The artist's heart -
Shayne Carter at Bangkok 1899

Musician Shayne Carter writes about the three months he spent as the inaugural artist in residence at creative/civic hub Bangkok 1899 where he immersed himself in local culture and composed and performed with Thai artists.

Listen to a track Carter recorded with the Molam All Stars at the opening of Bangkok 1899

Bangkok 1899 was set up by a Thai-American woman called Susannah Tantemsapya who I connected with through mutual artist friends.

The creative centre is based in a mansion that was originally built in the early 20th century for Chaophraya Thammasakmontri who is known as “the father of modern education in Thailand“. He also introduced soccer to the nation and wrote a sports song that is still sung before major sporting events - obviously a man of many talents!

The mansion - referred to as “The Palace” by local residents - sits in an old part of the city and had been disused for a decade before Bangkok 1899 moved in. It was still being refurbished while I was there. A new lawn appeared miraculously within the first two weeks of my arrival. A cafe sprung up downstairs within a month. 

Susannah and her staff worked at the venue during the day, but I was left alone to wander the wide halls of the mansion at night, where my only company was a bat that would fly in at dusk and settle on the rafters and then flap about whenever I turned on the light.

The main purpose of my trip was to meet and work with Thai musicians and artists and gather insight into Thai music forms, both traditional and modern.

I was introduced to people from the Studio Lam scene, which is a small club that basically serves as a rallying point for modern Molam music in Bangkok. European record collectors come and spend small fortunes on Thai vinyl at the record store next door.

Shayne Carter with members of Toomturn Molam Group

Carter: "Experiences like I had are valuable in that you recognise there are similar creative spirits, who exist... all over the world."

Molam music developed in Laos and in the Issan region in Thailand. It utilises traditional instruments and reminds me very much of the blues in that it is a folk music that originated from disadvantaged and poor people. You can feel the integrity in the music and it has a lot of funk.

I performed a set at the end of my stay with a band made up off various members of the Toomturn Molam Group and the Paradise Bangkok Molam International Band who use indigenous instruments like the Kaen and Saw and traditional Thai percussion. 

The other popular instrument in Molam music is the Pin, a three string guitar instrument, but instead of the pin I played vaguely discordant South Island guitar.

The modern Morlam bands have incorporated Western influences like psychedelia, rock and funk, so a lot of the music is groove based, but it’s a groove that is distinctly different from Western varieties. Our band performed at the official opening of Bangkok 1899. It was a total joy to play with such outstanding musicians and be involved in such a fresh sound.  

I also travelled to Chiang Mai to work with the experimental sound artist Arnont Nongyao. Arnont lectures in sound art at Chiang Mai University and has constructed his own complex sound rig that produces clicks, drones and burrs that he creates while looking at video images produced by a small camera spinning above his kit. 

Arnont performs throughout Asia but every day he jams to these self-generated images as a sort of spiritual therapy. 

We produced strange but heartfelt sounds together in the lush Northern Thai countryside while his mother cooked us delicious food that upset my stomach for days.

Arnont came down to Bangkok and we also did a set together at the Bangkok 1899 opening. 

The best thing about my experience in Thailand was that I was there long enough to have an immersive experience where I got to dig under the covers.

I met a lot of cool Thai artists, social activists and, for want of a better description, general members of the public, who gave me a real insight into the culture of the place. 

My impression of Thailand beforehand was one of the average Western tourist, so it was very satisfying to go deeper than that and to get a better grasp of the true nature of Thailand, in a cultural, social and spiritual sense.  

Shayne Carter with members of Toomturn Molam Group

Shayne Carter rehearsing with members of Toomturn Molam Group

It was a wonderful experience. In New Zealand we’re so often steered towards Britain, Europe and the U.S but Asia is sitting virtually next door. As a country, we don’t know much about Thailand and they don’t know much about us.

I believe exchanges between artists can lead to better understanding and camaraderie between our peoples, perhaps more so than government officials sitting in offices negotiating trade deals.

As an artist, you can often feel alone in a society where economics often take precedence over art. Experiences like I had are valuable in that you recognise there are similar creative spirits, who exist outside that, all over the world. 

Our environments may be different, but no matter where you go, the artist’s heart stays the same. 

Carter’s residency was made possible through help from a Creative New Zealand/Asia New Zealand Foundation grant.