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Music from Thailand has a small following in most of the Western world, but Edouard Degay Delpeuch is one of the young experts. Having spent a long time in Bangkok and studying the tunes he heard, particularly the popular “Luk Thung" and “molam” genres, we talk to the French student about Thai music and its rising popularity.

What triggered your interest in Thai popular music?

In fact, I was already a fan of Thai music before I began my PhD thesis. I used to study ethnomusicology and started to work with a minority in northern Thailand. By then, I found a compilation issued by Sublime Frequencies, and on the jacket was a member of the group I was studying. Alan Bishop, the co-founder of Sublime Frequencies, kindly answered my email, suggesting other similar compilations from Southeast Asia. When you first start looking for popular music in Thailand, you would hear of bands like Carabao, which is a mainstream rock band. In my own experience of talking to people in Thailand about classical or traditional music, most of them are generally surprised that you simply know about it, and even more surprised that you could have any interest in it. So you have to find an intermediary who understands your tastes and give you advice. A friend of mine compiles popular Luk thung music (which could be translated as “country music”) for me. I really liked a soulful tune by Phumphuang Duangchan, then some record dealer told me many stories about the first generation of Luk thung singers and then, I was in. Among others, blogs such as Monrakplengthai or compilations released by Zudrangma and Soundways were key to discovering the music I like. And they are key for so many other people too. Behind releases, there are people who collect, translate, curate and find the artist. They are the experts.

“When you talk to people in Thailand about their traditional music, most of them are surprised that you could have any interest in it.”

What is your PhD on and why did you choose such topic?

I am working on a global network of diggers (collectors of obscure music), DJs, publishers, journalists, art curators, and musicians. What I’m doing is an ethnographic study of music lovers interested in Thai music, especially Thai music from the 1960's-70's. I studied ethnology. For years, the academic world of ethnology devoted to non-Western music studies has been in the grip of several controversies with the “World Music” industry. These controversies are tied to debates on intellectual property and how to respect cultural differences. Some ethnomusicologists virulently criticized the publications issued by World Music companies for being neither respectful or at least faithful to the cultures that inspired those publications. They criticized appropriations happening outside the academic world.

Over the past ten years, things have changed. By the time they were issued, many music releases coming from outside the Western world were still ignored by ethnomusicologists and World Music companies. This phenomenon highlights that some music was not legitimate for publishing whatsoever. What I find interesting is how independent music labels and producers take these productions into account, without any help from the academic world or from a World Music company. My interest is how, in music, taste could put into question what is legitimate or not.

How often do you go there to study? What’s a typical field trip?

I have been to Thailand several times, but not always with the same intentions. As for my current study, I first spent about four to six months observing what is happening in Bangkok. The city has always been a core center of the music industry in Thailand. Down there, I tried to understand what kinds of communities were involved in the digging and publishing of Thai Popular Music from the past decades. I attended as many events as I could where people involved in music publishing usually meet, and tried to somehow get involved myself.

“In Thailand, I attended as many events as I could where people involved in music publishing usually meet.”

This first phase resulted in mixed success. Some people were very difficult to reach, although others really helped me access their world. They finally introduced me to producers and artists. One way or the other, everyone I follow is a collector: a DJ should have an important collection of records for performing, a records seller needs a great collection of records to supply its customers, a blogger or a journalist needs many of these too to publish on their page, etc. Consequently, you finally reach the artist in the second step, who is himself a part of the collection. It does not mean that the artist is objectified whatsoever. Relationships between collectors and artists are often really nice, and based on a lot of respect. However, there are very few Thai artists from the sixties within the circles I am following in Bangkok. Consequently, I spent time looking for artists in Bangkok as part of a second phase. The publishers that I follow pay some special attention to the music of the northeastern part of Thailand, which is called Isan. This music is known as “Molam” or “Lam.” So I went there as well and interviewed many singers, instrumentalists, DJs, songwriters, and producers from the 60-70's era. I also had the opportunity to meet the marching band Khun Narin, thanks to Peter Doolan, the man behind Monrakphlengthai. So here I am.

Top banner and all footers: Sabaiphrae (left) and Angkanang Kunchai (right) at the beginning of the seventies. Photograph from the “Isam Lam Plearn” booklet, published by Zudrangma Records, EM Records and Soi 48 in 2014. Photo lent by Angkanang Kunchai to Zudrangma, EM Records and Soi 48.
Lead image opener: Khon ensemle.