Country music, Bangkok style Cowboy chic: Country- western music strikes a responsive chord in Thailand, which has developed its own hybrid form of the American musical genre.

Sun Journal

May 25, 1998|By Stefan Sullivan | Stefan Sullivan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BANGKOK, Thailand -- The search for American country-western music in the Orient begins on Cowboy Alley, a neon strip of girlie bars saturated with Old West cliches. The names say it all. Lucky Star, Apache, Long Gun, Country Roads I and II. Inside, longhorn skulls, branding irons, saddles, lassos and stirrups adorn the walls.

The petite Thai "waitresses" are like Dolly Parton without the bust or rhinestones or Southern accent. They sweat stoically in the tropical heat, parading around in knee-length boots, frilly skirts, embroidered shirts and bolo ties. The frontier look is decidedly unerotic.

The band has not played anything remotely homespun all evening. From some British lager louts, they grudgingly honor yet another request for Pink Floyd.

The elderly keyboardist, suitably blase with an electric guitar resting in his lap for the occasional solo, peeks from under his fake Stetson.

"We used to be a country band," he remarks. "But the foreigners don't like it anymore. So we play what they want."

Cowboy Alley was built for GIs looking for a little home away from home. In the 1960s, when President Johnson declared the United States and Thailand "Pacific brothers" in the fight against communism, there were some 50,000 U.S. soldiers stationed in Bangkok -- plus thousands more who were regularly airlifted down from Vietnam's front lines for "rest and recreation." Around the U.S. air bases and port, local country bands sprouted up to service the new market.

As legend has it, Cowboy Alley was baptized when an African-American-Indian from Wyoming founded the first Cowboy Bar here in the mid-1970s. But when the Vietnam War ended and the Americans withdrew, the alley's spaghetti Western decor became little more than a backdrop for global tourists, particularly male, who had their minds on matters other than music.

"Original Cowboy Bar now owned by Switzerland man," shrugs one gum-chewing waitress as if this were not the least bit odd.

A few miles down the road at the Dallas Cowboy Pub, a raucous local crowd sings along to a band thrashing out Thai country -- three-chord guitar spiced with flutes and bongos.

As if to symbolize this hybrid form, a zebra's head mounted above the stage has replaced the longhorn skull. The genre, called Songs for Life, or Phleng Phu-a Chiwit, was coined by Surachai, the lead singer of Caravan, one of Thailand's most famous bands of the 1970s.

Ironically, though the influences on the Songs for Life genre were American -- Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Crosby, Stills and Nash, etc. -- the politics of its founders were anything but. Dubbed "the troubadours of the student movement," Caravan was the musical voice of Bangkok's civil unrest of the mid-1970s. Heavily influenced by Marxist ideology, the movement fought for constitutional reform and criticized the alliance between the oppressive Thai military regime and the U.S. government.

"At that time, we liked American music, but not American politics," reminisces Caravan's guitarist, Mongkong, over palm wine and crabs at the roadside bar he owns north of Bangkok.

After crackdowns against the student movement in 1976 that left hundreds dead, Caravan fled into the Laotian jungle to join the Chinese-sponsored Communist insurgency.

When they returned to Bangkok in the early 1980s, band members released a sound track for a film about vagabondery that blends Thai folk with experimental bluegrass: A fiddle's mournful dirge dances around a chugging harmonica, a soaring flute converses with sparse, bending guitar notes and sluggish bongo rhythms.

In an unlikely fusion, it manages simultaneously to evoke bamboo stalks and freight trains, rice paddies and Southern delta melancholy.

For authentic American country music in Bangkok, come in early evening to the Old Dragon Pub. Part owned by Sunanjit, a novelist and friend of Caravan since the student activist days, the Old Dragon has been lovingly decorated with American memorabilia -- old Coca-Cola and cigarette machines -- and some neat local touches.

The 100-year-old house with cathedral ceilings and ornate wood latticework was disassembled and relocated from a downtown residential area. A counter was salvaged from a Chinese herbal medicine shop. Benches and overhead lights are courtesy of the Thai National Railway. It feels like an elegant Old West saloon.

On stage, Dej, 41, one of Bangkok's few American country purists, performs a word-perfect rendition of the Hank Williams classic "You Win Again." His voice aches and cracks. His eyes are closed. With his wire-rim glasses and long, stringy hair he looks more Beatnik poet than backwoods banjo-picker, and in many ways his turn to country was not homegrown but part of a bohemian's spiritual quest.

"I love the poetry," he says. I love the prayer. I'm Catholic, you know."

Too young to mix with the American soldiers, Dej learned the guitar riffs and licks via radio, tapes and how-to manuals.

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