Royal Blue (or: Nick and the King of Siam)

Friday, 11 January 2008 — 5:02pm | Adventures, Classical, Jazz, Music

I can’t seem to mention my favourite developing country without saying a few words about the musical compositions of its presiding Philosopher King, so perhaps I’ll take a moment to devote an entire post to the subject. For those of you who are new to the show: do familiarize yourself with the Rama IX Art Museum Foundation’s comprehensive online exhibit, which I’ve only just had the pleasure to discover myself. It comprises a biographical overview of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s musical background, audio samples of forty of his songs, historical notes on specific compositions, and even lead sheets of the melodies and chords.

And if you want to hear something exceptionally cool: there’s always a lot of talk about how the King once played alongside America’s own King of Swing, Benny Goodman (indeed, that’s the subject of the photograph atop the musical archive’s introductory page), but now I’ve found some aural proof—samples from Benny Goodman’s 1955 concert in Bangkok, in which he plays several of the King’s signature compositions, including the Thai Royal Anthem. I’ve linked to my personal favourite, “Sai Fon” (“Falling Rain”); the song is written as a waltz, but the band plays it in 4/4.

My own interest in King Bhumibol’s music originates from my first visit to his realm in December 2003, when I first heard that he was a noted saxophonist and big band composer in addition to everything else he did (painting, translating Economist articles, ending military coups with a single command, and so on). It wasn’t until after the adventure that I actually listened to some of his music and fell in love with a number of the tunes. But this time around, I went to Thailand prepared—and after traipsing around the country for nearly three weeks, I can absolutely confirm that the King’s music is as ubiquitous as the documents about it claim.

I also returned with a handful of compact discs, all of which I will discuss below.

But first, a few more words about the music’s ubiquity: maybe it’s a function of it being His Majesty’s 80th birthday in December, an occasion that left everyone in the country bedecked in the glorious pinks and yellows of polo shirts that read “Long Live the King”, but his songs really are all over the place. They’re on the popular radio stations that play in the specialty coffee shops. They play in Thai Air’s 747s as you deplane. A week into the holiday I hijacked a hotel piano (surprisingly in tune, considering the decrepit quality of the rest of the establishment) and played a bit of “Sai Fon”, and one of my non-musical travelling companions already found it oddly familiar. A big band played a medley of the King’s compositions at Assumption Worlds’ closing ceremony; a royal military orchestra played them at the opening ceremony.

(As an aside: at one point, the same military orchestra played an international medley of songs from all over the world, from countries arranged in what was apparently alphabetical order—that is, inferring from how they began with “Waltzing Matilda” (Australia), worked their way through “La vie en rose” (France) and eventually worked their way to some John Philip Sousa (the United States). What fascinated me was the selection that represented Canada: Eddie Heywood’s “Canadian Sunset”, which I don’t think any of the Canadian delegates recognized apart from myself. This brings up an interesting question: “O Canada” aside, what can we actually settle on as Canada’s national song? The mildly intoxicated singalongs I’ve seen invariably settle on “Barrett’s Privateers” or “The Last Saskatchewan Pirate”, though being from Alberta, I can see an argument for “Four Strong Winds”. My personal preference is for “The Maple Leaf Forever”, but I can never remember the words.)

Observing that I’m only ever going to be in Thailand so many times, and that I’ll only be there for the special occasion of the King’s 80th once, I picked up a few recordings that I would probably be unable to find otherwise. (Looking them up, I’m not even certain I can order some of them online.)

First up is The Royal Lullaby: Compositions by His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, new orchestral arrangements recorded by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Emmanuel Siffert. I regrettably only have the standard one-disc edition; apparently, you need to telephone the record label directly to inquire about the other ones. This is a pity, because the more I find out about the King’s music and the making of this recording, the better.

That said, the album is a splendid and versatile presentation of ten of King Bhumibol’s works: his popular tunes are given treatments that range from the lush and neo-Romantic (“Falling Rain”) to some that retain the swinging lilt of a semi-stately foxtrot (“Love at Sundown”). The highlight is a four-part ballet suite that I hadn’t heard before, “Kinari Suite”. (The video in the preceding link is a live performance of the fourth movement, “Kinari Waltz”; yes, those are yellow “We Love the King” shirts, and yes, YouTube has a way of kicking serious ass every now and then.)

Next, I purchased the 2-disc CD set of the H.M. Blues 80th Birthday Celebration Concert; at least, that’s what I think it says—remember, I don’t read a single character of Thai, let alone a word. My edition, the yellow box, includes a bonus CD with the video tribute entitled “King of Kings”, which I didn’t find all that compelling, being in Thai and all. The accompanying booklet has complete English lyrics where applicable; everything else is in Thai. Let’s just say that I was really glad the track data was already on the GraceNote database, because I sure wasn’t going to punch in all of the song titles myself.

As far as I can tell, H.M. Blues is a tribute band that may or may not have been assembled specifically for the birthday concert, and the vocal performers may or may not be well-known Thai pop stars. What I do know is that it takes its name from one of the King’s compositions. The “H.M.” alludes to “His Majesty”, but in the context of the song, it stands for the “Hungry Men’s Blues”—as explicated by a later composition of the King’s, “Never Mind the Hungry Men’s Blues”. What I also know is that the album consists entirely of interpretations of the Royal Compositions in contemporary popular idioms—predominantly rock and blues, but not without the occasional dash of a hopping Latin clave.

To offer a point of comparison, the extent of variation in the treatments of King Bhumibol’s music isn’t a significant departure from the range of interpretations that one affords the songwriters of the Great American Songbook, the Gershwins and Porters that gave us the standards of the Sinatra era that are reintroduced and repopularized by one new generation of crooners after another. So I’m not at all surprised to hear a chorus of wailing guitars take on “H.M. Blues”, even though I was introduced to the tune in a style more befitting of good old New Orleans. For those who don’t have a particular taste for the textures of jazz and classical music, and prefer to get into a song with the aid of vocals and a strong drumbeat, this album quite capably serves as a comfortable point of entry.

A number of the songs are performed bilingually in Thai and English, sometimes in the same cut—the sexy-saxy bossa nova version of “Blue Day” comes to mind. The enunciation of the English vocals are generally quite good, especially when the singers are given some room to stretch on a down-tempo tune like “Can’t You Ever See”. Often, vocalists forget how important enunciation is when it comes to singing in another language—and this applies equally, if not especially, to anglophone singers that chance to fiddle with other tongues. There’s an exceptionally high risk of sounding ridiculous, and native speakers will be the first to notice that something’s off. It says something for the standard of this album that I never encountered that problem.

Finally, I obtained a pair of albums by Hucky Eichelmann (Candlelight Blues and Sweet Words, with accompanying sheet music of the solo guitar arrangements). Eichelmann is a classical guitarist of German origin who became fascinated with the King’s music, as every musician damn well should, and eventually delivered his renderings to His Majesty himself at a Royal Command performance. On the other side of the cultural equation, he is credited with introducing classical guitar into the Thai mainstream. I recommend a cursory look at this recent interview with him in Modern Guitar, in which he discusses the state of Thailand’s guitar culture, and offers a bit of insight as to his own side of the story.

The music itself is naturally a world apart from that of the other albums: on a solo instrument, it has the rhythmic freedom of a tempo rubato aligned to the musician’s whim. Eichelmann explores that freedom sparingly—it’s a classical texture, after all, and one that prizes clarity and tone. The harmonies are diatonic, the voicings open; every now and then he strums a melodic statement with a vibrato that wouldn’t be out of place on a Venetian canal. And none of this is to say that Eichelmann can’t swing—indeed, he sounds all too happy to bend a few blue notes when it’s called for. On a tune like “Friday Night Rag” or “Love at Sundown”, there’s no getting around the blues, and the arrangements admit this readily. Some of the tracks leave me longing for a little less rigidity and a little more colour in the tonal palette, but again, these recordings don’t claim to depart too much from their ostensible mission statement (composed music with a spacious, resonant timbre), so I didn’t go in expecting Joe Pass.

That wraps it up for my CD shelf, but it certainly shouldn’t spell the end of my interest in the King’s music, nor yours. The selection of music to which we are popularly exposed is a lot more hermitic than we often realize, and to that end, King Bhumibol’s works strike me as more of a well-kept secret than they have any right to be. In sum? Give him a listen. And long live the King.

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