On YouTube I came across some music that Sublime Frequencies put out on a CD a few years ago called “Shadow Music of Thailand.” This is what the Sublime Frequencies web page says about it:

“SHADOW MUSIC was a broad term given to the Thai guitar pop movement of the 1960s and the groups that came out of it, all under the profound influence of early Western rock and roll. British instrumental wonders The Shadows (as in Cliff Richard & the Shadows) were the origin of the genre’s title, also coined ‘Wong Shadow’ or early Thai ‘String’ music.”

I tried to look for information about “wong shadow” (วงชาร์โด), or what I would translate as “shadow band” or “shadow orchestra,” on Thai-language web sites but I didn’t find all that much. Basically, what people say is that in the 1960s bands started to form in Thailand that, like The Shadows in the above video, consisted of a melodic lead guitar, a rhythm guitar, and a bass and drums.

The instruments on the CD that Sublime Frequencies put out are quite different from this, as in addition to these four instruments, one can also hear organ, horns and at times various traditional Thai instruments and melodies.

The Sublime Frequencies web site continues by saying that “Shadow records were often marketed as ‘Thai Modernized Music’ which it was in the truest sense. Traditional Thai melodies were given the Shadow treatment; incorporating rock, surf, a-go-go, exotica, soul, blues, Latin and other worldly styles of the times.”

“Inventive compositions and instrumental genius meet the occasional odd vocal arrangement and the results range from plaintive guitar and organ-driven lullabies to full-blown electric garage folk-psychedelia! Featured on this collection are a handful of the leading recorded artists from the time; P.M. Pocket Music, The Son of P.M., P.M. 7, Jupiter and Johnny Guitar. Throughout the 1960s, these groups forged a unique and highly self-referential Thai sound.”

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There are various music companies that search out albums from around the world and then produce compilation CDs. On the one had, I like that they make music more easily available, but on the other hand, I often find that they select obscure works and then present them as if they were representative of “the sound” (or at least “a sound”) of a given time and place.

In doing this I think these companies run the risk of simplifying and exoticizing non-Western countries and their music industries. I definitely sense this with “Shadow Music of Thailand.”

The main composer featured on this CD is the late Phayong Mukda พยงค์ มุกดา (1926-2010), a musical master who wrote more than 1,000 songs, many of which sounded like this:

So what I don’t like about the Sublime Frequencies description is that it gives the sense that the Thai had “traditional” music, that they then heard “The Shadows,” and that after that they produced a new sound, the one that is now marketed on the CD, “Shadow Music of Thailand.”

In fact, Phayong Mukda had already composed what the Thais refer to as “universal songs” (phleeng saakon เพลงสากล), or what others might call “big band-style Western music,” long before shadow bands appeared in Thailand.

So that being the case, where did the funky mixture of Western 60s music and “traditional” Thai music come from?

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I’m not sure, but I can get some sense of what might have been going on from one of the songs that is on that CD, “Phamaa Ram Kwaan” (พม่ารำขวาน) or the “Burmese Axe Dance.”

I haven’t been able to figure out yet where the “Burmese Axe Dance” comes from, but I would be willing to bet that there is not much that is “traditional” about it. Like the “Polynesian Fire Dance,” this looks like a modern invented tradition that exoticizes an Other.

It is also a song and dance that people can clearly have some fun with.

My guess would therefore be that in the 1960s Phayong Mukda decided to have some fun as well. In recording the songs that are featured on the “Shadow Music of Thailand” CD, I don’t think that he “forged a unique and highly self-referential Thai sound” because I can’t see that anything there lasted beyond that brief experiment.

I think that in the 1960s Thais listened more instead to music produced by “real” shadow bands and to Phayong Mukda’s universal songs.

This of course does not mean that Phayong Mukda’s brief experiment isn’t valuable or fun to listen to. It certainly is. It’s just that we shouldn’t mistake a tree in the forest for the larger forest and thereby exoticize the Thai music scene in the 1960s.