Paradise On The Lam

Along a quiet soi just off the Sukhumvit throughway, you’ll find Studio Lam, a small club covered in old school hand-painted signage. Just around the corner down a tiny alleyway, there’s Zundragma Records, which is full of enough vintage world music wax to make any real crate digger drool. This is part of the mini-empire of Maft Sai, who helped bring classic local sounds like molam and luk thung into the lives of Bangkok’s club kids. Although his name is one of the best-known in the city’s contemporary nightlife scene, it took over a decade to get to this point.

It was a circuitous path that brought Sai to where he is now. At the age of 11 he was sent to school in Australia, and afterward he immediately moved to the UK for university. He only listened to Western music during these times, since his tastes tended to gravitate towards wherever he was. Every now and then he’d return to Thailand for holiday and go digging for rare finds, but Thai music didn’t do it for him, except for the occasional Thai funk cover.

It wasn’t until he moved home and had no job that Sai truly rediscovered local sounds. “My full-time job became looking for records,” he tells me as I sip on a tom yum cocktail from Studio Lam. It started with Thai funk, but as he listened to countless random records, he was frequently exposed to luk thung and molam again. “I used to hear the 80s stuff as a young child in my parents’ factory, but I never heard the rootsy 60s and 70s sound. The production was something else!” he says. “In the early 70s there were lots of molam bands experimenting with the same rhythm with all this different instrumentation, like an electric phin or a brass section. It was a classic rhythm everyone used, like reggae. It blew me away.” Suddenly he changed up his whole focus and began exploring this new old world.

In the mid-2000s, these were not popular sounds and they were often looked down upon. “When I’d go to the shops, they would be surprised, like, ‘Why are you buying these records? It’s your grandfather’s music.'” Sai laughs. He would go to the market every Tuesday where they’d drop off hundreds of 45s that he would listen to on a portable turntable. “It would pretty much just be me looking through them. I could go out and smoke two cigarettes and go back and no one would have touched my pile. These days people will grab them out of the box you’re digging in.” He says that while there are still some places you can go digging, the quality and selection aren’t as good and the prices are much higher.

Around 2008 Sai released his first mix CD of Thai funk, replete with hand-stitched fabric covers called Funk Zudrangma. “Zudrangma is a maximum horse engine,” he explains. “I saw it on a truck sign while digging in the countryside. It felt appropriate because it was like I was importing goods from there!” Only a few CD sold here in Bangkok but it was well received in the UK. “The grass is always greener somewhere else.”

The next year Sai, along with a partner from the UK, threw his first party revolving around vintage Thai sounds mixed with other vintage dance music like afrobeat, soul, and reggae called Paradise Bangkok. “We barely promoted it but like 200 people showed up,” he exclaims. So they kept doing it every couple of months until they packed about a thousand people in. But it was still largely foreigner-oriented. “The first party was 70 percent expat and 30 percent Thai who came with expats.”

He started traveling around Southeast Asia looking for other local sounds that he could blend into his sets and exchanging music with people from Pakistan, Turkey, and Egypt. Zudrangma Records would end up following this approach with its selection. “These were all people from different places with the same perspective. There were quite a lot of different sounds and we tried to connect the dots,” he says. As an example, he points to the deep south of Thailand where Muslims are the majority and they sing in Arabic. He would find certain tracks from there with different versions in Malaysia and Indonesia, even Yemen. “There are some tracks made in Bangkok that took themes from Egypt, some rare bits and bobs like that.” To spread the music, he released a couple of compilations in the UK and did some reissues in Japan.

By 2012 the Thai audience started to grow. Sai decided to introduce a live element rather than just feature a DJ setup. They sought out the artists whose records they’d been playing to perform live instead. “None of them had Facebook back then, so you’d have to travel to Issan to find them,” he says, emphasizing the difficulty of the project. And they brought musicians the singers used to play with or who they recommended. “The artists we were booking were like, ‘Are you sure? We don’t think anyone will come!'” The concern was unfounded: One of the artists hadn’t performed a proper gig in Bangkok since 1976 but 1200 people showed up. Lots of the crowd was made up of Thais from the music industry and other creative circles. “I didn’t plan on attracting a certain crowd. It was just a lot of my friends and they invited their friends,” he shrugs.

Seeking out these bands every six months was grueling and time-consuming, so Sai decided to form a band from artists they’d worked with over the years that they continually could rely on. This would become his current band, Bangkok Paradise Molam International Band. Eventually, he wanted them to become more than a backing band, so they started making instrumental music, which allows them to be more experimental and expressive than working with a vocalist. For a couple years they played abroad, often touring Europe, but the only bookings they had in Thailand were at his own parties. It wasn’t until they played a big festival in Glastonbury that Thais took notice. “Suddenly people were like, ‘Wow, someone’s playing molam at a world-class festival!’ Then people started booking us locally,” he says with a note of resignation in his voice. “We had to build up the project for ten years before we could do what we do now.” But it’s finally paying off.

These days parties in Southeast Asia revolving around vintage local sounds are common. Sai hears from locals in Issan (where molam comes from) that there are a lot more bands picking up local instruments now, and that university-level phin classes are starting to find more students as well. “I think people see that it’s been accepted elsewhere, and they realize it’s not something to be ashamed of. Back in the day if you carried the phin around, people would think you’re begging for money at the BTS station,” he says. Locals and expats used to complain that this music was alternately too foreign or too low class. Not anymore. “There was one guy from Issan coming to my party saying this was taxi driver music. But he was just putting this protective barrier out, he didn’t want to be embarrassed. A few years later and he’s singing along with every song in the club.”

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