Chiang Mai’s music scene is enjoying something of a golden age.
Just over 30 years ago, The Riverside opened its doors and, according to British saxophonist and long-term resident Paul Sugars, the venue became a pioneer of live music in the northern Thai city. Since then, the scene has grown steadily and changed markedly.
Nine years ago, the North Gate Jazz Club opened, offering a space in which musicians would experiment, jamming together in a way that was unprecedented in Chiang Mai. Now a favourite among visitors to Thailand’s “jewel of the north”, North Gate hosts some of the best musicians in the region on a nightly basis.
With new venues such as Thapae East, Gossip Gallery and Roadhouse, as well as a host of others, having opened in recent years, a music lover here can go to an event every night knowing they can expect a treat in terms of talent, technique and ingenuity. Jazz, blues, rock, reggae and myriad blends of styles can be heard.
There is a sense of companionship among Chiang Mai’s musicians – a mix of Thais and foreigners, the likes of Dutch drummer Peng Offe and Belgian guitarist Peter Vandemoortele, who stay for months or years at a time, their plans often dictated by their travel visas.
The players move fluidly from venue to venue and perform in ever-changing combinations, giving the sense that they are part of a large family, pulling together to create something memorable.
When Briton Paul Sugars first arrived in Chiang Mai, there were lots of cover bands playing in the city.
“They played really well but people are more interested in something a bit more artistic now. Rasmee [Wayrana] just released an award-winning album: best artist of the year; she produced it here in Chiang Mai and had the album launch here and now she’s gone on to big success. No one from around here has become more recognised than Rasmee in recent times and she’s done that by producing her own really unusual music,” says Sugars.
“I think it’s the best it’s ever been here. It comes in waves because you have people like Ben [the American leader of the band Ben Koen and The Power of Sound] who come here. Some very respected musicians have come here and stayed for a number of months and years, such as [American] Ralph Thomas, a saxophone player who has had a huge impact. Many people have come through and left their mark, shared their knowledge but inevitably had to move on.”
Rasmee is a singer-songwriter from eastern Thailand, who has been living in Chiang Mai for 10 years.
“There’s a lot of great, great musicians around. Lucky me to be here! I just want to encourage people to make their own music – it’s very important. I want to support the musicians in the future, if I have enough power I want to drag them with me,” says Rasmee.
Lawrence “Binkey” Tolefree , a beatboxer from Chicago, in the United States, who has been in Chiang Mai for two years.
“I went to the North Gate first ... it wasn’t set up for anybody on the mic; it was all set up for instruments. I just came and started singing and beatboxing and doing things that they weren’t used to,” says Tolefree.