Can Wonderfruit Festival Save Thailand from EDM?
Between the failure of Full Moon Parties and commercial EDM, something new is rising in the Far Eastern underground.
Until very recently, electronic music in Thailand was intrinsically linked to the full moon parties in Koh Pha Ngan and Koh Samui. The parties began as impromptu gatherings of 25 or so people in 1985, but by the mid-nineties, the crystal clear waters and squelchy thump of psychedelic trance had become central imagery in the electronica movement, as evidenced by Leonardo Di Caprio's trance-laden misadventures in 2000's film adaptation of The Beach.
Nowadays, the full moon parties have devolved into the biggest tourist trap in the Far East, replete with buckets of booze, beaches full of trash, and only a shallow facsimile of the spiritualism that was a central theme in the party's heyday.
Pranitan "Pete" Phornprapha has been embedded in the Thai dance scene since its earliest days, and as his Wonderfruit Festival prepares for its second edition this weekend—with a lineup that features underground luminaries like Jon Hopkins, Daedelus, and Com Truise alongside headliner Mos Def (as Yasiin Bey)—it's a good time to look back at the history of dance music in Thailand.
"The first time that Thailand was exposed to electronic music was before 1990," Pete explains over a choppy phone connection. "Back in 1990, the full moon parties were brilliant. They were counter-culture in its best form. The whole psychedelic trance movement was really special."
"Over time, It became quite commercial, a tourist trap, like Mardi Gras," Pete continues. "The islands became extremely congested. In Thailand, the mentality is that tourism brings a lot to the country, and it does, but you can see how sometimes tourism doesn't help—it makes things worse. Koh Samui was such a beautiful island, but now the amount of pollution and waste and urban decay is overwhelming."
More recently, dance music has moved into the club scene in Thailand. "There's a lot of EDM, just like the rest of the world," Pete says. "Big EDM artists are now touring Asia very extensively before they hop on to Australia. In terms of underground music, there's a couple of clubs in Bangkok that play underground music. It's among people who are exposed to underground music abroad when travelling or studying abroad. Most of the music in the clubs is still quite mainstream."
Pete, the heir to a lineage of industrialists and entrepreneurs, began throwing his own raves and parties after returning from schooling in London and New York, eventually cresting above ground with massive parties in Bangkok clubs. It wasn't until a couple of years ago, though, that the inspiration for Wonderfruit materialized.
"I was in the UK, and I'd never been to a camping event," Pete begins. "I went to Secret Garden in London, and it was so beautiful. The site was unbelievable, and the curation was very well done as well. I thought it would be a really good if we could take some of those ideas, merge them with social responsibility, and use those as a platform to engage the Thai audience."
"When we first thought of Wonderfruit, the Full Moon Party didn't really come to mind," says Pete. "What did come to mind was responsible celebrating: that was the basis of Wonderfruit. Looking back, I do think that what happened with the Full Moon Parties was an influence. If they tried to clean the FMP up now, it would be quite difficult. If you can create a sustainable culture from the beginning, you can stop it from becoming an enemy of its own success."
In 2014, Wonderfruit Festival was born in Pattaya, a rural destination outside of Bangkok, with everyone from Jamie Jones to De La Soul and Damian Lazarus performing amidst countless installations and an audience of 5,000 campers wrought from every corner of the globe. "When we were trying to come up with a lineup for the acts, we were looking to make it something special, because Wonderfruit tickets, for Thai people, are not cheap," says Pete.
Pete rattles off some of the key elements of the Wonderfruit vibe: "A lot of our content comes from all over the world. We try to maintain a balance: Thai acts, regional acts. We try to do a lot of collaborations. People from all over the world, many from Burning Man, come here and collaborate with Thai teams and add a local sensitivity to it. We like working with people who build, who don't just draw and hand over and point—people who get their hands dirty and carve and saw. It's becoming more of a lost art."
There's a lot more to Wonderfruit more than just classily curated music. "There's a very clear purpose to what we're doing," Pete says, slowly, as if to emphasize the importance of the statement. "Our intention is to merge social responsibility with the dance music movement."
The team have quite literally put their money where their mouth is when it comes to sustainability. "The first thing we actually did on the grounds was planting a farm right in them middle," says Pete. "We've expanded it this year. The kids all go and play in it." The festival uses produce grown in the farm during their Farm to Feast dinners, one of many unique features, alongside two live stage plays, on-site festival fashion makeovers, and upwards of ten installations, many of which were designed for Burning Man, but were re-jigged and built by Thai teams for Wonderfruit.
This week will see the Wonderfruit team kick their preparations into overdrive, putting everything into place before welcoming a crowed of 10,000 to the festival's grounds, a number double that of last year. The event is at the forefront of the Far Eastern festival scene, taking the best elements of the west's boutique festival movement and infusing them with elements of eastern culture with the hopes of synthesizing something new that can last. With the decayed remains of paradise lost in Full Moon Parties on one side and the hyper-commercialization of the EDM club scene on the other, Wonderfruit represents a new chapter the country's electronic scene—one where partying can be positive for both humanity and the earth.
Jemayel Khawaja is Editor-at-Large at THUMP - @JemayelK