How Thai Folk Music Went From Radical to Reactionary
“In a dusty room at the back of the Thai Labour Museum in Bangkok, Jit’s pin (A lute-like instrument) sits behind glass, next to a portrait of a young Phumisak, immortalising him as one of the heroes of working people. Opposite from Jit is the guitar belonging to Nga Caravan, the group’s lead singer, peppered with leftist stickers. The ties between Plerng Chiwit and the labour movement run deep.” *
At its best, phleng phuea chiwit (เพลงเพื่อชีวิต, translated as songs for life) is a genre of music that communicates the immense perseverance of the working-class in the face of continued oppression. A genre of music that champions the rights of the working-class with songs that inspire solidarity. Phleng phuea chiwit can inspire all generations of radical musicians to carry on fighting for leftist beliefs.
Unfortunately, the ties between many of the original and most influential phleng phuea chiwit artists and their radical beginnings seem to have frayed long ago. In an exercise of separating art from artist, leftists today must analyze the troubling messages espoused by many of these artists during the tumultuous political period from 2008-2014.
Origins of Songs for Life
The origins of phleng phuea chiwit can be traced back to the 1970s during the popular movement preempting the October 1973 uprising. The popular music of the day, luk thung, featured troupes of dancers, loud instruments, and extravagant stage shows. It was born from the era of social engineering perpetuated by Phibunsongkhram. Students criticized the genre and did not see it as a viable form of protest music. Thus, phleng phuea chiwit was born.
‘“When I was young I listened to Luk Thung, but I was looking for something else. We wanted to shout at the government. Luk Thung lyrics did not deal with serious issues.” – Nga Caravan (Vater, 2003).
The songs of phleng phuea chiwit were influenced by the aforementioned genres, as well as Isaan melodies and the prominent folk music scene in America (e.g. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Pete Seeger). Inspired by Jitt Phumisak and his ‘Art for Life’ ideology, the songs were criticisms of social hierarchies, imperialism, and championed the rights of laborers, farmers, and the rest of the working-class.
It was student activists that formed many of the genre’s bands; Caravan was formed by student activists (Surachai Jantimathawn (Nga Caravan) and Wirasak Sunthawnsi) from Ramkhamhaeng University. The period from 1973 to 1976 is when Caravan and other phleng phuea chiwit artists enjoyed their first peak in popularity. It was the October 6 1976 massacre and subsequent coup that forced Thai communists (including Caravan and many other phleng phuea chiwit artists) to flee into hiding.
While in hiding, artists and students were responsible for writing and recording communist propaganda (e.g. Ramwong neung thanwa and Ramwong su rop).
The communist insurgency began to decline with PM Prem Tinsulanonda’s amnesty in 1980. Over the following years more and more CPT members, students, artists, and others in hiding began to return to the public sphere. Caravan began releasing albums again, and in a move that echoed their Western counterparts, soon went electric.
Folk Music in the PAD
In 2008, in the midst of the anti-Thaksin movement, Nga Caravan took the stage at a People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) rally. Thaksin, seen by many of the rural poor as their champion had infuriated the urban elite, and seemingly Nga had switched sides, now standing with that very urban elite he had fought against.
Nga performed a selection of songs, in the setlist was ‘Fon Duean Hok’ (ฝนเดือนหก), a tune written by Phaibun Butkan (ูไพบูลย์ บุตรขัน) and made famous by Rungphet Lamsing (รุ่งเพชร แหลมสิงห์). ‘Fon Duean Hok’ is, in its original state, a song evoking the rainy season in rural Thailand in which the narrator pines over a lost love. While Nga maintained the melancholic tone of the original, he made a few lyrical changes.
“Entering the rainy season, the rain falls gently.
The frogs croak loudly throughout the rice paddies.
Whenever it rains, I miss my sweetheart, my snow flower maiden of Banna, the one who used to call me snow flower prince.”
“Now that the sixth month begins, the rain is dripping – drip, drip.
The frogs are singing in the rice fields.
In our capital, the PAD meets again
against the sinister government that only benefits itself.”
If we are to search for the objective of Nga’s version, it could be that he sought reconciliation during a time of increasing hostility. Notable about Nga’s performance of the tune is that refused to resort to the crass language used by other PAD protest songs. For example, the song ‘Khwai Daeng’ (ควายแดง) by Dek Yham (เด็กหยาม). Dek Yham raps, “You dumb water buffaloes, how much did they pay you per day? You rushed to take it, to admit that you are low peasants.” He goes on to unleash a slew of vile lyrics, including referring to Thaksin’s supporters as slaves, evokes the death of Se Daeng (a Red Shirt leader killed by an alleged military sniper), and accuses other prominent Red Shirt leaders of being paid cronies.
By comparison, Nga’s take on ‘Fon Duean Hok’ could be viewed as a credible piece of propaganda meant to win working-class sympathies by attacking government corruption, but stopping short of forgiving Thaksin.
Nga was a regular at PAD rallies, along with various other prominent musicians. PAD music largely featured such genres as phleng phlukchai (patriotic march), classical (Western and Thai), luk-krung (westernized Thai love songs), jazz, and contemporary rock. – all genres that are typically produced by and for affluent urban society. This break from the assumed musical taste of the stereotypical PAD audience is what makes Caravan and other phleng phuea chiwit artists (Hammer, Malihuanna, and Folkner were all regulars at PAD rallies) appearances all the more puzzling.
One notable musician absent from the PAD publicity was Aed Carabao. Carabao began as a phleng phuea chiwit band but quickly grew into a brand with global recognition. Carabao differed from bands like Caravan as their songs were never as explicitly political. Instead of calling for revolution, they romanticized a sort of rural ruggedness — as evident in Aed’s signature style of dress. After launching an energy drink brand in 2002, promoted across English football competitions to motorsport, the Carabao logo can be found as a sponsor the world over.
However, this doesn’t mean that Ad was not sympathetic to the PAD cause. Aed has never hidden his nationalism and has written political campaign songs for the likes of Banharn Silpa-archa and the conservative Chart Thai Party, as well as the legendary awe-inspiring performance for King Bhumiphol Addunyadet’s coronation anniversary, performing a song which would become forever linked to the monarch and Thai nationalist sentiment. Aed also penned a melancholy acoustic track lamenting the death of Thailand’s benevolent monarch, which served as the inescapable soundtrack of the nation in the months after the king’s passing, which included a bizarre English version.
According to Crawley (2007), “[Aed Carabao] said he was too busy to make it, but it is more likely that his being co-opted to many Thaksin government projects had compromised his position.” This is certainly true. While internationally the Carabao brand attempts to sell itself as a high-end energy drink associated with sport (much the same as Red Bull), within Thailand it very much holds onto the folk and working-class roots of the band. The brand would certainly have suffered if Aed were to be publicly aligned with “the enemy” of the rural working-class red shirts.
While Aed was absent from much of the PAD publicity, he was front and center just a few years later during the PDRC protests that installed the current Prime Minister, Prayut Chan-o-cha.
State, Religion, Monarchy
For many, the root cause of the PAD was to protect Thainess – which they identified with the state, religion, and the monarchy. As such, for those sympathetic to the PAD they were not fighting for an economic cause – but for the continued existence of the Thai identity.
Leftists participating in PAD were not limited to musicians. Various other former communists, CPT members, and labour leaders were involved in the leadership and organizing of the movement. Similarly worth noting is the Assembly of the Poor, a network of farmers, fishermen, and other labourers who rose to prominence in the 1990s, and how the leadership fell on both sides of the red and yellow split. The Assembly of the Poor came to prominence based on appealing to popular conceptions of morality and welfare as opposed to politics or formal reform of law. On some level, it would be sensible to assume that former participants of the Assembly of the Poor would favor the red shirts. What actually happened was a schism inside the leadership. Officially, the Assembly of the Poor did not join the PAD, stating that their focus was on material issues and problems instead of politics. But the group did allow individual leaders to join the PAD — and they did.
Much has been written about the arguments between the two factions, and without delving into the details of pro and anti-Thaksin views it can be troublesome to identify individuals’ reasoning for joining the movement. However, generally speaking, it can be understood that the PAD supporters viewed Thaksin as corrupt and undemocratic. He was criticized for his nepotism, privatisation, monopolizing power, human rights abuses (including killings of drug traffickers and conflict in the south), and a host of other charges. In short, PAD supporters took issue with what they perceived as a movement for corporate-dominated politics. PAD protestors claimed their cause was patriotic.
Simplifying protestors’ participation in the conflict as poor and oppressed vs. privileged and elite would be disingenuous and understanding this is important when examining the participation of leftists, revolutionaries, and radicals. For many, the PAD cause was a reaction to what they deemed a misuse of political power for private economic gain. In their eyes, Thaksin was using corporate power to undermine the pillars of a free and democratic society. This, alongside the charges of human rights violations, emboldened PAD supporters of all backgrounds to rally against the red shirt cause.
For many phleng phuea chiwit musicians, many issues facing Thailand could be traced back to corruption. As such, perhaps they rationalised it by perceiving the conflict not as a class struggle of red vs. yellow, but instead about corruption within Thaksin’s regime.
Looking past the artist’s personal views, it’s not a surprise that the PAD would use phleng phuea chiwit in their messaging. There is a long history of co-opting folk music, or any other genre perceived to be “of the people” by reactionary forces. Take, for example, the history of American country music. Country music in America descended from traditions of blues, folk, and other working-class and social-justice traditions. The popular conception of country music as a right-wing political tool only began in earnest with Nixon’s Southern Strategy, but arguably became most notable during the Bush years when the genre became a tool to champion US imperialism, white-grievance, illiberalism, and anti-intellectualism (living a simple life with beer and a truck is good, actually). In fact, in an anecdote that hits closer to home for this article, Terry Miller notes in his book Traditional Music of the Lao: Kaen Playing and Mawlum Singing in Northeast Thailand that the USA used morlam as a propaganda tool during both the Vietnam War and its secret bombing campaigns in Laos and Cambodia.
Dr. James Mitchell, an ethnomusicologist renowned for his catalogue of work on Thai music (specifically luk thung) had the following to say in a 2015 interview:
When the Yellow Shirts and the other offspring groups used luk thung it was clear that they didn’t have any real connection to the music. They use it because it is popular and it is party music, so all the yellow luk thung songs are either very patriotic songs or they are party songs.
The Red Shirts were able to use luk thung with what might be the main focus of this genre, namely themes of sadness and mourning. For example, they were able to write all these songs about Thaksin and his absence. And really, the theme of absence is what luk thung is all about. But not only songs about Thaksin, also mourning songs for Red Shirts who were killed during protests or about the absence of democracy.
For the Yellow Shirts, there were never these kinds of songs. When the yellow side used luk thung, it wasn’t professional luk thung singers performing, but more Thai pop stars or old luk krung singers – it always felt quite token.
While Dr. Mitchell is referring to the usage of luk thung, I believe the same argument can be made for the usage of phleng phuea chiwit.
However, the co-opting of the genre by the PAD does not explain the willing participation of the artists themselves. As the famous words go, “The history of all hitherto existing human society is the history of class struggles.” At its core, the Red and Yellow shirt protests told a story of class struggle, and if this is the case, are we not able to judge former comrades for taking up the cause of the ruling class in order to maintain the status quo? Furthermore, were these participants ever ‘true’ communists? Or had they simply let go of their radical pasts in order to embrace parliamentary neoliberal/conservative politics in hopes of achieving socialist policies?