuts and ornate shoulder tattoos chatted in groups, their faces illuminated by the soft glow of smartphones. Although the space was packed, the energy level lagged compared with Bubble Bar next door, which boomed with the latest hip-hop and techno tracks.

But the crowd surged to its feet when the DJ began playing 1970s-era luk thung and mor lam, Thai musical genres closely associated with hardscrabble life in the country's poor, rural northeast. Women squealed and gracefully twirled their arms in traditional ballet-style patterns, and some began mouthing along to the music's warbling, soulful vocals, backed by traditional Thai instruments and carried along by driving, syncopated beats.

This was the latest installment of Isan Dancehall, part of a small but growing cultural movement that is reviving interest in a forgotten era of Thai music and art. Similar trends have taken hold in Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia and Cambodia, as a region hurtling toward the future begins to investigate its recent cultural past. Mor lam is a centuries-old folk music with religious themes that went through a lively period of experimentation in the 1960s and 1970s, when luk thung, meaning "child of the fields," incorporated non-Thai influences such as rock and disco.

The revival is transcendingThailand'sdeep social and class divides. The dancehall parties gather an unlikely audience inBangkok'syoung and hip — those with university degrees, stints living abroad and jobs in creative fields — to celebrate the music of Isan, a region perceived by many Thais as backward and unsophisticated. And in Thailand's fractured politics, Isan music is closely associated with the red-shirt political movement, whichBangkok'spro-monarchy yellow shirts — who like the revivalists tend to be educated, urban and middle class — blame for riots that killed at least 90 people in the spring of 2010.

At the center of the Isan music revival is Bangkok native Nattapon Siangsukon, a DJ, promoter and owner of the Zudrangma record label and store. After studying fashion promotion for six years in London, he returned to Thailand in 2006 and began buying worn-out copies of luk thung and mor lam records from dingy shops in Chinatown. Nearly all Thais are familiar with contemporary versions of this music — it is ubiquitous in Bangkok's taxis, whose drivers tend to be migrants from Isan — but middle-class urbanites consider it deeply unfashionable.

"People say to me, 'You studied abroad, you speak English. Why are you into this taxi driver music?' It's seen as low class," Siangsukon said. He was drawn to forgotten classics from the 1960s and 1970s for their experimentalism and high production values.

Siangsukon's pursuit has often felt like a race against time. "I went to a music distributor in Isan recently, and the guy told me he'd just burned 30,000 records the night before," Siangsukon said, sighing. Although he doesn't consider himself a historian, he is trying to expose his peers, many of whom favor cultural imports from Korea and the United States, such as Katy Perry and Jennifer Lopez, to their own heritage. "We don't know our own history. We are creating a country with no roots," he said.

Initially, it was a tough sell. Siangsukon and Chris Menist, an English DJ and fellow Thai music enthusiast whom he met digging for records, threw their first party in 2009 at a "run-down gallery-slash-bar in the middle of nowhere with lizards running across the dance floor," Siangsukon said. Two hundred people showed up, but most were foreigners.

Still, the pair pressed on. They began putting out Isan compilations and re-releasing singles on their own Zudrangma and Paradise Bangkok labels and touring Europe and Japan to acclaim. Despite the interest overseas, though, "our focus was still on Thailand," Menist said.

Slowly, their efforts began to pay off. Somrak Sila, 33, co-director of an art gallery in Bangkok, is one of a growing number of Thais to have attended the parties. She said she was struck by Siangsukon's bravery in championing a music that others had scorned. "I was amazed that he was able to bring back this old style of music and make it cool again," she said.

Not everyone has been impressed. Thai nationalists have told Siangsukon that the music is strictly for Thais, not foreigners, and that it should not be played alongside world genres like reggae and Ethiopian music, as Siangsukon and his fellow DJs like to do. He's also encountered resistance from Isan, which, culturally speaking, is light-years away from the nightclubs of Bangkok. Most of the musicians come from the northeast and sing in Lao, the region's language.

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