More and more people are starting to hear Thai music, and a documentary on the YouTube-famous band Khun Narin is now in the works. What makes it particularly unique is the melting pot of influences found in the music; someone with a discerning ear could point out Korean and Hindi film songs, while musicians from Cambodia and the Philippines made their own contributions. Edouard explains why Thai music sounds the way it does, and what can be found when the music is picked apart.

Was India the origin of Psychedelic music when it got popularized by the Beatles?

In Thailand, the Beatles were not as famous as the Shadows or Santana. Still, Santana is not labeled as psychedelic music. The influence of India is very old and has overwhelmed the whole culture for centuries. In the '60-70s this influence came through the film industry and Hindi Film songs. Such a famous songwriter as Surin Paksiri for instance wrote several songs from a Hindi inspiration for Sumit Satchathep, a singer from the Sikh community of Bangkok, or Chatri Sirichon, a Luk thung singer from Chonburi.

What about the Oriental influence?

Oriental influences are numerous and difficult to sum-up in one single sentence, difficult to understand in one single study. Considering the popular music industry, to my knowledge, Thailand was influenced by India, Japan and Korea. Recent Japanese influence came through J-Pop in the 1990's, and Korean influence through K-Pop in the 2000's, but you can track both influences from earlier decades by listening to “Ya Doen Show” written by Surin Paksiri for Baanchop Chaiphra, or to “Rak Thae Chak Num Thai” which was written and sung by Benjamin during his way back from Korea after the Korean war. You would catch a distinct Arirang inspiration. However, Chinese music coming from Hong Kong, Taiwan or Singapore was never really popular outside of the Chinese community, which is quite a powerful group in Thailand.

“Thailand is the melting-pot of many regional influences which compete to be part of Thai culture.”

And you cannot forget the Indian influence. From the beginning of the 20th century, several very talented instrumentalists came from neighboring Asian countries such as Cambodia or the Philippines. They received a much more intense influence from the West, especially from the United States for historical reasons. Some of these musicians joined Western-style orchestras and big bands formed in Bangkok. The role of Filipino musicians was crucial in the development of jazz music all over Asia. Thailand is the melting-pot of many regional influences which compete to be part of Thai culture. Apart from its organology which echoes with Indonesia, India and China, performing arts in Thailand remind us that South East Asia has always been an international hub.

The Thai classical dancers of Khon, accompanied by a piphat ensemble, tell the story of Ramakien, which is derived from the epic Hindu Ramayana. According to some ideas, the likay might have brought the influence of Malay Jikey to Central Thailand, then to Isan (Northeastern Thailand), which gave birth to the likay Korat and its molam alternative from the 1940s, the molam muu.The Northern part of Isan and Lao always shared a common culture, whereas the very South of Isan with Kantrum music conveys a distinct Khmer influence.

Tell us about the phenomenon Khun Narin Phin Sing?

Khun Narin is an interesting phenomenon. In this early decade, the son of Narin published a promotional video on YouTube, to call for any customers interested in their performance. The video finally came to Richard Kamerman who published it on WMFU, with the help of Nat Roe. With its drone sound from an electric luth called “phin,” the video became so popular in the West—300,000 views on YouTube—that it was released as an album by an American music label based in L.A. The album is likely a field recording done in the backyard of Narin's house, since the musicians would never part with their sound system to record in a studio. The Khun Narin band comes from the province of Phetchabun, by the border of Isan and the North of Thailand. But the band performs “phin prajuk,” which can be translated to “modified phin” or “modern phin.” It is a kind of Isan music which could originate from the electrification of phin and the influence of the master phin, Thongsai Thapnon. Khun Narin is a marching band that perform at temple fairs, during annual events or local ceremonies such as births, weddings or ordinations of monks. A troupe just like many others in Isan.

For that reason, they are still merely known in Thailand and people who have heard about them misunderstand their success overseas. It is a lucky break for the band that they became popular overseas, and incarnate Isan music to an increasing number of Westerners. But this is not simple luck. Khun Narin is famous in its own area, and people contacted them from far outside of their province to ask them to come and perform. However, Khun Narin is not a band in the sense of the Western popular music industry. During the performing events they are sidelined, they stand next to the young man who is about to join the monkhood, next to the fiancés about to get married, they never perform on stage, and only when the host asks them. They have a functional role in the ceremony. The parade is probably the one moment they are under the spotlights.

“Khun Narin became popular overseas, and incarnate Isan music to an increasing number of Westerners.”

How did you get in touch with them?

When I was working on music collectors in Thailand, I met Peter Doolan who runs the blog Monrakphlengthai. Since Peter was living in Thailand and knew their famous youtube videos, he contacted them to attend one of their performances, then they became friends. It was a short while before Josh Marcy from Innovative Leisure came to Thailand to record the first album of the band. Peter introduced me to the band once he went to Phetchabun. I saw them several times from then on. Peter was not around this year, so I helped Josh and Narin to communicate with each other and record their next album.