Real Rebel Music – Tom Vater talks to Thailand’s Bob Dylan, in FolkRoots Magazine



Nga Surachai Chanthimathon, writer, singer, guitarist and one of Thailand’s most vocal social critics, fused the sounds of Thai and Khmer folk music traditions with Bob Dylan style protest songs and picked up a gun to defend his convictions. His band, Caravan, was instrumental in the creation of one of Thailand’s most enduring musical genres – phreng phua chiwit – Song For Life.
Nga’s songs reflect the huge social upheavals that shook South East Asia in the 1960s and 70s. His life’s work is a musical bridge between tradition and revolutionary endeavor, between the arcane flow of sounds that have, for centuries, emanated from the pin and the khaen, the traditional instruments of Laos, Cambodia and Thailand and the songs of the Rocknroll War the US were losing in Vietnam.
Nga’s story is a brilliant confirmation of the power of the word, the song and of cultural evolution as a means to push for social change, while feeding on a rich but neglected musical heritage – the Thai folk tradition.
“I was not in Bangkok on the 6th of October 1976, the darkest day in our history. Caravan played in Korat on the 4th, in Ubon on the 5th and on the 6th in Khong Kaen. Then we heard that the fascist Thai government was killing demonstrators in Bangkok. It was too dangerous to return to the capital. The revolution had come. We fled into the jungle. We became fugitives.”
The 48-year old Nga sips a cup of green tea in a café on the ground floor of an enormous, Orwellian shopping mall on the outskirts of Bangkok. The revolution is almost forgotten. Most Thais know little about the country’s darkest hours, when the army, police and right wing militias murdered hundreds of dissident students, workers and artists.
But Nga is a familiar face and youngsters emerging from a KFC and other corporate outlets, walk past slowly, looking furtively, before getting on their way in this consumer wonderland. Thailand appears to have come a long way since Nga’s childhood in Isaan, Thailand’s impoverished rice bowl. And Nga, the country boy turned musical dissident, looks like a gracefully aged hipster with an unruly crew cut, wearing a black T-shirt and jeans.
“I was born in Surin, in North-East Thailand. My father was a school master. The area where I grew up is close to the Cambodian and the Lao border. My parents speak Khmer. I speak Lao and understand Khmer. The music is amongst my earliest memories.”
Nga absorbed the rich heritage of three distinct cultures throughout his childhood.
“The first songs I remember were sung in Khmer. I was very impressed with this blind musician who played at my grandmother’s cremation when I was six. He played the Khmer saw, a kind of fiddle, popular in the region. He had ching chamba, small cymbals, tied to his legs and he sang. He was just a traveling artist telling old stories.”
Nga feels deeply indebted to this prototypical, anonymous, nomadic musician. “Even now, he is number one for me. That was my start in music. He opened my ears to all kinds of folk music. When I was bit older I heard the Lao folk style mor lam. I went to all night mor lam parties. I used to look around me and see only old people, my father, my uncle. I was the only kid there who really liked this music. Later, during village meetings or temple fairs, people used to play local folk music – mahori. Six or seven piece bands performed on traditional instruments like the rannad (xylophone), kong (gongs), khrui (bamboo flute), bpee (a wood instrument related to the Indian shinhai) and taphon (sidedrums). I used to go and listen until I fell asleep. There was folk music all around me.”
Nga’s first efforts as a musician went in a totally different direction.
“I played music in school, like a parrot. I played the carina in the marching band.”
Different sounds were soon to invade the Thai country life. During the Vietnam War, US army and air force bases sprang up across Isaan, Thailand’s North-East. Radio, TV and increased mobility opened a whole new world to youngsters from the Thai provinces.
“At the end of the 60s, an entire generation left the country-side for Bangkok. Everybody who finished school moved to the city. There were work and education opportunities. I followed the flow. While I was waiting to get into art school, I started to write. I wrote short stories and books. At the same time I discovered the Beatles and Bob Dylan. Ever since then I like two kinds of music, western music and Thai folk. But Thai folk for me is the root of all music.”
The war that was spreading across Indochina washed up Western counter culture and its accompanying soundtrack in Saigon, Bangkok and other cities in the region. But Nga was not drawn to the city to become a musician.
“Remember this was the late 60’s. I grew my hair like Jimi Hendrix. I loved listening to this new music, smoking ganja, hanging out with artists, students and journalists. But I was a writer. My friends told me ‘Become a musician, you already look like a hippy.’ So I learned to play a little, a few chords, A minor, C, D.”
While most Thais were listening to popular styles like ‘Luk Thung’ and ‘Luk Grung’, the middle class in Thailand started to discover classical music, western folk and rock.
“After listening to pop music from the West, I heard Mozart and Beethoven. I really studied this stuff. But I did not start playing the guitar until 1970.”
The foreign influence soon triggered a cultural change amongst the young in the capital.
“I had questions in my head. When I was young I listened to Luk Thung’, but I was looking for something else. We wanted to shout at the government. ‘Luk Thung’ lyrics did not deal with serious issues. These days of course, I play old ‘Luk Thung ‘ songs again as well.”
Thai artists in the early 70s were soon influenced by global issues and found the government as hostile towards their political concerns as it had been regarding social issues.
“I was against the Vietnam War. I had fun with the GIs but I hated the war. In the nightclubs I heard American music and socialized with the soldiers. But I felt I had to ask questions about why the US were fighting in my area, my part of the world. We demonstrated much like young people did in the West at the time. This was the hippy generation –anti-war. And the Thai government in 1972 was fascist. At that time, the Army stopped us in the street to cut our hair. There and then, we had no choice. My country was really terrible then.”
While Nga became more politically active, he also started to perform live, first as one half of an acoustic duo. “We were doing ‘soft’ politics then. We performed poems by Chit Phum Sak. Chit Phum Sak was a great writer for our generation. He was a secretive man, like Che Guevara. We wrote melodies for his poems and then started writing our own stuff. As I was influenced by Thai folk, we wrote songs about farmers – Protest songs.”
Phreng Phua Chiwit, ‘Song For Life’, Thailand’s most enduring musical genre, was born.
“Chit Phum Sak translated a book of Mao Tse Tung on art and music. From this book, he coined the phrase ‘For Life’. So if you wrote a radical play, it was called ‘Drama For Life’. If you wrote a song, it was ‘Song For Life’. Chit Phum Sak was killed in the jungle by government troops in 1965, but he started it all. He was our hero.”
The musical roots of the genre may go back even further. In the 1940s, two Thai artists, Saneh Komarachun and Paibun Bootkan, wrote several songs about poor farmers that were immediately banned by the then military government. This turned the songs into huge sellers and popular standards. Nga Surachai Chanthimathon was about to follow in his peers’ footsteps.
From duo performances, he moved on to a full band, combining the sounds of traditional Thai instruments (flutes, violins and the ever-resent pin, a north-eastern three-stringed guitar instrument) with electric guitars. In 1973 he founded Caravan.
“Caravan had a large audience from the start – Thai students. We played at demonstrations. We played hard politics then. We played to entertain, but we also played for revolution, for fighting. We played every day that year, all over the country. Because we were the first anti-American band, the first band to support the students, we quickly became notorious. But I don’t think we ever got paid properly. It was a great time.’
The Thai military government, alarmed by the calls for reform, which had started to spread from the radical students to farmers and trade unionists, became increasingly frantic in the attempts to suppress the democratic movement.
“I was inside Thamasat University on 14th October 1973. I was designing a map of Bangkok for the planning of demonstrations. Then the police, army and militias stormed the uni and killed many of us. I was not a fighter. I ran. But we won, in the end, we won. The government had to go.”
Caravan quickly evolved their protest songs into a more professional framework.
“After about a year of playing demos and student centers, we started playing in real venues, like movie theatres and city halls. But we could not really break into the Thai market. Our first line –up was three guitars and pin. We released a single in 1974, but it was not a great success. But we still play those songs today.”
”In 1975 I married and Caravan released a first album. We had a percussionist and a krui (Thai bamboo flute) player. My wife was also politically active at the time. We had a son in 1976. The album was not a great seller either. Our audience was too poor to buy record players. Only the establishment, the people we were fighting could afford those. We got no radio play.”
Despite an impoverished fanbase, Caravan’s first real exposure to mainstream Thai society was just around the corner.
“Channel 3, the government channel invited us to play on one of their shows. We played three times and they cut the show. They stopped the program. All our songs were banned immediately. That made us very famous.”
It was all down hill from there. The new military government decided to put down the democratic movement once more and, on the darkest day in recent Thai history, stormed Thamasat University, killing hundreds.
“The fascists came back and on 6th October 1976, many leaders of our movement died in Bangkok. From Kong Khaen, where we played our last gig that day, we disappeared into the jungle, some of which was under communist control. First we went to Loei, then Udon and Nong Khai. All these places were safe. Many students fled to communist Laos, which welcomed them with open arms.”
A very different life awaited the musicians in remote villages and forest camps full of insurgents. ”We joined disaffected farmers, we joined the comrades, we set up art centers in the jungle. Our job was to move, sing and dance. If one of our comrades died, I performed songs for him. Like a monk. The communist party was strong, for a while it was safe.“
Nga’s life changed fundamentally. Wanted and on the run, the free-wheeling pre-revolutionary days were but a memory.
“After a year I crossed the Mekong and went to Vientiane (the Lao capital). I stayed over a year in the north of Laos, near Luang Nam Tha. I turned from Hippy to soldier. I cut my hair, I wore a uniform. I carried a gun and a guitar in Laos. I learned to shoot. But I was in safe areas most the time, though sometimes I had to fight, sometimes I almost died.”
One particular encounter has stayed with him all his life.
“One day, eight of us set off from Udon. At some point we split up. My group got to our rendevous point, the other four never made it. I wrote a lot of songs for dead friends. From Laos I slipped back into Thailand in 1979 and hid in the forests around Nan. Sometimes my wife and child traveled with me, at other times she traveled for her own activist work. Caravan then worked for communist radio. We wrote songs for a radio channel in Kunming, China. After the Thai government made peace with China, the station closed. We lost our jobs.”
In 1980 a new, more liberal era was ushered in with a general amnesty for communist rebels, activists and artists. The emerging reports of genocide by the communist Khmer Rouge in neighboring Cambodia had a profound effect on the left in Thailand and many rebels chose to hand in their guns in exchange for unconditional freedom.
“I didn’t want to go back. I was having a great time. I was studying folk music in the jungles of Northern Thailand. I liked the people who lived in the mountains. One by one the other members of Caravan drifted back to the capital. The Thai army was closing in on us. We got into a skirmish with three hundred soldiers, just three of us and we ran and ran and escaped. It was all over. I came back to Bangkok for New Year 1982.”
Caravan were immediately reformed.
“We were back. We played a concert for UNICEF in Thamasat University. We felt like heroes. Everyone in the audience was crying, because they were so happy to see us. We thought we were the losers crawling back from the jungle but in fact everyone wanted to hear our stories.”
Nga is unsure whether anything was really gained politically in the long term.
“I don’t know if things were really better. Everything was much more expensive. And we finally sold a lot of records. But I still didn’t like the government. We all had to register with the army. At the same time we did a live album for EMI, which sold well. We did a lot of TV and radio then. We toured in Japan and the Philippines many times and traveled to the USA, to play to Thai audiences there. In Canada we played a big folk festival. In Japan there are Caravan fan-clubs.”
Caravan played their last concert on their 15th anniversary in 1987.
“By that time, there were four different people thinking four different ways. So we called it a day, though I still play some Caravan songs that I wrote. Now I play with my own band, but other Caravan members often join me on tour. The original pin player, Mongkol Uthok, still plays with me regularly. I play all the time, last month I had 3 days off.”
Phreng Phu Chiwit, ‘Song For Life’, has come of age. There are now hundreds of artists trying to flog an increasingly shallow genre. The lyrical content has long shifted from protest songs to relationship problems and records are released with sophisticated marketing strategies. Carabao, another hugely successful Song For Life protest act is selling beer and energy drinks on national television. In the 1990s, Song For Life theme bars have become a nation wide franchise.
“Some of these bands do really good business. They do big deals with corporations. We are still half-musicians, half-activists. We don’t sell soft drinks. But Song For Life has been absorbed by Thai society.”

3 thoughts on “Real Rebel Music – Tom Vater talks to Thailand’s Bob Dylan, in FolkRoots Magazine

  1. Thanks, Pablo,
    Glad you liked the story. Seems like from another time now. Still listening to’preng pua chivit’ though…
    Incidentally, I saw Nga’s very young son play guitar in Bangkok a while ago and he is pretty good.

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