My maiden voyage to Thailand was fueled by numerous desires of cultural exploration but there was one shining light that tuned magnetization to high. I first heard Thai luk thung and mor lam music just a few years ago on releases by the stellar record labels Subliminal Sounds, Sublime Frequencies and ZudRangMa. I soaked it up and inquired deeper. Luk thung (translation: “children of the fields”) is country music that is thick and high. There’s a thump and sway reminiscent of Jamaican rock steady but with more bells and bamboo. The voices warble and yodel in otherworldly vibrato above a beat that alternates in tempo, slowing like the end of a sweaty day then slamming back like a second wind. These songs sing the same story as country music the world over: it’s all hardship and heartbreak.
Luk thung’s cousin is the music called mor lam whose roots floated from Laos into the northern Thai region of Isan. The central instrument identified with mor lam is the khene, a mouth organ that looks like two long pan pipes glued together. It has the entrancing power of a thousand hypnotists waving their wands directly into your mind. Mor lam songs have the same basic themes as luk thung but once country bumpkins migrated to Bangkok with the aim of making baht (aka cash money) to support their families back on the farm they started twisting the musical form up a bit. In the 60’s when rock & funk swept the globe they started adding farfisa organs and electric guitars to the mix and then when disco blew up in the 70’s they got their Thai groove on to a disco beat. Mor lam is music of tuk-tuk drivers jamming their way through city traffic. Both eyes on the road but hearts focused back home.
When I landed in Bangkok and hit the city center streets I saw my first wave of leathery skinned sex tourists. Over hip packs, their hairy guts hung, stretching sweat-soaked wife beaters to the max. Their Thai teenage “girlfriends” for the night followed paces behind. A pair joined only by lust and money they snaked to humid hotel rooms. I acknowledged the existence of this sickness but tried my best to block it out. I had a musical mission on my mind and luckily, access to the best guide possible. I was connected to Maft Sai courtesy of Now-Again Records’ captain Eothen “Egon” Alapatt and soon realized what a fortunate thing this was. Maft runs ZudRangMa Records, the freshest Thai reissue label and the only one based in Bangkok. His devotion to spreading true Thai music culture is a beautiful vision and vivid action.
Unfortunately, soon after my arrival I was nearly done in with a food poisoning bomb that sent me into the hospital and days of fever dreams. Between all the barf and bad trippin’ I was able to make my goal of vinyl treasure hunting a reality. Maft and I spent time scouring secret spots that only a hyper-tuned native would know. With a portable turntable on hand he turned me onto some of the deepest gems of Thai luk thung, mor lam, funk, rock and disco. These discs were inevitably covered with generations of dust but underneath it lay the sounds of beautiful people making beautiful music. Hearing these songs; inspired by rural fields, fresh air and love, made my subsequent trip up north to Chiang Mai all the more special. As I marveled at emerald mountains and the slow sway of elephants in rushing rivers I thought of the music in those Thai vinyl grooves and smiled a thousand times."