jeudi 16 juin 2016

What Do You Mean by Asian Psychedelism? Vol. 2, Khun Narin, Thai musicians and World Music perspectives in front of new media revolution

[FR] Cet article est tiré d'une conférence donnée au Congrès de l'Union International des Sciences Anthropologiques et Ethnologiques (IUAES) qui s'est tenu à Dubrovnik en Mai dernier. Il est hélas en anglais.

Je ne me concentre pas davantage sur l'album ou la tournée du groupe, mais toujours sur le média publié par le groupe, essayant de croiser leurs perspectives et celles de leurs auditeurs occidentaux pour comprendre comment cette rencontre permet la circulation de la vidéo.

La plupart des vidéos sont tirées de la chaîne Youtube de Beer Sittichai (je vous en prie aller y faire un tour), Beer joue du phin sur le premier album et dans les vidéos de sa chaîne.

Ensuite je suis tombé sur cette vidéo faite à partir de la vidéo postée par Sumeth, le fils de Narin, ça m'a rappelé un commentaire youtube d'une mec qui disait qu'il aurait pu regarder le média en boucle des dizaines de fois. Eh bien, voilà, c'est fait plus besoin d'appuyer sur le bouton...

This article is taken from my talk at the Congress of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (IUAES) in Dubrovnik, last May. 

[EN] I am still not really focusing neither on the album neither on the tour, but on the media published by the band. 

Most of the videos are taken from Beer Sittichai youtube chanel (please watch it), Beer is playing phin on the first album and his channel's videos.

Then I found this video of two hours made with a loop of the video published by Sumeth, Narin's son, it reminds me of the commentary of one guy on You Tube who said that he could watch on repeat this video for dozens times, so no need to press de button anymore...

I will talk about the case of Khun Narin Sin Phin Prayuk (aka Khun Narin Electric Phin Band), a local marching band from North Thailand (Phetchabun Province) who posted on youtube a video they recorded with a smartphone in 2011. This video led them to record albums with an independent music label from Los Angeles, then to tour in Europe. The band is of a variable size, but it is usually composed of a movable sound system, a three string luth player (aka phin), a bass player, a drum kit player, several bass drum players, and several thai cymbal players (aka ching and chap).

Khun Narin plays at local fairs, mainly temple fairs (birth, weddings, ordinations, robe offering ceremonies), but not only. They also play at other local events such as school fairs or sport competitions, so that they don't feel their music to be religious. Basically, they play for every people ready to hire them to play.

My presentation relies on an ethnographic study conducted in Thailand and Europe which is still work in progress for a Phd thesis.

Though the case I study is very specific, it gives an overview of the whole media publishing process for a non-western artist at the beginning of the 21st century. 

As the process I study is multidimensional, I will strictly focus in that presentation on the digital emergence of the media that has raised interest for Khun Narin in the Western World, and pay attention to the new perspectives that the internet brings to musicians who used not to have access to recording and broadcasting technologies.

First, I would like to go a bit beyond the general idea that once a media is put on the internet, it would be accessible, in theory, to everyone connected in the World.

Contrary to this general idea, the case I study highlights several levels of difficulty for users to access every part of internet.
  • over and above having access to basic conditions to use the internet (electricity, a computer, an internet connection)
  • the user is confronted with linguistic frontiers,
  • but as internet is essentially a scriptural medium, it adds a level of difficulty : here we have to draw a distinction between languages that use same writings and those which are transcribed with totally different scripts : such is the case of media moving from Thailand to the West whose scripts, the Thai alphabet derived from the old Khmer alphabet.
In front of such difficulties, there are different ways for users to cross linguistic frontiers in order to access a media from another linguistic area.

The case of Khun Narin, is a case in which scriptural difficulty for the first Western viewer has first been overcame thanks to an automated process, the algorhythm of youtube's video recommendations.

But what kind of a relation might appear between artists and audience whose connections relies on a non-human agent?

The following remark is from Richard Kamerman who discovered the video on the Western side:
" If I recall correctly, I was honestly just down a youtube rabbit hole, clicking recommended sidebar videos to great success - the music so often gets pleasantly surprising once you stop being able to read the video names/descriptions... " 
Richard Karmeman, answer to Peter Doolan, Monrakphlengthai, July, 2014.

The fact that the relation between Khun Narin's video and its audience relies on non-human mediations is important, because it introduces contingency and randomness at its very foundations. A contingency which is less an obstacle rather than a source of aesthetical motivation, at least on the side of the audience, which will finally lead the viewers to contact the band.

I. Khun Narin video as a Wanted Notice :

The mystery behind that connection and the undertemined nature of the media raise several questions on the side of the audience, here is a sample:
  • Connected through Richard Kamerman, the collector blog WFMU reposted the video under a name which sounds like a wanted notice : "Strange, Heavy Psychedelic Guitar Shreddage at a Thai Family Event?", october 25, 2012, WFMU,
If we dig a bit more, we can find lot of samples of questions that Khun Narin's video raised :
  • "does anybody know the name of this band or its creator? '' Dotor Guzman, youtube, 2014,
  • "Where can I get more of this? Recordings of any kind." vietnamted, 2015, youtube,
The questions that go with the video are of multiple kinds, so that it would be difficult to clearly distinguish at first sight, what do viewers are looking for, because the interest for the video is less driven by clear and distinct values rather than uncertainties. One has to admit that commentaries about that video are not just made of questions, but questions following the video are all attemps to engage discussion on the media. Whether naive or accute, those questions are essential basis for sharing information about the video and to go one step further in increasing the knowledge about it.

Even though comparison with John Dewey's definition of "a public" would not hold the distance, as entertainment concerns are not the same as political concerns, Dewey's concept highlights at least three significant features of the socio-digital process that follows the apparition of Khun Narin on the web:
  • that a public is called into being by uncertainties about a situation rather than existing previously to the situation,
  • that the inquiry of the public starts from the consequences and is moving to the causes of the phenomenon,
  • that this inquiry relies on a collective process.

    If it is impossible to give an exhaustive idea of both communities of public that this video brought into being, it is at least possible to find on the internet two crucial agents which will later make the connection with the West to produce the first album of the band :
    • First, we find Peter, who will help provide mediation between the sound engineer and the band in Thailand and who runs his own music tapes blog which is quite famous among collectors of Thai music. Peter appeared on the Dangerous Minds blog post: "Mindblowing Psychedelia from Thailand", providing informations about the content of the video. But Peter also appeared on the first post on WFMU, where he transliterated the name of the band 
    • Secondly, there is Josh, the sound engineer who will record albums of the band, and gave, in an interview, a bit more information about his inquiry : "I read the Daily Swarm, which is a music aggregator that I like a lot. They had reposted the story from the Dangerous Minds blog: “Mindblowing Psychedelia from Thailand.” I read the article and there was a video in there. I liked the video a lot [and] decided to start digging a bit deeper to see what else I could find on these guys.Eventually, I made my way to Beer. He’s the phin player, sort of the lead shredder in the band. [I found] his Youtube channel and there was just a bunch of even more amazing videos up there. There’s one where they are marching down a road just murdering it [with] amazing drum breaks. They do a great cover of “Zombie” by The Cranberries that shouldn’t work but somehow is just perfect. It’s funny, someone in the YouTube comments wrote, “Who knew that the party of the year was a slow stroll down a back road in Thailand with grandparents and children.” It’s just the whole town walking around them as they push their sound system. When I saw that I was like, “I’m sold on this. I need to find these guys now.”"Josh, (, August 2014.
    II. Khun Narin video as an advertisement :

    Away from copyright concerns, it is interesting to notice that the logic of increasing knowledge through sharing on the side of the public meets the expectations of Khun Narin band, whose original purpose in uploading the video on the web was promotion.

    In 2011, the band uploaded the video on youtube with the following remark in Thai :
    " Interested ? Contact Father Rin from Lomsak on the 087------ or contact us on facebook ".

    The facebook page of the band was created in 2012 with the following sentence :
    " Delight of the audience is our delight "

    And the first post was a photograph of the soundsystem of the band with a sign on which the Thai speakers could read :
    " Phin Prayuk (applied-phin), artistic troup of Sir Narin, festivals and processions of all kinds, ordinations, Kathin and Phapa (robe offering ceremonies) auspicious ceremonies of all kinds, rate to be set under amicable arrangement ".

    Here is a remark by Beer, the luth player of the band concerning his intention in posting the video on Youtube:
    '' I just wanted everybody to watch it and know that we have an Phin Prayuk band. That's why I videotaped it and uploaded it on Youtube. So everybody can watch it. Then they will hire us to perform shows. [...] I wanted the video to be viewed worldwide. That's why I uploaded it. […] Youtube is the website with tons of video. That's Youtube. ''
    Beer, 15 novembre 2015.

    The idea that the video, and more generally a record may serve as a stricly promotional medium will further be confirmed, in Khun Narin case, once the band finally meets Josh, the sound engineer, in Thailand, to record an album and answer his offer with this first question :
    " How much would a band have to pay to record an album?"

    This remark echoes the feeling of several renowned artists in North-East Thailand who used to work with Bangkok recording industries in the past 40 years. Musicians were very badly paid, and singers almost never, because the artist, as producers argued, would benefit of the promotional effect of releasing an album under her or his name. As producing a record was an expensive investment, the producer who booked a studio would pay the songwriter and would give him a certain amount of royalties then keep the rest. As musicians and singers, in most cases, unlike songwriters and producers, did not own right on the music they play, the copyright was rather a negative concept for them, something to be suspicious about, rather than a positive notion, that is to say something that would protect them.

    To that extent, one reason that might explain why producing media (whether tape, vinyl, cds or digital music) is hardly conceived as a lucrative business in musicians' minds, is because, since the birth of the music industry, recording has been conceived and presented to musicians as an integrated branch of the music economy, rather than an autonomous and lucrative business activity in itself. That is to say, a promotional investment to boost the flow of audiences whether to concert or to movie theater (as recording industry was closely linked to film industry in Thailand).

    The consequence being, for the condition of musicians, whether to spend a harsh life touring around the country, whether to have their musical talent aknowledged by national institutions throught different official status (university professor, national artist), whether to earn a living with a more lucrative activity than music and just play in a band as a side-job or a hobby, which is the case of the members of Khun Narin band.
    Therefore, as Thai musicians in most cases scarcely get paid for recording and publishing music, the recent access to means of recording and broadcasting music through new media should not be conceived as a switch from "lucrative" to "non-lucrative" business (as it might be if we follow major music industries perspectives), but rather as a switch from an "elitist and costly prohibiting investment" to "an accessible and almost free operation".

    III. World Music Revisited or World Music upgraded?

    This decentralization has also an impact on the content of the music media too, which, in turn, highlights selection that has traditionally been made in music industries between media that are worth being translated and exported around the world and those which have still not aroused any interest in the Western world. New media allows the emergence of different forms of music which were too unusual in the way they used Western popular music standards to be published by World Music companies and which were insufficiently authentic to arouse the interest of ethnomusicologists.

    If we go back to the Western public interested in the Khun Narin case, we have to be attentive to the possibility that mystery concerning the video marks a new interest in music that has not been investigated by World Music entrepreneurs nor academics yet. That is to say, a multifaceted interest in undefined, undertemined, intermediate genres that is somehow expressed in the words of some Western viewers by such evasive terms as "psychedelic" or "funky".

    Such is the case of Khun Narin music, which appears as an in-between, mixing elements from Lao traditional music, also known as "lam" or "mor-lam" and current elements of Thai music charts such as country music (luk thung), rock-oriented songs (sam-cha, string, phleng phua chiwit) or reggae.

    This in-between is almost stated in the qualification that the band gave to their style of music which is "phin prayuk" (cf. Khun Narin Sing Phin Prayuk). "Prayuk" might imperfectly be translated by such notions as "application", "adaptation", or "upgrading". While this idea goes through the history of contemporary molam music in Thailand, it is quite hard to find a proper definition, here is one definition among several others given by Beer, the phin player of the band :
    We mix Hi-tech and Lo-tech together, and this creates the beautiful melodious sound that makes our audience happy. [...]. Prayuk, that means you bring something old to use it in a different way, for instance an empty bottle of water that you've thrown away, you take it back and fill it with water again ".
    Beer, 15 novembre 2015.

    "Prayuk" conveys the idea of a constant process of innovation not limited to a specific format of technology (that is the reason why the translation of electric does not perfectly fit "prayuk"). Prayuk can be applied to musical genres but it is a process which is usually limited to slight, tangible, and located modifications that do not totally change the initial nature of the entity they modified such as electrifying a phin, adding delay to a molam song or, mixing lam with internationally oriented pop music.


    So, the relocation of means of production and diffusion of media from an oligopolistic configuration to a more democratic one, widens possibilities for musicians to ensure their own business but also their own artistic autonomy, which also favors unusual and less determined connections with their public. The case I am presenting sheds light on new possibilities for musicians around the world, but it is unique in several ways. For that reason, this case should not pass over in silence the gap to be filled between big corporation and independent musicians which is nowadays bigger than ever.