Thursday, April 22, 2004

Thai classical music crossroads

Renewed interest in Thai classical music, sparked by the recent film The Overture, is continuing, with the release of a new album by one of the film's stars, who is an actual musician.

In the movie, Narongrit Tosa-nga portrayed Khun In, who represented the dark side of xylophone playing with his black costumes and arch manner.

I like to liken him to Steve Vai's appearance in the Ralph Macchio movie, Crossroads.

The musician found his life in a whirlwind after the overnight success of the movie, the Bangkok Post reported recently. Response to his portrayal of the devilish Khun In has been overwhelming, the Post said. "I'm glad to be part of a film that has stirred up the popularity of Thai classical music," Narongrit told the Post. "Many parents have tried to send their children to learn ranad with me."

At first, director Ithisoontorn Vichailak approached Narongrit because he wanted one of Narongrit's students to be cast in the role of Sorn, the Post said. The young hero of the film who ended up being portrayed by Anuchid Spanpong from Mekhong Full Moon Party.

"After I saw Acharn Narongrit, the character of Khun In became clearer to me," Ithisunthorn told the Post.

Khun In was meant to be a minor role, that of a great musician who was challenged by a young-blood talent, the Post said. But Narongrit created a Darth Vader-like character who ended up stealing the show with a minimal amount of effort. This was especially the case during the movie scenes in which he does battle on the ranad (xylophone) with the lead actor, audiences felt like they were watching Gladiator, the Post said.

Though it took a long time to persuade the ranad veteran to join the cast, the results were certainly worth it.

As a musician, Narongrit's own story closely mirrors that of the hero character's in The Overture. He follows in the footsteps of his father, Supot Tosa-nga, one of the great Thai music teachers of his era (1939-1996).

Exposed to Thai classical music from his childhood, playing music was a "piece of cake", Narongrit told the Post. At two, he picked up small cymbals and played with a band; when he was three, the little boy replaced a drunk musician playing the drums.

As for the ranad, he said, "I just sat down and was able to play. My dad never taught me before. It happened just like that." He was two years old at the time.

At age five, he performed on local TV station's "Star Search" show, recruited by an aunt, who worked for the station.

His mother taped the performance for posterity. The audio portion of that tape ended up being used 30 years later in The Overture, in the scene when Khun In and Sorn first encounter each other? "I wanted to play it again, but my mum found the tape and we used it for the movie. I didn't have to replay it!"

A working musician, Narongrit practices daily. "Being a professional ranad player is a lifetime effort. You need to work hard. Practice makes perfect," he told the Post.

A habit learned from his father, who was known as Ranad Namkang for playing the ranad at the crack of dawn, he carries on the tradition. "During sleep, the muscles become stiff, so practising ranad in the morning is a kind of exercise, a way to stretch the body," he told the Post.

To avoid complaints from neighbours, the early bird musician covers his ranad with cloth to dampen the sound, the Post said. The cloth makes it harder to play the instrument, which helps to strengthen the player's wrists. Consequently, when he performs, he has both power and delicacy.

After graduating from the Bangkok Dramatic Arts College, he taught Thai music at Huay Chorakhae Wittayakom School in Nakhon Pathom, for 19 years. During that time, Narongrit composed many traditional Thai songs, as well as the soundtrack for the Thai music-oriented television drama called Thippaya Duriyang, directed by noted actor-director Nopphol Komarachoon.

His song "Phandin Thong" ("Golden Land") earned him an award from HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn in 1994.

He's an artist keen to share his knowledge, and was a co-founder of the contemporary Boy Thai band.

To attract a larger audience, he combined Western and Thai musical instruments for the Bangkok Acoustic band, in which he also employed pop music with a Thai sound.

His new album, Khun In Ranad Bangkok, features ranad and piano, similar to the jazz-Thai classical fusion scene from The Overture.

"The scene marked the first contemporary Thai music, so I wanted to carry on this (new kind of music)," Narongrit told the Post.

The music on this album is light, easy listening, approachable, Narongrit said, in keeping with his intention to help others learn to appreciate Thai music.

In addition to his private music school, he plans to open another school for the public.

"I don't mind if people want to study with me because of the trend from Hom Rong, as long as the trend provokes interest in Thai music."

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