Khun Narin’s Electric Phin Band
“What the hell am I watching?” Inevitably, that question comes to mind at some point for any person who has fallen under the spell of YouTube and its endless video labyrinth, and it came to this writer’s mind when watching a video shot in rural Thailand, with people dancing to a strange, instrumental version of the song “Zombie” by the Cranberries performed by what looks like a miniature marching band with red shirts and dark pants.
The question had apparently occurred to L.A. music producer Josh Marcy, who was so taken by what he watched on YouTube that he tracked down the band and convinced the musicians that they could foster an international audience, eventually traveling to Thailand to record the group outside a Buddhist temple.
The band, referred to as both Khun Narin’s Electric Phin Band and simply Khun Narin, often plays outdoor house parties and even impromptu, homegrown parades on dirt roads, and it’s often called “psychedelic” primarily due to the electric phin—a 2- or 3-stringed lute—that is channeled through phaser and light distortion effects and the wandering nature of its songs, simultaneously bringing to mind both Indian ragas and Saharan guitar rock.
Its percussion section has the division of labor of a marching band: one person with shoulder-mounted tom-toms, one person on a floor tom (in lieu of a bass drum), another with cymbals. The smooth, slithering bass lines seamlessly join the rhythms, steering the group through what feels like one mega 40-minute song, divided into seven tracks, with a methodic cohesion that is only interrupted by tempo changes.
It’s hypnotic stuff, with the ability to make time melt away—an approach that may not appeal to those who are economical with their time. The listeners’ attention is mostly drawn to the roving, nimble melodies of the phin player, who has clearly practiced his scales and is happy to lead the listener to beat a path.
Miecio Askanasy and José Prates
Before Tropicália, before the ’60s bossa nova boom and before the 1959 film Black Orpheus, what was the general global viewpoint of the culture of the vast, diverse country of Brazil? One window into this world was the touring show Brasiliana, which was staged for international audiences throughout the ’50s and early ’60s, and revived in the late ’60s.
Among the main creative forces behind Brasiliana was Miecio Askanasy, a Polish writer and journalist who fled Nazi Germany in 1939 to Brazil and opened a bookstore in Rio de Janeiro; Askanasy formed partnerships through this store, which also served as an art gallery and rehearsal space for a theater group. Composer and musician José Prates, as the story goes, met Askanasy as he entered the store with a ukulele, playing a song.
This brings us to the release at hand, which is a re-issue of the extremely difficult-to-find album Tam…Tam…Tam…! that features music from the Brasiliana stage production. It was originally released on Polydor in 1958 and issued digitally in mid-2014 and finally on physical formats (vinyl and CD) more recently, spurred by the DJ and Latin music collector Gilles Peterson, who became fixated on finding a copy. Mastered from not-so-pristine vinyl, audio nerds should be aware that this reissue leaves intact a good deal of surface noise and crackles to preserve the integrity of the recording.
The album is rich and utterly spirited, with flavors of samba and maracatu, the Afro-Brazilian performance style; listeners might not know what to make of solo vocalist Ivan de Paula, who sings with a voice that has obviously gone through training, sounding at times like an opera singer or occasionally like a lounge crooner.
Call-and-response exchanges are plentiful, with a mixed-gender chorus, and there’s a feeling of pleasant urgency. With origins from the stage, it features a polished delivery, exuding spontaneous energy but with a precision. Attentive listeners will recognize that “Nãnã Imborô” uses a melody that sounds like Jorge Ben’s “Mas, que Nada!” although “Nãnã Imborô” pre-dates that hit song, and the closing smorgasbord “Tem Brabo no Samba” features a cuíca player (a drum that makes a squeaky “whoop”-like sound) going nuts, closing an obscurity of an album that deserves attention not just from crate diggers and obsessed collectors.