A psychedelic organ riff pours out of a taxi's stereo in Bangkok. I point at the radio and the taxi driver flips it off with a pleasant "Excuse me." He's used to foreigners and rich Thais looking down on his music, but I want him to turn it up, explaining I'm a Molam fan and headed to a nearby club to hear the same music live. He eagerly shows me a video on his phone of his granddaughter practicing Molam in her bedroom in Isaan. By the end of the taxi ride, we're both cruising to the tunes with grins on our faces.
Molam is country music that's been played in the Thai and Laotian hinterlands since the 17th century. Its Thai home is in Isaan, a region in the Northeast of the country where many working class people live. At its most simple, a traditional Molam act features only a singer and a khaen player, which is a bamboo mouth organ played vertically in bass tones designed to support a singer's voice. Beyond that, the most common additions to a Molam band are phin, a small lute with strings, drums, and bass.
Molam underwent a major shift in the 70s, thanks to the influence of the American GIs stationed at five army bases around Isaan. They brought psychedelic, rock, soul, and funk music with them from America via guitars, records, and radio stations broadcast from the bases. The Molam players absorbed these sounds and were intrigued by them. Entire riffs from bands like Black Sabbath and The Rolling Stones were incorporated into Molam songs from this era.
Until recently, Molam music was marginalized and dismissed as "taxi driver music," or entertainment for the lower classes. But with its psychedelic riffs and country jams, the genre is experiencing a new life worldwide, mostly thanks to Nattapon "Nat" Siangsukon, better known as DJ Maft Sai, who runs three record labels, a record store, and a club that is bringing modern Molam to international audiences. And the West is embracing it.
A vintage track by Dao Bandon was featured on the soundtrack of The Hangover Part II and Paradise Bangkok Molam International Band opened for Damon Albarn in Berlin in 2014. They also shared a stage with Smashing Pumpkins and Godspeed You! Black Emperor in Poland the year before that.
Maft Sai's label ZudRangMa Records, ships vinyl to fans in all over the world, with concentrated fan bases in Germany, Japan, and the UK. Two of his early compilations, Sound of Siam Volume 1 and 2, were key to introducing the genre to audiences outside Thailand. They feature obscure, hypnotic tracks from the 60s and 70s, and the second compilation earned praise from Western publications like The Quietus.
Studio Lam, his club, is celebrating its first anniversary this month. The tiny space, just a few doors down from ZudRangMa in Bangkok is a small, dark triangle that's packed even on nights when they are only hosting a DJ set. When bands like PBMIB play the club, the street in front is jammed with people drinking beer and yadong, a traditional Thai rice spirit made at the bar.
"In Bangkok, Molam hasn't been popular," Maft Sai explained to me. "A few years ago, I'd play a Molam track in a DJ set and Thais would shout out, 'This is country music, this is taxi driver music, why are you playing this shit?' But we continued throwing our parties and those people came back—and now they sing along with Molam."
Maft Sai at his record shop in Bangkok. Photo courtesy of Jim Thompson House
Maft Sai is from Bangkok but spent much of his life in Australia and the UK. "People from Isaan know more about Molam than me. Their parents listened to this when they were growing up, but they're ashamed to be part of this music. It relates back to being from Isaan, having darker skin, being working class, being in the rice fields. But after watching the Bangkok scene happen and an international audience for Molam develop, people are becoming less and less ashamed of Isaan-ness," he said.
Gridthiya Gaweewong is curator of the Molam Bus Project, run by the Jim Thompson House, a Bangkok artspace and museum. Her office is filled with crates of Molam records, some one-of-a-kind. She has been tasked with creating a Molam museum over the next five years but, for now, they have a mobile exhibit housed in a vintage bus that they take to events and festivals.
Gaweewong explained the bias against people from Isaan. "You're American, aren't you?" she asked me. "Isaan is like being from Idaho," a backwater burg to urban Thais who view it as the place where the city's taxi drivers and domestic workers hail from.
Since Molam was looked-down on in Bangkok for so long, most of the famed musicians hadn't played in the city since the 70s. To procure live music for his popular parties, Maft Sai had to trek out to Isaan and knock on doors to find the old stars. Many of them had retired to villages and were raising chickens and buffalo. "It would take six months to organize a party because I had to track down all the vocalists and musicians and convince them to play. I would spend an entire year throwing two parties."
Finding the musicians wasn't the only stumbling block to getting this music back on the map. ZudRangMa Records has been putting out reissues and vintage compilations of Thai music since 2010. "Back then, we might sell just seven copies a year in Thailand. I realized that we had to promote it abroad." That was when taste-making record shops All That Jazz, Rough Trade, and Soul Jazz in the UK started stocking and promoting this music.
The compilations featured covers with traditional Thai cloth and were marketed as "Thai funk." Influential Thais that lived and traveled abroad saw them and bought them. They'd come back to Thailand and show them to their friends, who would start coming to events. According to Maft Sai, the idea of Molam as respectable was a hard pill for urban Thais to swallow until they saw that it was sought after by foreigners.
The 20th century strain of Molam music features trippy riffs, hypnotic patterns, and drawn-out, inventive solos. Maft Sai's favorite era of Molam is slightly older than he is, though. "The modern Molam sound actually comes from the 70s. It's like reggae. They use the same lines but each band uses slightly different instrumentation and style. Some use the traditional phin and khaen, some use a brass band; some add guitar or keyboard."
According to Piyanart "Pump" Jotikasthira, the bass player of Paradise Bangkok Molam International Band, "What makes Molam psychedelic is the khaen. It has that surreal sound that people recognize. It's the way it lengthens the notes." Khaen can recreate the drama of a pipe organ but the sound can be better controlled and manipulated as the player breathes into it.
John Clewley, a music writer and musician from the UK who's been living in Thailand since the 80s, agreed, saying, "For foreigners, the khaen is a big draw. People have never heard or seen this before. Khaen players can do these big cathedral chords, like power chords, and people are amazed."
Clewley first encountered Molam at a village party in Isaan, where he lived with his Thai wife. "I loved it. I danced with the [locals] all night. It reminded me of Irish folk music, but instead of a fiddle, you've got a khaen. They start playing at 21:00 and finish at 5 in the morning. We once had a party at our house and one of the bands played. The whole village, all 300 people, came. In the morning, there were people asleep in the bushes. It looked like the aftermath of a war. When they woke up, they just walked off and got noodles."
Maft Sai agrees, "If you want to see the real-deal Molam, you have to go to a private party in the country where they kill a cow, the whole village shares it and they play music until 10 in the morning."
If that sounds too intense, try a crash course in Molam by stepping into a Bangkok taxi and asking the driver to play you his favorite songs. He'll probably be thrilled.
For more on ZudRangMa records, visit its website here.
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