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Various Artists The Sound Of Siam. Leftfield Luk Thung, Jazz and Molam from Thailand 1964 -1975 Review

Compilation. Released 2010.  

BBC Review

A mixture of the exotic and the familiar, drawing on off-beat influences.

Jon Lusk 2010

If Thailand’s music was as popular internationally as its food, we’d all be a lot more familiar with it. But even compared to that from other Asian nations – which are generally under-represented in the world music market – it’s pretty obscure. This compilation of luk thung (Thailand’s answer to country music), luk krung (its city cousin) and molam (a more rootsy style from the poor northern region of Isan, near the border with Laos) will thus come as a surprise for many. And an intriguing one, at that.

It’s the mixture of the exotic and the familiar that makes it so. While the frequent use of guitar, bass, keyboards and kit drums betrays the influence of the soul, rock and psychedelia of the time, the strange tonal nature of the Thai languages and the use of several local folk instruments, and their odd harmonies make it sound quite distinct. These include the sor fiddle and the khaen, a kind of bamboo mouth organ, often heard in the introductions and tooting away in the backgrounds of many tracks. As compiler Chris Menist remarks in his liner notes, some of this music has an uncanny similarity to the Ethio-jazz of Mulatu Astatqé. That’s partly because it was made in the same era, and draws on similarly off-beat Latin influences. Even so, it’s not as accessible.

Chaweewan Dumnern is referred to as the "queen of molam" and her pulsing cut Lam Toey Chaweewan seems to echo Booker T & the MGs… until you hear her sinuous vocal. But that definitely is the riff from The Rolling Stones’ Jumpin’ Jack Flash running through her Sao Lam Plearn.

Although a previous likening of the Petch Phin Thong Band to an "oriental Stone Roses" is rather fanciful, given the looseness of the rhythm section (strong drugs, mate, can I have some?), their instrumental Soul Lam Plearn is entertaining. As is another instrumental by Thong Huad and Kunp’an, which is based around a gnawing sor solo.

The "space-age music" of The Viking Combo Band features a Pink Panther-esque walking bass line, suspenseful percussion and increasingly unhinged vocals. And yes, this being music from a truly gastrocentric culture, there are two songs referencing Thailand’s fiery cuisine – som tam papaya salad and tom yum chicken, in case this is making you hungry. A balanced diet, naturally.

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