The (long-delayed; sorry) second episode of “Bangkok is Ringing,” a podcast series about the politics of sound in Bangkok, is now up here at the excellent Triple Canopy. Future episodes will air ~monthly.

Enjoy!

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Isaan is the rural northeast area of Thailand, and is a major source of migrant labor for Bangkok. Transplanted Isaan natives are so numerous in the capital that there are several radio stations dedicated to their music. And more than a few of the songs on those stations are precisely about the difficulties of migration.

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In Bangkok these past few months, everyday labor hasn’t missed a beat. Observing from afar, you’d be forgiven for thinking the whole city shut down, as many malls, offices, and hotels indeed did. But actually, most workplaces kept up regular operations.

This was especially true for the networks of small-scale industrial/manufacturing labor situated on back streets, away from the main traffic arteries. These networks are vast and often informal, but they provide vital services for a big city and employ many people. Some businesses are run out of storefront machine shops, while others use little more than a patch of sidewalk. We’re talking small engine repair, recycling collection, welding, wire-stripping, and the like.

This montage includes five examples of the sounds of urban labor in a tense time. Each is about one minute; follow the annotations below as you listen.

0:00 – 1:07 A recycling facility on a large side street supports many young men in the neighborhood, who gather paper, cardboard, and plastic bottles from nearby buildings and bring them in for 2 baht per kilogram. Here, two men crush cans and stuff them into big clear bags, which they load onto a cart.

1:08 – 2:01 In the United States, ice cream trucks are just about the only mobile sonic advertisements we have. In Thailand, there’s a greater variety, including fruit trucks with speakers tied to the top, so the driver can call out that day’s price for mangosteens and lychees. In this recording, a mobile broom-and-bucket-shop plays its jingle again and again. Sonic ads for all kinds of businesses are more tolerated here, for whatever reason.

2:02 – 3:08 A welder fixes up a door. This neighborhood is a mixture of large, modern houses, international schools, and blue-collar family homes. Many of the blue-collar workers do construction work for their wealthier neighbors.

3:09 – 3:50 A pair of young men hammer thin metal poles into shape for use in construction.

3:51 – 5:45 Some of the more established shops supply parts for larger industries, including automobile manufacturing. Since most of the cars built in Thailand will be exported to other countries, these small shops are closely connected to global trade. As you can hear an example of from about five minutes onward, news reports were often the soundtrack to these shops in April and May.

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Give it enough time and attention, and anything will become musical.

The same sounds, repeated again and again, compel us to hear melodies and rhythms we usually ignore. Say the same word the same way fifteen times out loud – cookiecookicookiecookiecookiecookiecookicookiecookiecookiecookiecookicookiecookiecookie – and you’ll begin to hear it in new ways. It will seem both more and less familiar, more and less strange. You’ll notice pitch and texture irrespective of meaning.

A visit to the Bangkok Metropolitan Electricity Authority reminded me of this effect two weeks ago. You can usually pay your electric bill at the nearest 7-11, but if you’re delinquent like I was this month, you have to brave the buses on busy Rama IV Road and haul it over to the central office.

When I went, there were at least one hundred people chatting and killing time in the waiting room. I took a number. The process was so efficient that the automated voice was calling numbers in direct, almost uninterrupted succession for minutes at a time. I made this recording while waiting for my number:

For each announcement, the automated female voice began by saying Maai Laehk, which means “number.” Maai has a rising tone; you say it by starting from a low pitch and ending on a higher one. Laehk has a falling pitch; you start with a high pitch and end on a low one. Next, the voice announces the number, and since different Thai numbers have different tones, this introduces some variation. Then she says Deern Tawng, which means (roughly) “walk to.” Deern has a middle tone; you say it without any special inflection. Tawng has a falling tone. Finally, the voice announces the number of the desk that’s just opened up. Then back to the beginning.

The sameness/predictability of the announcement brings out the music in the automated voice, especially if you listen for it. In the middle of a tremendously boring situation, this kind of hearing can be a defense mechanism, a way of stepping away mentally for a moment.

Fashioning political analogies out of allusions to local religion, cycle and repetition have become a trope in recent reports from Bangkok. The reporters ask: is any of this really new? Is this place trapped in a cycle of suffering?

I’ll ask a different question: Are people hearing music here now? And answer it: yes, but music is not always beautiful.

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This recording was made walking counterclockwise around the grounds of Wat Phrathat Hariphunchai, a Thai Buddhist temple built in the late 9th century. The temple is in the city of Lamphun, not too far from Chiang Mai. Its highlights are a giant golden umbrella and a purported relic of the Buddha’s hair. (One strand.)

From the beginning of the piece, a man speaks into a microphone. He repeats a short script with an insistent cadence that becomes musical after a while.

Around 1:10, I reach some candles burning at the rear of the chedi, placed in a trough and lit by worshippers. The candles must have been made out of some kind of fat; they sizzled loudly for a long time.

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Wat Dhammakaya, just north of Bangkok, is one of the largest Buddhist temples in the world. Built in 1970, it is the epicenter of Dhammakaya Buddhism, a large, rapidly growing, and at times controversial sect. Architecturally, Wat Dhammakaya is a palace for the age of mass media.


The UFO-like Chedi (inner memorial hall)

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A.N. and I met a musician while walking around the Mo Chit neighborhood last week. Mo Chit is the last stop on the SkyTrain, right next to Thailand’s largest weekend market.

To play legally, street musicians in Bangkok must be licensed. The licenses restrict when and where one can play – unlike some cities, the subway is not at all fair game – but they also protect musicians from getting hassled by the cops or anyone else.

The fellow we met was blind – music is a common vocation here for people with disabilities. Like many people from the rural Northeast, he came to Bangkok because he was no longer able to make a living in the provinces.

The field recording above has two parts. First, a song, and then (around 4:00) a short conversation, translated within the audio. The piece he’s playing is Northeastern string music, and he’s accompanied here by recorded drums from a tape deck. You see the instrument, the Phin, pretty often on the street, but the double-necked version is rare. Thanks to B for help with translation.

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Zoning, which has so much to do with how places sound, is never an entirely formal process. Although cities usually do their best to centralize decisions about where people live and work, they have to contend with other, much smaller and more local political economies. When one hears something from an establishment that’s completely out of place, that establishment is often getting protection from someone whose main gig isn’t urban planning, to put it nicely. This happens a lot in Bangkok, and accounts for surprising – and special – aural aberrations.

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Save malls, Lumphini Park is the largest and most utilized public space in Bangkok. At all hours, the 150-acre Lumphini teems with performance and exercise programs that may involve anything from flags and matching uniforms to swords and tea, from high-octane aerobics jams to casual rounds of badminton between siblings. It is easy, actually, to find a quiet spot. But walk twenty feet and you might find yourself in the audible orbit of something completely different. Everyone, it seems, is busy honing their mind or body.

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Khlong Saen Saep, under Witthayu Road. image by author.

Snaking through Bangkok’s concrete tonnage are khlong, natural canals that feed into the Chao Phraya river. Many have been filled in to build roads, but there are still plenty within the city boundaries. They’re crucial for understanding Bangkok’s massive and sometimes inequitable 20th century spatial transformations.

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