Readers' Submissions

Music Soothes the Savage Beast




One thing is for sure; Thais love their music… preferably played at a decibel level loud enough to loosen dental fillings. Since the idea of noise pollution law is beyond anyone’s comprehension, the cacophony of competing tunes can be astounding. Yes, I know I am getting old, although not totally over the hill yet. In the late 60’s and early 70’s I was always the guy who had to be near the speaker stacks for the Airplane or the Dead. Gee I wonder if that’s why I still have this ringing in my ears!

I started listening to Thai music long before I had ever even set foot in LOS. Back in early 1998 I was busily driving to Berlitz in Boston for Thai language lessons. This was in preparation for my first trip here. I was also busy “talking” with the Thai girl who would eventually be my wife on ICQ. Remember ICQ? Because of the 12 hour time difference between here and Massachusetts I was usually online in the middle of the night. I began listening to Thai radio stations, and now was happily discovering Bird, Beau, Mai and Carabao. Tata Young was still a sweet 16 year old girl whose big hit was Chan Rak Thur. It was also new and exciting. Pop music in Thai! I even enjoyed listening to saccharine girl groups like the Bubble Girls!

Over the years I’ve still not lost my enthusiasm for Thai music, although I’m a bit more discerning in my taste. Some of what I hear rivals anything produced back in Farangland. A lot of more of course is plain mediocre, and some of it is just god-awful. Of course that’s just my personal taste. Believe me I’m no “cultural chauvinist”.

Anyway, the title of this piece refers to this past week’s classes for my Mathiyom 2 students. (That’s the equivalent to 8th grade) Last week we had been practicing expressing preferences: “I like ______.” “I don’t like _____.” As an exercise I asked everyone which genres of music they enjoyed. The list included: rock, pop, jazz, hip-hop, rap, dance, classical, country, and indie (which I think is the Thai expression for alternative). Surprisingly, many students said that they enjoyed classical music, and very few liked rap. Oh, and only one person said they like mor-lam music. That, if you are not familiar with the term is what I call “Issan Country-Western” It turned out that this pretty young girl was considered one of the entire school’s best singers, so I asked her to stand up and sing me a few bars of mor-lam. I was completely blown away by this 14 year old girl who could belt out a tune with the best of them! I mean she had a serious “set of pipes”!

Naturally after the hooting and hollering died down, some one asked me to sing a song. Folks I may a talent or two (or not) but singing is not one of my strong points. I can carry a tune, but just barely. Anyway I promised the class that I would teach them a song next week. What song I would teach them was a mystery, but I had a week to figure it out.

I wanted to find something that was amusing and had a simple melody. What I decided on, believe it or not, was an old, and I do mean OLD Bing Crosby song called “Swinging on a Star” This classic dates back to the 1940’s, waaaaaay before I was born. But I had clear memories of hearing it on the radio when I was a wee lad. I’d starting singing it to my little Sam as I strolled him around the neighborhood. He seemed to enjoy it. Let’s see what a bunch of adolescent Thais would think of it. I set to work printing out the lyrics. Any difficult English word I translated into Thai. I know you are all just dying to lean the lyrics of this little ditty, and so here they are.

Swinging แกว่งตัว on a Star ดาว

Would you like to swing on a star
Carry moonbeams แสงแข home in a jar กระปุก
And be better off ชอบมาก กว่า than you are
Or would you rather be a mule? ล่อ

A mule is an animal with long funny ears
He kicks ทิป up at anything he hears
His back is brawny ล่ำสัน but his brain is weak กร่องแกร่ง
He's just plain stupid โง่ with a stubborn ดึง ดัน streak ขี้กลัว
And by the way, if you hate to go to school
You may grow up เจริญเติบโต to be a mule

Or would you like to swing on a star
Carry moonbeams home in a jar
And be better off than you are
Or would you rather be a pig หมู?

A pig is an animal with dirt ขี้ฝุ่น on his face ใบหน้า
His shoes รองเท้า are a terrible ชั่วร้าย disgrace น่าอดสู
He’s got no manners มารยาทดีwhen he eats his food
He's fat เขาอ้วน and lazy เกียจคร้าน and extremely ยิ่ง rude ไม่สุภาพ
But if you don't care a feather ขน or a fig กอก
You may grow up to be a pig

Or would you like to swing on a star
Carry moonbeams home in a jar
And be better off than you are
Or would you rather be a fish?

A fish won't do anything, อะไร ๆ but swim in a brook น้ำห้วย
He can't write his name or read a book
And to fool หลอกลวง the people is his only thought
And though he's slippery, ลื่น he still gets caught ติดกับ ดัก
But then if that sort of life is what you wish ประสงค์
You may grow up to be a fish

And all the monkeys aren't in the zoo
Every day you meet quite a few
So you see it's all up to you
You can be better than you are
You could be swinging' on a star

Yes I know that it’s corny as can be, but I thought I’d give it a go. I downloaded via bit torrent (All hail glorious bit torrent!) and burned a copy of the original recording to play for my students. I would of course have to sing the damned thing myself, but these kids really did need to hear the real thing in order to learn how to sing it. On impulse I decided to add a few extra tunes. I thought I might show these kids what Ajarn L. was listening to back in the Stone Age.

My school has a fairly nifty multi-media classroom which includes a powerful sound system. So this week I held my six M.2 classes there. I started out by playing “Swinging on a Star”. I don’t think they knew what to think. It was definitely prehistoric, that’s for sure! But undeterred, I went through the lyrics line by line. As they began to understand what the song was actually about, they starting showing a bit more interest. As promised, I, with microphone in hand did my best Bing Crosby impression. Believe me that got a chuckle or two! Oh the things I do to keep my students amused. Then I had them sing it, line by line. The first run through was shaky at best. The second was much better. By the time we started the fourth rendition; these kids had it down pat, and were singing it like troopers. We had about 15 minutes left, so I played them three songs that I had selected. For dance music I went back to the 1970’s for “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees. That got their attention. They were all up and boogying to the Disco beat. I’m not much of a better dancer than I am a singer, but I stood up with them to “bust a few moves”. More laughs ensued, but they were good natured. For an example of classic rock I went for “Born to be Wild”. Nothing like a little motorcycle music to get the blood pumping I always say. I still had one more song up my sleeve, and that brought the house down! I chose a Thai song. Specifically I chose my favorite Thai rock song: Num Bow Eao Pan by Carabao. Folks if you don’t think much of Thai music, try listening to that one song. Wow! It “kicks ass”! As soon as they heard the first three notes of this classic, my students were cheering and on their feet. They all knew the lyrics and were not shy about singing them. If nothing else, my students thought that Ajarn L. had at least some appreciation of “good music”…Thai style! Perhaps…if they’ve been behaving themselves and at least attempting to pay attention during class, we’ll do this again sometime. In the meantime, I hope that with a little practice I will have all of these students serenading one our morning assemblies with “Swinging on a Star”. I wonder what old Bing would think if he new that someday a bunch of boys and girls would be singing his song in distant Thailand? Somehow I think he would be flattered.

Stickman's thoughts:

I have to confess that there are a few Thai musicians I quite like.