This week I’m once again in transit and so this column will necessarily be a bit brief, with the promised look back at recent travels in Thailand. It’s a cliché to call travel “broadening”—although all too apt when one considers how much food I ate on my trip—yet I find that nothing is more effective in getting the creative juices flowing than some time spent in a foreign country where large parts of the language and culture are new.

My stated objective for the trip was “sound-hunting,” and armed with two of my trusty Zoom recorders—each of which actually contains four mics in a handy package and records onto flash memory—I combed Bangkok high and low for urban sonic grit. Alas, nothing quite came up to the standards of some of the things I found on a previous trip, my favorite being the cries of a city jitney driver calling out for customers and apparently insulting some of them along the way.

Here’s a clip of one of those:

  • City Jitney Driver

    After a few days in Bangkok, I joined up with friends Nick and Awe, and we traveled toward the south. I was hoping to find either some interesting natural sounds—insects, amphibians, other animals—or just rural sounds like those that might be associated with farming, boating, or ritual. I got a few good things, but the best fun-find was during some random meanderings on the back roads late at night, when we chanced upon a village that was hosting a Likay.

    Likay is a kind of music theater that combines song, dance, burlesque, melodrama, and ornate costumes. The troupe we heard was itinerant, traveling from village to village and performing for a week or more at a time. They set up outdoors and invite the neighbors, who are mostly farmers. The audience chats, laughs, heckles, and generally grooves on the performances; everyone shares in a distinctly Thai, um, gemutlichkeit. At times during the performance and at the end, the hat is passed; more precisely, garlands are purchased to provide tribute to the performers. The villagers are poor, and even when the attendance is good the performers probably don’t make very much money. The troupe I saw had maybe seven actors, four musicians, a backstage crew, and a conductor. I doubt if anyone made more than a couple of dollars for a hard night’s work. Later we talked with some of the members who confirmed the hard time they have making a living. Television is just too potent a rival, especially as a lot of the soap operas on Thai TV seem to borrow heavily from traditional Likay plotlines.

    The musicians sit in the wings stage left, concealed from audience view by a curtain. They follow the action closely, taking cues both from the singers and from the director. In this clip which I recorded by sticking my camera under the curtain (after getting some approving smiles from the main actor who was waiting to go on, I summoned my courage and “rolled tape”). You can see the director throwing cues to the main player on xylophone, who also looks to the actors on stage for timing.

    A little bit of information about Likay and other dance forms in Thailand can be found here. See you next week!

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