Finding the Art in Phuket
Anthony S. Cameron
Doin’ Time in Phuket Jail – Part 1
The last place I was expecting to end up was in jail. And a jail in Phuket, Thailand was definitely not on the list of places I wanted to go to, let alone imagine. Now here I was being body searched by a grinning prison warden under the old arched entrance whilst hundreds of relatives of the imprisoned looked on with the dulled curiosity that comes from waiting in queues for most of your life. And from the other side of the massive steel door came the deafening hum of a thousand captive men. I was given the all clear by the warden with a friendly tap on the shoulder, given back my bag full of audio gear and, as the big doors opened, he said, “Bpai”(Go!). So I did.
Probably not going to forget that walk to the infirmary for a while. I felt like a springbok that had wandered into the lion’s camp by mistake and was trying to be invisible, yet every eye was on me. Every utterance muttered under the breath of the men that lined my journey seemed directed at me, and it was a mix of Southern Thai drawl with Burmese Thai so I wasn’t catching more than the odd word. Ladyboys whistled and leaned provocatively on doorways, hoping I was going to be incarcerated so they could unleash their charms on me. Hard faced white men swore and spat at my feet, one of whom I recognised as ‘the bull terrier’: a mad English Muai Thai fighter who’d got the cocktails of drugs and ego wrong, ending up with blood on his hands, a body he couldn’t bury quick enough and his face plastered all over the media. I kept my eyes down and focussed on the warden’s fat neck poking out of his skin- tight collar as he walked ahead of me.
The band was already in the sauna-like infirmary when we finally made it through the door, and after the obligatory Wei’s and bowing of heads, we got to work turning the infirmary into a recording space: mattresses were leaned against walls and windows; bed frames tipped on their sides as sound absorption for drums and horn sections; and chairs were laid out in a small arc in front of the stereo microphone for guitars and vocals. We were going at it old school style: one mic with musicians placed in terms of loudness and position in the mix. And there wasn’t going to be any mixdown time to tidy it up. We had to get it as close as we could.
The band started rehearsing, chatting and joking as they got used to the stained prison mattresses standing up like forgotten girlfriends between them. The trumpet guy was way off in the corner, playing into two mattresses 45’d into each other, scratching around for a note and sometimes finding it. The two guitarists either side of the vocalist had tuned up and were looking ready, the drummer had stopped faffing with his stool, the bass player had tripped through a run of ‘Superstition’ as a warm-up and had settled for that. Looked like we were ready. I put on the headphones, gave them the thumbs up, and hit record.
What came through the cans blew me away. The placement had really worked wonders, there was a warmth to the sounds I hadn’t expected, it was well balanced, and they were great players too. The guitarists weaved these little runs through the groove whilst the drumming was gentle and percussive and the bass a rock to which it all held. The trumpet dude just crouched facing his mattresses and waited.
Then the vocalist came in with his first lines and they were tentative, crackly, not confident at all and I was about to suggest we go for another take when he miraculously found it: He climbed up through his atonal squeaking into the same key as the band and somehow the transition worked, giving it something more, like he had exposed the struggle to get there.
The words themselves were full of remorse and sorrow and guilt and longing for lost love and, even though it was syrupy stuff, the way this guy wailed made me believe him. The look on his scarred and heavily tattooed face was the horror of the streets, it was the horror of a bad decision at the wrong time. The atonement he had sought with the Buddhist tattoos hadn’t keep him out of this zoo, and now he was singing about it. Finding another way through it. And I could see it all in his face.
When the trumpet dude finally let rip all the hairs on the back of my neck stood up immediately. He had a mute in the bell of the trumpet and was pulling these insane notes that ripped my heart out every time he blew; the kind that strip your ordinary world and lay you bare. The kind that you cannot fake. The kind that sound like a soul screaming for attention. He climbed one impossible mountain of riffs after another, all whilst staring at those dirty mattresses in front of him. He was barely moving.
I stared at a spot on the floor and listened to the music that these broken men had made together, and had emerged out of their struggle. Their stories had worked their way into every chord they played, which had given them a reason, and me another glimpse, of the great art that occurs every day in the most bizarre of places.
Underneath it all, I could hear the hum and whir of the washing machines in the distance and the unsettling rumble of a thousand human voices outside this room. And at times I swear I could hear the sound of their feet tapping.
Anthony S. Cameron is an Australian ex-pat living in Phuket, Thailand, and the author of two novels, Driftwood (2014) and Butterfly on Bangla (2015). Born in Melbourne, he escaped in his early twenties to central Victoria, where he designed and built a sustainable house and raised two sustainable children. His books are available on Amazon here.