News and Views

I was so sad to hear…

Yes, I was so sad to hear that the Coconut Rawai open mic nights (OMNs) are over…or taking a break maybe, for various reasons. I’m aware some oppose such OMNs and will not be sad. I am not one of them. I have run a few some time ago now, I have played at OMNs when I can get a band together, and I have supported the Coconut Rawai OMNs as best as I could. So I feel a keen sense of loss, particularly as I heard a lot of great songs not on the Patong Playlist there and some fine original songs too..

OMNs, like kareokes, are a regular feature of performance music in the UK. They provide amateur musicians a platform so a community can have a little fun. The professional musicians don’t get upset; they just get on with their lives and jobs. They are not so insecure as to see them as competition or feel their livelihoods are threatened. I fail to see why Phuket should be any different.

After all, there is one 20 year old Phuket Town live music venue here that regularly involves enthusiastic amateurs that never gets criticism. Or kareokes or the now defunct 18 year old Music Matters jazz jam for that matter. No one has complained about them, nor have they had any problems with the authorities during all that time. OMNs are much the same.

The main problem is that the legal definition of work here is “anything involving physical or mental effort.” So voluntary work for a charity, picking up litter on the beach, cleaning your car, feeding your cat, painting your house or thinking about your tax return are all defined legally as ‘work’ in Thailand, thus requiring a work permit. Pay doesn’t enter into it. It’s nuts.

This definition is so ridiculous that the authorities have traditionally turned a blind eye where they can to save themselves embarrassment, just so long as things are done low key. Things won’t change legally any time soon. Such expat issues come well down the list of priorities here.

However, amateur musicians should not have to live in fear or be compelled to hide their gifts and talents under a stone. Self-expression is surely a human right and I fail to see why musical expression should not be included. Until the law is changed, we just have to live with it.

But the time to try to get something formally agreed with Phuket’s Labor Office is long overdue. We need greater clarity and certainty.

But any efforts to do that (which legally = work) must stay under the radar too for now…. unless someone gets a work permit to do it! 

News and Views

Christmas is a time for caring…

Christmas is upon us once more and professional musicians here will be insanely busy and, hopefully, making good money again after the pandemic. Things are picking up this hot season, but it’s not entirely back to normal yet. I’ve heard too that pay is still not as good as it used to be, and it wasn’t that fantastic before Covid struck.

During the pandemic, some venues were supportive, but most did nothing to help the musicians who used to play for them. Maybe we shouldn’t blame them; they had a tough time too.

However, I regularly hear musicians here complaining they feel underpaid for what they do. They get no sick pay, no health insurance, no help with visas and work permits and no Christmas bonus unless they are a house band with a venue owner who cares for them. Bands that play in more than one venue haven’t a hope. And company pension schemes are non-existent in this industry.

At a higher level, any bands seeking stardom are routinely exploited by the big music companies and live streaming companies. It’s not easy being a musician today, and some tell me it’s getting worse.

“Something’s gotta change” sang the Stranglers in 1977. But it won’t happen unless musicians make it happen. We need an organization here in Phuket, all Thailand even, that sets realistically-achievable standards for venue owners so they can get a badge of approval.

There’s no need to say anything about those that care little for their musicians, just applauding the ones who do will be enough. Good, positive publicity and ethical standards attract customers.

Is there anyone out there who wants to see this happen?!

Happy Christmas everyone, and let’s work together so musicians have a happier Christmas in 2023!

Andy Tong Dee

News and Views

There must be some kinda way outa here…

I read somewhere that the music we enjoyed as teenagers stays with us forever, its genres and songs becoming the sound track of our lives. I grew up listening to punk, early Alice Cooper and the eccentric Scottish rocker Alex Harvey, so my favorite genre of music is still gritty Garage Rock and not Prog. So a band like the Black Keys will resonate with me, while Coldplay leaves me…well, cold! We’re rarely stuck entirely in our past.

I was in a bar in Khok Kloi recently, enjoying some excellent Thai music when the singer suddenly said, “The next one is for the Falang!” The band then launched off into Hotel California, first recorded by The Eagles in 1976. I have to admit I closed my eyes and groaned.

There were a few other westerners there, but all a lot younger than me. I was eighteen in 1976 and not an Eagles fan, and I have heard this song done to death for 11 years now. OK it’s a Thai country music bar, but if she really wanted to connect with today’s western tourist audience, she really should have chosen something more up-to-date like (at the very 1990s least) Shakira, Nirvana or The Stereophonics.

Western live music here is clearly frozen in the pre-1990s past. No one can argue with that. The sad thing is that no one seems to have any idea how to get out of the rut we’re in and few care much about doing so. If all the bands here play only songs written before 1990 (are there any that don’t?) that’s fine – there is then no competition except that from those more musically competent.

But then there is competition – younger tourists seem to be increasingly opting out of listening to live music here and going to bars with DJs. Time is not on the side of Phuket’s musicians.

But what if professional bands in Phuket suddenly started playing music written post-1990 like that by Bush, Elastica, Garbage, The Foo Fighters, The Killers and Taylor Swift and not stay frozen in the past with Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and CCR?

That could really put the cat among the proverbial pigeons!

Happy Christmas everyone!

News and Views

Dylan, in whose shadow we all must stand…

I’m planning to sing All Along The Watchtower at tomorrow’s Coconut Rawai open mic night, a song I really love. Bob Dylan wrote it the same year (1967) that Like A Rolling Stone was written, a song I’ve played since I was a busker 40 years ago now. I played that one at the last open mic night and it’s thought to be about the vanity and shallowness of people in Andy Warhol’s circle, maybe about Andy himself (the Diplomat with the Siamese cat?).

All Along The Watchtower is a very different song lyrically and is full of doom and foreboding. Dylan is probably the “joker” and his manager the “thief” in the lyrics. The “Watchtower” is straight out of the 21st chapter of The Book of Isaiah: “Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink: arise ye princes, and prepare the shield…. Go set a watchman, let him declare what he sees. And he saw a chariot with a couple of horsemen…”

It’s thought to be about Dylan’s fight at that time with CBS and his manager to get a fairer royalties rate for his songs, being written while Dylan recovered from a motorcycle accident. Dylan was also under pressure at that time to write more songs because of his huge new standing in American society. It wasn’t a happy time for him.

Dylan’s original recording is very basic, so basic one never hears it played. However, this song has been covered so many times, most famously by Jimi Hendrix. It’s a popular jam song where guitarists can show off their talents (not me, however, as I’m lousy at lead.) It’s difficult to bring anything new to it in any arrangement as it is musically such a simple song. At least that means we’re spared a reggae version I suppose …

No, the strength of Dylan’s songs is undoubtedly in his lyrics. Apart from maybe Peter Hamill of Van der Graff Generator, no one is in Dylan’s league when it comes to this. No other musician has ever won a Nobel Prize for them. No one. Dylan is unique.

Not many people make much effort to understand historically what is going on in this gifted songwriter’s mind. It’s not difficult today with Wikipedia to help us do so.

However, as I am a history enthusiast, I will be saying a few words in explanation before playing this song to the Coconut Rawai audience.

It seems only fair to such a lyrical genius as Bob Dylan, in whose shadow all songwriters will forever stand.

There must be some kind of way outta here
Said the joker to the thief
There’s too much confusion
I can’t get no relief
Business men, they drink my wine
Plowmen dig my earth
None will level on the line
Nobody offered his word

No reason to get excited
The thief, he kindly spoke
There are many here among us
Who feel that life is but a joke
But, uh, but you and I, we’ve been through that
And this is not our fate
So let us stop talkin’ falsely now
The hour’s getting late

All along the watchtower
Princes kept the view
While all the women came and went
Barefoot servants, too
Well, outside in the cold distance
A wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching
And the wind began to howl

News and Views

Something strange is going on….

Yes, something strange is going on….. and wonderful. All of a sudden, open mic or jam nights are springing up all over the place, and I don’t know why.

The Tuesday night jazz jam in Michelangelo’s Bar, Phuket Town, has now been joined there by some ad hoc Rock, Blues and Pop jam nights. The Coconut Rawai live music venue has had a very organized and well-attended Friday open mic night now for a couple of months. This started about the same time as one on a Sunday in Kokonuss Restaurant in Kamala. Pop Up Phuket has done a few over the past months. No doubt there are others elsewhere that have slipped under my radar, but why is this all suddenly happening right now?

A cynic would probably say, it’s just bar owners wanting live music for free, but I think that might be unfair. I think there is another reason, a more positive reason …

Forty years ago, I remember being a member of my home village’s Male Voice Choir (second tenor). It was fun meeting up for a practice, then a beer after and, occasionally, a performance somewhere. OK, I like to sit on my porch playing my cigar box guitar, but this reminds me that music need not be a solitary occupation – it can be a very sociable activity too.

I admit I don’t get out as much as I like. It all comes down to declining energy – I’m not so young anymore! It’s all too easy to stay in at night with the wife, cat, some beer and Netflix. However, I find myself making every effort to get out and see my muso friends performing. Meeting up with such valued friends beats Netflix hands over! And there are a good number of very talented amateur musicians in Phuket who enjoy playing and hanging out with each other and are happy to do so more now in a bar.

So, I may be wrong, but I think this new open mic phenomenon is mainly being driven by the social needs of musicians post-pandemic rather than bar owners being tight with money. If so, that gives me hope that, for us musos at least, things in this post-pandemic world are not growing colder, but are happily warming up!

And perhaps this all has something to do with Netflix’s share price plunging recently too!