Various Artists

Luk Thung: Classic & Obscure 78s from the Thai Countryside

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There have been several compilations of Thailand's Luk Thung music issued in the West since 2010. To date, all of them have focused on different expressions of the style that emerged in the 1950s. Luk Thung is Thailand's "country" music, that of its rural people. It has its roots in the Ramwong dance, instituted by the Thai government in 1944 to combat its own cultural error in introducing too many Western cultural traditions -- from the use of Latin rhythms (cha-cha-cha, tango, rhumba, etc.) and jazzy big-band horns in its music to forks and knives to Western dress in everyday life. As a musical force, Ramwong proved to be popular among both urban and rural citizens who longed for their own heritage. Its interpretive bands began to split along those lines. Luk Thung featured more regional and traditional Thai instruments, and socially conscious lyrics (sometimes outlawed by the power structure, making them more popular), and yet, the new sound often retained the horns and rhythms introduced during the government's Pleng Thai Sakon (Modern Thai Song) era. As more rural workers emigrated to Bangkok for economic opportunities, they brought their music; it began to take hold in the slums and was eventually recorded. DJs responded, they played the hell out of it, and a new popular music was born -- one that has been influential for every succeeding generation. Among the 14 tracks on Luk Thung Classic & Obscure 78s from the Thai Countryside are several well-known artists including Suraphon Sombatcharoen, the man who popularized the style -- its Elvis, as it were. "Suai Ching Nong" starts with an accordion, but is adorned with horns and Latin and Caribbean rhythms. Other tracks, such as Namphueng Boribun's "Nak Kamphra (Orphan Monk)," are reliant almost solely on folk instruments -- the rhythm is simple, hypnotic, and haunting -- and offer more spiritual lyrics. "Pha Hom Hua Chai (Blanket for the Heart)," by Narong Namchai, uses cha-cha rhythms and a distinctive Thai folk melody in its portrayal of unrequited love. "Mia Thahan Phan Suek (Veteran's Wife)," by Tueanchai Khwanchit, weaves together the Ramwong rhythm, Middle Eastern tonalities, and Thai melody. Mitt Mueangmaen was a hotel singer about whom little is known, but the showmanship displayed on the cooker "Phu Ying Rai Muean Fai (A Woman Vicious Like Fire)" begs the "who is that man" question, and are there more of his recordings available? Certainly, world music collections like this one aren’t for everyone, but for those predisposed to this flavor of adventure, this set, lovingly and articulately compiled by musicologist David Murray, with authoritative notes by Peter Doolan, is not only worthy, it's essential.

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