Bangkok, the mid-2000s; sifting through crates of cheap, second-hand vinyls in record shops in Chinatown, one of the oldest parts of Bangkok, Chris Menist and Nattapon ‘Nat’ Siangsukon, aka DJ Maft Sai, came across the traditional Thai folk genres of Molam and Luk Thung. After falling in love with the genres, the two formed The Paradise Bangkok Molam International Band. The experimental band blend influences from traditional Thai folk music to psychedelic rock to Afrobeat grooves, exemplified at its best in their 2016 album Planet Lam.
Molam and Luk Thung originated in the north-eastern Isan region of Thailand, and Laotian and Cambodian borders in the 17th century. It is characterised by the khaen, a bamboo mouth organ which provides a warm, all-encompassing sound, underneath a vocal melody. This melodic style moulds to the tones of the lyrics, particularly effective as Thai is a tonal language. The most common additions in instrumentation are the phin, a lute-like stringed instrument, drums and bass. The genre underwent a shift in the 1970s as American GIs were stationed in the region, and they brought with them American popular music, from psychedelic funk to rock’n’roll. As musicians in the region entertained the soldiers, they picked up on these styles and began incorporating them with traditional elements.
Sitting in my room in Oxford on a dreary Tuesday afternoon seems worlds away from this thriving Bangkok music scene, which Menist vividly describes when I speak to him over zoom. He details his move in the early 2000s, as his wife found a job there, and he ‘did what I always do when I go to a place I’m not familiar with, I look for music’. The power of music realised, dare I lean into the cliché, as Menist elaborates on the connections he made with the record collecting community, including meeting ‘Nat’, the music scene in Bangkok and familiarising himself in this new setting. ‘Every country has their creativity and that manifests itself in music, literature, film, art’ and so on, he tells me, ‘people create out of who they are, that’s what they do … a populous is communicating to people, this is who we are, this is what we’re about, so if I can try and connect with that, then I think you’re connecting with something that’s very true about an environment’.
The band emerged gradually, beginning with ‘Nat’ and Menist’s Paradise Bangkok nights in 2009, at which they DJed, playing a ‘wide variety of music’ Menist elucidates, ‘we’d play our new discoveries basically’. They then established Studio Lam, which describes itself as ‘a home for creative new music’, and in attempts to form a kind of house band, they got in contact with some of the established Luk Thung and Molam musicians, evolving into the band as it is now: Piyanat “Pump” Chotisathien, the former bassist of the Thai Indie Rock band Apartment Khunpa, Sawai Kaewsombat on the khaen, Kammao Perdtanon, described as Thailand’s answer to Jimi Hendrix, playing the phin, Phusana “Arm” Treeburut playing drums and ‘Nat’ and Menist on percussion and production. Menist is careful to point out, however, that it was not as simple a process as it perhaps appears. Bringing together musicians from ‘musically speaking more rural background[s]’ and ‘from the city background’ was ‘not that easy’, but as they continued to rehearse and work together, they ‘really started to gel’.
The revival of this “forgotten” music has re-established the virtuosos Kaewsombat and Perdtanon. Perdtanon describes that after seeing Isan people holding phins and khaens whilst begging on the Bangkok streets, he felt inspired to ‘make all Thai people appreciate the phin’. All of this has been prominent in re-situating perspectives on the genres, once disregarded by middle-class urban Thais as ‘taxi driver music’, and has contributed to people feeling ‘less ashamed of Isaan-ness’. It is not only Thai people whom the band have inspired; artists from Mick Jagger to Damon Albarn have displayed their support, and the band have toured across Europe, including a set at Glastonbury, which Menist describes as a ‘tipping point … [it] definitely shifted some people’s perspectives’.
Menist is careful to highlight that the band’s music is, however, solely ‘our take on it’, they did not come to the genres with ‘an academic or aesthetic approach’, instead wanting ‘a band that would represent the type of Molam that we had played at the club night but a slightly more updated version’. They are in no way ‘suddenly representative of … the pure art of Molam’ which is ‘rooted linguistically, historically and geographically in the Northeast’. Some listeners from more traditional backgrounds ‘don’t like what we do … it’s something different’, Menist elaborates, ‘that’s fine, that’s ok …so in the same way that the music choice is very subjective … the band’s creations are very subjective as well … we wanted something that felt suited with the general stuff we were doing and that’s why it sounds like it does’.
Their 2016 album Planet Lam encapsulates this crossover, providing an introduction into the sound world of Thai traditional folk music, whilst blending an international range of styles. The album opens with one of the defining instruments of Molam and Luk Thung, the khaen. Described by Jotikasthira as ‘surreal’, it is this sound which provides Molam with its psychedelic feel. The journalist John Clewely emphasises the amazement expressed by foreigners when they first hear the instrument, in awe of its ‘big cathedral chords’. Surrounding the listener with warm, glowing harmonies, Kaewsombat opens the track, ‘Lai Wua – Chasing the Cow’ with an improvisatory-like riff on the khaen before establishing a tempo which the percussion gradually joins in on, followed by the bass, supplying an addictive groove. The adaptive ability of the khaen is exemplified on this album, as it binds syncopated cymbals and funky bass lines. Some may recognise the instrument from when it went viral on Tik Tok in 2020. Sampling Hal Walker’s ‘Khaen Rock’ the producer Llusionmusic paired it with a cloud rap beat and slowed and reverbed Playboi Carti vocals from ‘banakula’ which proved immensely popular, the sound used on around 129.6k video posts and played in the background of videos with millions of likes and tens of millions of views.
The album proceeds with the upbeat rock-like cut, ‘India Chia Muay – Thai Boxing Re-fix’, commencing with a phin solo. Influenced by ‘the urgency and drive’ of The Stooges, the cyclical phin weaving around the infective drumbeats, with tempo changes coming midway through, captivate the listener. The Stooges influence can again be heard on the fast-paced ‘Adventures of Sinsai’. If you find yourself running late to a lecture, I recommend listening to this on repeat, you will find yourself subconsciously speed-walking along to the track, albeit with some perplexed stares from those you pass. I probed Menist on this range of inspirations, wondering what the creative process looked like, whether influences were conscious or subconscious? ‘it’s subconscious’, he replied, ‘I think most music is made that way … no one can play like The Stooges except The Stooges of course’. He elaborated that this ‘side’ comes from his and ‘Nat’s ‘sensibilities’, the wide variety of records they play whilst DJing seeping into the band’s compositions.
More experimental, electronically focused tracks can be found in ‘Exit Planet Lam’ and ‘Exit Dub’. Combining dub, reggae, and industrial ambient classical influences, the sparse arrangements showcase producer Nick Manasseh’s stamp on the work. Fortunate that they are not under pressure to appeal to listeners on streaming platforms, Menist and Manasseh mix and master the recordings to reflect the band most authentically; ‘we’re not going to compress it to death just so it appeals to a Spotify scroller’. Menist does mention, however, ‘one funny thing’ as a track from their first album 21st Century Molam has far more streams on Spotify than any other, as a famous Game of Thrones actress (he can’t remember her name) mentioned it on her Instagram story. A ‘very surreal’ moment, but ‘nice obviously’, the power of social media and celebrity demonstrated once again.
‘Studio Lam Suite’ is the band at their best, an eleven-minute culmination of traditional and electronic influences. It launches itself with a trance-like phin solo, the free tempo providing an improvisatory feel. This evolves into chordal strumming, establishing a clearer tempo, with emphases on the 2nd and 4th beats. After five minutes of enthralling phin playing, showcasing the instrument at its most versatile, an electronic drone takes its place. Phasing in and out and complemented with samples of street noise, percussion organically emerges. Menist explains these samples come from a field recorder he used as he walked around the area of Bangkok where the Studio Lam Club is situated, recording ‘street [and] ambient noise’. The track was then mixed in London with himself and Nick Manasseh, and ‘took ages’, he describes, hinting at the complexity of combining acoustic recordings with electronic influences. A warm, introspective sound is constructed, comparisons ranging from Aphex Twin to Sade as the funky bassline and laidback groove come to the fore.
Although of course planning and rehearsing are essential parts of the creative process, Menist explains that their recordings aim to reflect ‘how we were at the time’, trying to make it ‘as organic as we can’, all aspects must be ‘real’. That being said, they are a live band, and ‘there’s a reason why we’ve played ‘Studio Lam Suite’ only once’, Menist comments. This balance between practicality and creativity is something that, to Menist, ‘all art is in the end governed by, the balance between that which is creatively possible and that which is economically feasible’. Recalling production decisions and the pressures of streaming platforms, Menist acknowledges that the focus on creative freedom is a kind of privilege, as the band does not form the main part of his, nor the other musician’s, livings. Ultimately, what is most important is that the recordings showcase the artistry of the band, without getting too hung up about perfection, ‘that’s a bit of a dead end … just because something is perfect, it doesn’t make it interesting or inspiring’.
Listening to 80s house hits such as ‘Missing You’ by Larry Heard last Sunday as I frantically tried to complete an essay on eighteenth century opera, my mind drifted to Planet Lam, and I couldn’t help but be bemused by the transgressive power of music. How is it that my brain connects this house groove from a Chicagoan producer to a band based in Bangkok? How is it that the khaen’s drone-like role in parts of the album remind me of Celtic folk instruments, such as the hurdy-gurdy? Perhaps it is simply an untrained ear finding similarities where there are none, but I can’t help but be enraptured by the globality of music, bringing people from across the world together. I asked Menist about this connection, who assured me I was not alone, recalling the moment someone came up and said they ‘loved this Irish music you’re playing’, although it was in fact Molam. He concluded, ‘I just think that is coincidental’, agreeing ‘there is something there’, but ‘what makes that connection I really can’t tell you … because those tropes exist in so many music forms’. Sometimes you can trace a sound, but with ever increasing globalisation, such sounds are ‘too widespread to know exactly where [they] began’.
The Paradise Bangkok Molam International Band “rooted in tradition, with an eye to the future”, seem to have just that, Menist revealing to me there is another album in the works which will “hopefully come out this year”. An exemplary of the international force of genre-bending, experimental music this album represents a kind of music in which boundaries are transgressed and influences intermingled, creating an intensely enjoyable, diverse listening experience. ‘Good Shit’, as the journalist Aaron Steine wrote, in a review of the album. If you are interested in listening to more of this kind of music, I am by no means well-versed enough in the genres, but I would recommend listening to ‘Nat’ and Menist’s compilations Sound of Siam Volume 1 and Volume 2, alongside the 2011 compilation Thai! Dai? featuring tracks by the Thai rock legend Sroeng Santi. Thank you also to Ome, a 4th year biologist at Magdalen, for introducing me to the singer Rasmee Isan Soul from the North-East of Thailand who combines Molam Jariang cultures with Western and African music, terming it ‘Isaan soul’.