When I first moved to New York some fifteen years ago, I spent a lot of time (and even more money) buying records at Mondo Kim’s on St. Marks and Other Music on East 4th. Among the things I stumbled across at those shops and got addicted to was music released by a label called Sublime Frequencies, which plumbed the most obscure corners of Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa for classic and contemporary pop music. Being the fiend I am for old music from Asia, it was a foregone conclusion that collections of 50s-80s pop music from places like Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, and so forth were going to delight me. But what was even more interesting than those were the collections of music from countries that have been traditionally off-limits to most Americans — Myanmar, Shan Province, North Korea — or are struggling to emerge from decades of oppression and violence, like Cambodia. So I thought, even though we want to take the full Sublime Frequencies tour, we’d start in those mysterious, forbidden corners of Asia.
The title Shadow Music of Thailand evokes ideas of ancient and mysterious folk traditions. A CD with such a title, one might assume, could offer the listener a portal to arcane, culturally insular sounds that were never intended for Western ears. The truth, however, is a wee bit different.
In 1960s Thailand, the term “Shadow Music” was used to refer to current groups whose sound was influenced by the British instrumental combo The Shadows. Originally formed as a backup band for singer Cliff Richards, The Shadows, while never making much of a dent in the U.S. charts, were an international sensation throughout much of the 60s, scoring hits at home and abroad with tunes like “Apache”. Their sound was similar to that of America’s Ventures, consisting of upbeat instrumentals centered around twangy, reverb-drenched guitar melodies.
According to the liner notes to this 2009 disc from Seattle’s Sublime Frequencies label, the main Shadow Music groups — such as the featured P.M. Pocket Music, Johnny Guitar and Jupiter — all had in common the involvement of one man, Thai singer and musical entrepreneur Payong Mukda. What’s interesting about all of them is that, rather than simply emulating The Shadows’ sound, they instead applied it to traditional Thai melodies, rhythms, and occasionally even instrumentation. The result is a unique mix that sees the exotic injected with the familiar, the familiar made less so, and the combined total somehow made more alien to outsider ears than the sum of its parts. Serpentine organ melodies intertwine with percussive guitar leads toward unexpected resolutions. Familiar elements pop up — a drum intro borrowed from the Surfari’s “Wipe Out”, the odd guitar figure reminiscent of early Ska — only to be swallowed back into the intoxicating swirl of influences both old and new, Eastern and Western.
Shadow Music of Thailand offers an invaluable document of a type of unselfconscious cultural fusion that seems increasingly rare in this era of global pop culture. Its an echo of a pre-internet, pre-satellite-TV age when what artifacts of Western pop culture did reach distant shores often did so in a fragmentary form divorced from context, thus providing the raw materials for endless and unpredictable forms of re-appropriation and reinvention. The CD is also an ideal form of musical transport, taking the listener to a far away place that, while in some ways geographically and historically specific, is also tantalizingly both here and there at once.