The most popular style of music in Thailand, luk thung is virtually unheard of in the United States, and I'd like to help the forces that are trying to change that.
The genre got a boost in listenership a few years ago, when—to promo a bunch of luk thung comps released at that time—Dangerous Minds helped spread the word of Sroeng Santi's amazing cover of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" (more about him later). But a handful of us already had a fondness for luk thung decades prior, thanks to the Butthole Surfers' 1987 track "Kuntz" (even more on that coming up as well).
The tribal music of Thailand villages and folk singing morphed into what is traditionally known as luk thung in the 1930s. Though a term for it wasn't coined until 1964, "luk thung" translates as "child of the fields," as the lyrics were usually about the trials of the poor—sung in a soulful way—and almost always carried a depressing tone of strife and tribulation.
While the term used to describe the music only becomes clear once its history is revealed, no one is sure why it stuck. Most popular Thai artists of the time were in love with American cinema, and many infused the sound of Hollywood soundtracks into the mix in an attempt to reach pop stardom and break away from the Westerner's view of the Thailandesi people as not much more than simple farmers. Yet they stuck with it, and—though sincere in their methods—rode it for what it was worth.
The godfather of modern luk thung is Suraphol Sombatcharoen, who is dubbed the "King of Luk Thung," as his 1952 song, "Nam da Sow Vienne" ("Tears of a Lao Girl"), sparked many Thai artists to pick up a crooning style to rival Indonesian kroncong, or Japanese enka.
Sadly, Sombatcharoen was killed as he was coming off stage in August of 1968 by a jealous husband.
The fusing of exotic sounds by the artists of the time are heard best with Pongsri Woranuch's early work.
She was one of the first few to step outside the traditional luk thung sound and blend in Latin American and American country music influences in the late-'50s.
As the popularity of US films grew in Thailand, along came different styles of movies in the late-'60s and early-'70s—such as gangster and Blaxploitation flicks—which had the local up 'n' comers blending rock, funk, and disco into the mix (which would hit their charts in an extreme way decades later).
One of the currently best-known (to Westerners) is the previously mentioned Sroeng Santi, thanks to inclusions in almost every luk thung compilation out in the last few years, as well as the blogosphere picking up on his version of "Iron Man."
He died in 1982, but weaved in every style of music he came across before his passing. He had a disco phase:
A phase where he must have wanted to score Spaghetti Westerns:
He fell into syrupy R&B for a while...
...but also left some of the most blistering rock to snake its way into the genre:
There were a handful of other artists who—in the 1970s—also successfully mingled in new styles that captured the ears of the locals. Buppah Saichol had the surf sounds down:
Dao Bandon got his funk on:
While Praiwan Lukpetch had some soul hits:
Phloen Phromdaen liked the sound of early Thai music, but opted to change the lyrical content, while still singing in the traditional style.
He is considered one of the first to inject comedy into the typically somber mood of luk thung.
It figures it would take a funnyman to find an odd place in punk rock history. As it turned out, Gibby Haynes came across Phromdaen's "Klua Duang" (featured above) on a bootleg cassette of Thai artists titled Thai Shotgun Cassette. He loved that song enough to remix it as a track on the Butthole Surfers' album Locust Abortion Technician.
While he thought it funny because it kept repeating the word "cunt," and titled the reworking "Kuntz," he was unaware that it meant "itch." The song is about a guy who goes to his local shaman to stop from scratching himself all over, only to be told he has ringworm.
In the early-'70s, a new form of luk thung emerged called "phleng phuea chiwit" (meaning "songs for life"). It kept the singing style of traditional luk thung, but had more political lyrics. By the late-'70s, most of the scene—and its biggest band, Caravan—were influenced more by psychedelic rock jams and the democracy movement. One, the fans could stand; the other, the government tried to put a stop to. A few of Caravan's members were witnesses to the Thammasat University Massacre of October 6, 1976, and fled to Laos.
Caravan returned in the mid-'80s as a full rock band, and are still around today.
Even with all the musical mash-ups up until the 1980s, no one expected what was to come. With synth-pop spilling out of MTV, and Britain's New Romantic invasion all the rage, Thailand had a new style to merge in, making up "electronic luk thung," along with a new pop megastar, Pumpuang Duangjan, who was simply known as "Pueng" (meaning "Bee").
She first rose to fame in 1983 with her first LP, Grasshopper Tie a Bow, and released two more albums before she began to concentrate mainly on acting.
Though she made millions, her funds were doled out by her stingy manager, and she was unable to pay for health checkups, leading to her death in 1992 from a blood disorder. Her managers still profit, as most of her CDs released since her death were compiled from recordings thought to not be good enough for a proper record.
After Pueng's passing, most of Thailand thought luk thung would die out with her. As far as hit power was concerned, it did for a while, until the mid-'90s, when a new genre called "luk thung Isan" (a.k.a. "luk thung prayuk") started blending the fast rhythms of Laotian mor lam.
While it produced a star in Latsamee Poodindong...
...it never recaptured the amazing spirit of what Thailand wrote when it was first trying to prove to the world—through music—that urbanization had indeed come to their land.
One might think the classic luk thung sound has retaken Thailand when seeing Limousine's track "Luk Thung" come up first in internet searches.
That is, until you do your research, and find they're a bunch of white jazz guys playing pretend somewhere in Europe. I do hand it to them, as they have it down pat.
Still, there are a lot of compilations out there which rediscovered that time once lost, and I recommend you search for them now, before this music goes back to being completely unnoticed by the West, and lost to us again.