Thai Music Part 2 – Fans and Singers
As mentioned in part one, written information in English on Thai country music is fairly sparse. The best known writer is probably a Brit, John Clewley, who writes pieces in the Bangkok Post from time to time as well as being responsible for the entries in the Rough Guide to world music for Thailand and Laos. John lives in Bangkok but does not seem to be much of a concert goer; he wrote in the Post last year that he had not seen Jintara Poonlap, a major singer, perform for 15 years. This seems rather like a football fan living in Manchester writing about the game but never bothering to go and watch a match. Another well known writer is American Terry Miller who first came to Thailand in the early 1970’s and wrote a thesis on Thai music as well as other academic articles and books, some which are sadly out of print. Miller's area of expertise is morlam and while some of his arguments are debatable, at least he did go out and do his own research and his work is always an interesting read.
Without going to concerts, seeing other fans and singers and how they interact, a writer cannot really get a feel for the music scene here and what role it plays in people's lives, or see the relationships between performers, fans and recording companies. As far as I know neither Clewley nor Miller have written about this, and from what I have seen Thai writers have not either. The only writer I know who has covered this is Ozzie academic James Mitchell.
One of the more interesting aspects of Thai music, and I am only referring to luktung, morlam and likay here, is the interaction between the artists and their fans, and while it is not unique, it does have characteristics which make the relationship very Thai and demonstrates the patron / client relationship existing in Thai society, what we might call you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours! In the west when singers do have contact with fans, and especially when they are famous and successful, interaction with fans is often quite remote and when it does occur at a personal level is often under the eyes of bodyguards, or at least PR staff and might involve little more than a quick autograph or handshake. There might well be household names in western countries that put time aside each day for fans to ring, those who invite fans to their house or to family celebrations, even the odd one who pays for concerts tickets or even for fans hotel bills, but if there is I have never heard of them. In the world of Thai music this closeness is not that uncommon, although of course not all stars are this accommodating by any means. On the fan side they can spend considerable amounts of time and money following their favourite stars just as they do in the west, but the rewards are often greater and at least the opportunity to get close up to the artist, in fact the phrase ‘close up’ to a singer is often used to show off the level of the fans' relationship to the star. This being Thailand the level of this ‘close up’ status is sometimes played up by both the artist and the fan for mutual face.
Uncle Gaow must be the best known fan in the country; every singer knows him and he spends every spare moment, as well as every baht on concerts and singers. Here he is with the lovely Ajareeya. Fans collect different things, Gaow’s is photos with the singers. I like to get albums signed.
Regular fans of a certain singer, or even not so serious ones will often be given the singer's own phone number, something I would think quite rare in the west. Can you imagine Beyonce for example standing behind the stage giving out her phone number? Or phoning fans to wish them happy birthday, or sending them flowers? But this can happen in Thailand. Some former big shot such as Ringo Starr loftily announcing he will no longer accept or reply to fan messages would seem very arrogant and puzzling to a Thai fan. They would think who does he think he is, he’s just a performer! As well as personal communication, fans will expect the opportunity for photos with singers after performances as well as autographs and signing of photos and CDs. Of course all singers are not the same with some far more accommodating than others. To some it’s clearly an inconvenience at times. Most see it as an obligation and part of the world they entered into. I am often surprised at the patience of singers and musicians in some situations where fans continually ask for photos, but a clear and blunt refusal is almost never seen, even from the most difficult of stars. While the giving on the part of the singer, if only with their time, can be considerable, the giving from the fans can also be generous to say the least. Gifts to singers starts at the bottom with a single rose, the commonest type of ‘mali’, all the way up to the presenting of expensive items like cars. Of course where cars are accepted the relationship is often a little more than singer / fan and it is a rarity, but does happen.
Several of the very best luktung singers ready to see fans for autographs at the Thai cultural centre, June 2009. From left, Urn the Star, Sunaree Rachesima, Cathaleya Marasri, Takkaden Cholada, Ajareeya Bussaba and Mangpor Chonticaha, Tai Orathai is just out of the frame. Looks like Cat has got a dog with her under the table!
Nangfa kalasin recently signed with R-Siam label, forget which mali I gave him, not the money one that’s for sure! Nangfa is a very nice mannered singer.
Mangpor fan club at Thai cultural centre.
While the fan structure is often casual there are still cultural rules and customs governing fan and artist conduct and even though the fan relationship can be very close, moral codes existing in Thai society at large are apparent in the world of music. It sometimes comes as a surprise to foreigners only exposed to tourist areas like Sukhumvit to learn that it’s actually not generally accepted to touch women you are not related to in public places. Male fans would outrage everyone if they attempted to kiss a female singer on the cheek and even touching them where photos are taken is often seen as risqué. Women on the other hand can get away with almost anything with male and female singers. Sometimes life just isn’t fair! The female singer however will sometimes touch male fans for photos, but it should be left to them to initiate. Singers themselves are often at pains to maintain their moral reputation as well as keeping marriages and relationships secret. This can sometimes famously backfire as was the case with Jintara Poonlap a couple of years ago. Always maintaining in interviews over the years she was single, a reporter snapped her ID card when she went to vote revealing her married name. As it turned out she had been married to her manager for many years. Homosexual status however does not seem to be such a problem, unless it’s a women and one very famous lesbian singer is routinely in denial over this. The male singers are luckier, as fans male or female do not seem to care about their sexuality, but they are just as likely to be secretive over relationships. Singers can be so protective of their reputation that it has ended up in court cases. In the 90’s new singer Appaporn Nokonsawan sued TV Pool magazine for defamation when they wrote she had a child. She had not and the editor and writer were sentenced two years in prison (!!) which was later suspended with a large fine. So you do have to tread carefully with people in the public eye and there is no way, for example, that I would suggest she is grossly overweight these days and has always been more of a comedienne than a singer!
The giving of malis to singers by fans is an important contact point for both.
As has already been mentioned the mali, or puang mali, is one main way the fan shows appreciation to the singer in Thai music. As I have only been involved in this scene for 12 years or so I only have photos and film from 20-30 years ago to judge how this has evolved. Looking at older sources I have rarely noticed the giving of money with the mali at concerts and also in the past singers seemed more likely to wear the mali where as today they often pass them straight to a stage hand. Fans consider malis more seriously than do most singers today. Many fans will actually judge a singer on whether they wear the mali or not at the performance, and in particular if they take them home or not. The singer who just dumps them at the back of the stage is not appreciated as much as one who takes them away. Most of the older singers did and still do take them away and as the cost of some is considerable at 30 – 500 baht so fans feel that in taking them home they are treating the fans with respect. New singer Sasinan (Dr Donut) recently said this in an interview with writer on Thai music James Mitchell:
Question: What do you do with malai and roses? What is considered the right thing to do with them? Have you ever received malai with money or photos of the fans?
Donut: I keep as many of the flowers as I can. If I receive a puang malai I will present it to Pra Pikaneet [a shrine] to worship (but not the money). I take the roses, dry them and keep them in a box. When I receive money malai – I write down who has given the money and how much. The malai will always include the fan’s telephone number and details about themselves. Then later I will call them back to have a conversation with them – to thank them and find out when their birthday is so I can SMS later on. The fans appreciate what I have done so I want to make them feel special.
New singer Dr Donut at an anti drink driving concert, Songkran 2009
Just as the fan base is more socially diverse today so are the singers. Sasinan (Dr Donut) is half Thai / half Malay, has a PhD in education and speaks several languages. Just as all fans are not working class Isaan migrants, neither are all singers poor, rags to riches types with little education. There are even a few falangs such as Jonas and Christy who sing in luktung / morlam, although I have never heard of a likay falang performer. Ever heard of Johnny Olson an American performer? Quite a good khaen player (reed mouth organ), if a little immodest. There are also western, and even African comics performing in Thai music, many concerts having comic groups and morlam style clowns appearing, maybe I should give it a go.
Jonas and Christy are both very approachable; almost more Thai than Thais if that makes sense.
Although the working class have been the traditional fan base of luktung and morlam, today the market has changed with the image of luktung at least and a country music audience will normally represent quite a cross section of Thai society. The regular fans that I see include factory workers, food sellers, fortune tellers, the unemployed and even the odd crazy rubbing shoulders with generals, high ranking policeman’s wives and the rich owners of hi so businesses such as luxury car dealerships. The staging of private concerts is a frequent event for celebrating weddings, and more frequently for funeral and for monk ordinations. In Bangkok the staging of such an event with major stars will cost around 300 – 400 thousand baht, not something the average Issan migrant can splash out on.
Pee Sadert fan club, often such clubs are quite informal and small and rather than apply to join you are more often asked. Radio stations have formal clubs with planned activity days and regular concerts. Fans usually get their own tee shirts and signs made up themselves as well as creating websites the singer they follow. Many fans follow more than one singer, but girls like these are likely to only stay while their singer is on then leave to follow him or her to the next venue, sometimes if they are lucky in the singers own car or van.
Takes some skill to keep hold of a load like this, I’m sure it’s all genuine of course.
Surprisingly as they are after all just flowers, I have seen major stars providing fans with flowers to present them, usually when they are on TV, no doubt worried a loss of face might result in not enough, or poor ones being presented. More often these ‘fake malis’ are in the form of money that the singers (usually a third party) provide fans with to present to them. This fake mali business seems to have come from likay, the central Thai folk theatre built around song and it is most noticeable in luktung where a likay singer is singing luktung. Often great sheets of money are awarded and the same elaborate arrangements can be seen concert after concert, rather a giveaway. Fake malis involving money are not so obvious in luktung where the singer is not also a likay artist, and even less so in morlam. At luktung and morlam concerts fans are likely to present singer with 20-100 baht, sometimes 500-1000, but the great displays dished up to likay singers, and which can look ridiculously over the top are not so often seen in lukung and morlam. In likay the fake mali and large amounts of genuine money gifts are almost routine. One major likay star announced a few years ago he did not want fans to give him flowers any longer-he just wanted money malis While it did not do his reputation with the fans much good he is still as big a success, and he still takes flowers!
The organisation of fans in likay is more sophisticated then in luktung and morlam with the main fans often being women who compete at times for the singer’s attention. The hero in likay is always a small, youthful non threatening male, and yes they are often gay but this is irrelevant to the female fans who can spend very large amounts in presents and money gifts to the singer they follow. The serious likay fan, or mae yok as they are sometimes called, occasionally hit the front page in the newspapers as happened in 2009 involving the same singer who said he wanted no more flowers given. The husband of a fan demanded a very large amount of money back that his wife had given the singer over a period of time as the family was in dire straits. I believe it involved a crude attempt at blackmail in the end to try and get the money back. This is a good argument for not giving all your wages to the Mrs. – you don’t want her running off and wasting most of it on a pasty faced limp wristed youth in a spangled suit that look like a clowns outfit, do you?
Jintara besieged by fans, the girl don’t look too pleased with the handout- kids!
Singers are often not just judged by their singing ability, but also by their conduct and mannerisms when performing. In competitions judges often comment on the mood of the singer, arom dee is a welcomed comment. The way the singer conducts themselves offstage is also important. Somebody acting a like a big shot, even if they are, is widely frowned upon. The singer who remains humble, close to their roots, often rural, and who is seemingly unchanged by their success is often most admired. <This is largely true across Thai society, irrespective of job – Stick> Different companies use varied approaches to shape the singer's image. Grammy for example, with few exceptions, turn out their acts looking very ordinary, jeans and tops are common place, in an effort to promote the idea that they are one of the people still and really like the guy or girl in the next village or soi. This may seem a little transparent and I do think they take it too far as many of their stars don’t really need any help with image – they really are genuine anyway.
Grammy star Mike Piromporn, the blue collar workers' hero and genuinely nice guy who always has time for everyone. Here at a 7-4 concert on Saturday ch 7, my 50 baht mali, not bad are they for the money? I once went to Mike’s restaurant in Lad Phrao soi 71. Not only did he sing and come and sit with us, he even went out into the street to get us a taxi, even though he has the staff to do it. Asking the driver to ‘take my friends home’ the driver did, and then refused payment as Mike had asked him, I thought it said much for the way this singer is regarded by the working man, and it would not be so if Mike went around in fancy suits sporting flashy jewellery. He gets the thumbs up from fans for taking all his flowers away with him.
The beautiful and talented sisters Job and Joy being presented with a photo mali after the chung tang seang tong show in 2007. Pleased to say their mum liked the photo so much she took it home.
The ultimate patron / client relationship, here the prime minster turns up at a concert, not for the malis but to boost support among the rural poor and migrant workers from Issan who are the backbone of supporters of luktung and morlam. In associating himself with the music on TV he attempts to do so with rural fans where his support has been weak. And yes, he did forget the words!
This was rather like a posh Tory PM in the UK doing a bit of Reggae dancing at the Notting Hill carnival, while at the same time associating his policies with the achievements of the Queen of England, all rather unsophisticated from a falang point of view. It is striking that the musical preferences of the two political adversaries PAD and UDD are poles apart. I have yet to see any PAD gatherings where luktung or morlam were performed. The mystery is in Thai music why it has not been used more as a political voice.
Thailand often comes in for a lot negative comments these days along the lines of Thais not being as friendly, open or polite as in the ‘good old days’. When it comes to traditional music however I beg to differ.