Music of the unutterable in exile

“Faiyen” is a pop and luk thung band well-known to red-shirts. With their lyrics sharply criticizing the elite, the band seeks to politically “enlighten” listeners. Faiyen have been harassed by the military until they have had to flee to a neighbouring country. Although their lives in exile are quite difficult and fraught with limitations, Faiyen is still continuing to write and sing songs for a revolutionary change in Thai society. One of Faiyen’s new songs is a chilling cover of The Hunger Games’ “The Hanging Tree.” Although both Faiyen and Katniss may sing this song, the place Faiyen are exiled to is no District 13.
 
Note: The first part of the story is derived from Music of the Unutterable, written by the same author, published in Prachatai English in January 2015. 
 
In March 2006, the pro-establishment yellow shirts released a song by an anonymous composer that would later be played every day at the protests: “Mr Square Face.”  The rapper spends ten minutes telling the listeners about all the allegations that could be imagined against the then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. It also names hundreds of people who, it says, were part of the Thaksin network. The song created a lot of impact: with its catchy hook that compared Thaksin’s face to a square, people quickly learned and remembered the allegations of Thaksin’s wrongdoings. “Mr Square Face” shows how powerful music can be as a cultural front in bringing about change. 
 
Music is known to be a powerful tool in political movements and revolutions. What if there was music which aimed to push the envelope of the unutterable issue of the monarchy in Thai society where the lèse majesté law, or Article 112, can land a person in jail for up to 15 years? 
 
Faiyen is an emerging pop band which transforms Thais’ whispered, private conversations about the monarchy into funny and catchy songs that people can sing and dance along to. 
 
 
Current Faiyen members (from left): Nithiwat Wannasiri (vocals), Port (guitar), Trairong Sinseubpol (band leader and keyboard), Kluay (drums), Ou (percussion)
 
Founded in late 2010, Faiyen is a hybrid of pop and modern luk thung that has become more and more well-known to the red shirts and people who are critical of the monarchy. The band has never played on the main stage of the United Front for Democracy against the Dictatorship (UDD), the main red shirt faction affiliated with Thaksin, because of their songs’ directness on the unutterable issues. They play only at small red-shirt gatherings organized by other factions of the reds, or on a side stage at UDD-organized events. 
 
Perhaps the best way to understand the band is to examine the lyrics. However, since Faiyen’s lyrics risk breaking the lèse majesté law, Prachatai has chosen only a few of their songs to discuss here. 
 
“Why Not Grant Bail?”  plays on the recurring lèse majesté theme of Faiyen’s music. Not only does it bitterly criticize the law, the song also highlights the discrimination in denying the right to bail against lèse majesté prisoners. It also names several lèse majesté prisoners such as Da Torpedo, Somyot Phruksakasemsuk, Surachai Sae Dan, and Akong or Uncle SMS, who were repeatedly denied bail. 
 
Just a bit of curiosity lands you in jail! Jail! Jail! Jail! 
Just a bit of criticism lands you in jail! Jail! Jail! Jail! 
Just telling the truth lands you in jail! Jail! Jail! Jail! 
 
Why not grant bail? How much longer are they gonna stay there? 
Somyot, Da and Surachai. Why the need to jail them so long?
 
Akong didn’t get bail. (So he’s dead.)
He wasn’t a thief or murderer. 
This oppressive, barbaric, vicious law!
 
Faiyen appearing at a red-shirt side stage near Rajamangala Stadium, while the UDD organized its rally inside the stadium on November 25, 2013. The side stage was organized by a community ‘Red Guard’ radio station. 
 
The band leader said Faiyen aimed at “criticizing the elite who are the problem of Thai society.” The band’s name, “Faiyen,” meaning “sparkler” or a kind of handheld firework that sparkles in the air, symbolizes the band’s goal of using music to slowly immerse people in more critical ideas toward the establishment. “A sparkler stays alight and stays hot but before you know it, the fire has completely gone out.” 
    
Trairong, a professional musician who used to work with a mainstream music company, said he has adopted music industry techniques of composing pop music to make Faiyen’s music as catchy and easy to understand as possible by the mass red shirt audience.
 
He admitted that he sometimes expropriated famous melodies from western songs in order to make the songs more memorable. “Don’t Love Ya...Be Careful of Going to Jail” is an example of a song that derives its melody hook from Sister Act (1992)’s “I Will Follow Him.”
 
Benjamin Tausig, an ethnomusicologist who studies Thai protest music at Stony Brook University, said the lyrics are neither new nor unfamiliar. The content of the lyrics comes from the red shirts’ everyday conversations and the slogans that they chant at gatherings and print on their clothing. 
 
“Music—including CDs and videos of performances—generates semi-permanent records that link the musicians to their opinions, and so most people have shied away from producing this sort of protest music,” said Tausig.
 
When asked if Thaksin appears in any of their songs, Trairong said there is only one line in a song mentioning that Thaksin’s popularity upsets the elite. 
 
Unsurprisingly, due to the UDD’s strategy of compromising with the establishment, Faiyen has never been allowed to play on the UDD stage. The band members said they do not care, however.
 
“You can’t win by prostrating and fighting at the same time,” said Trairong “The core leaders just repeat the same-old, same-old stuff on the stages, never digging deeper into the issues. The [UDD] have never really educated the masses.”
 
Faiyen is not the most extreme band in terms of music about the monarchy. There is also Pitsanu P., a red shirt who satirically rewrote the lyrics of several royal songs and songs honouring the monarchy, creating obviously lèse majesté songs. The songs seem to have been written and distributed while Pitsanu lived in self-exile in a neighbouring country after being charged with lèse majesté for a speech at a red-shirt rally. His rewritten songs are censored by the MICT.
 
However risky it was for Faiyen to sing songs, they continued to be very cautious in order to avoid arrest. Faiyen wanted to educate audiences in Thailand through live performances of their music, and have their audiences listen to their songs in an open manner.
    
But on 9 June 2014, this dream was crushed with the coup by the junta, led by Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, who summoned some of the band members as well as an ex-member.
 

Musicians in exile 

 
“If we went in for reporting, we would be slammed with 112 for sure,” said Nithiwat. At this moment, none of the members have been charged with breaking the lèse majesté law. However, they are sure that if they report to the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), they will suffer the same fate as Tom Dundee, a red shirt activist who was charged with lèse majesté after reporting in as summoned. 
 
Although not all of the musicians were called in for questioning, all five members decided to flee in exile together due to the harassment from the NCPO. Faiyen also wanted to continue making songs. 
 
Faiyen practicing “Song of Commoners,” written by Chuwet and Kaewsai
 
Life in exile is not easy. In the neighbouring country that Faiyen has fled to, there are regulations against refugees being open about their political convictions, especially those relating to the Thai monarchy. (This regulation is being contested by a number of refugees.) This country’s authorities also prohibit refugees from saying what country they are in if they are to continue their political movements. 
 
“Ou,” age 54, who plays percussion, has high blood pressure and is unable to receive medical care because he entered the country illegally. He has to rely on visitors to bring him medication from Thailand. Due to his condition, he is not able to help his friends with the band’s work as much as he would like.
 
The band members have to live together in a commune, where each person has to pay 40 baht a day to a communal fund to pay for living costs and food. Some sponsors have continued to support the band, too.
 
“Port,” who plays guitar, did not receive a summons, but quit his stable job to devote himself to the band full-time. “The situation at the moment is teeth-shattering and risky. We have to help each other out,” said Port. Port was the one who lugged over the band’s musical equipment from Thailand after his friends escaped from the country ahead of him.
 
Of course, finding income through playing their music is virtually impossible, with the ban on expressing their political convictions across the border. 
 
“Chor,” who has the most musical knowledge, acquired a job teaching music at schools, but the salary is extremely low: around 1,000 baht for teaching 32 hours a month. 
 
“Here, only people with money, or only the upper-middle class or higher, are able to buy instruments or take music lessons. Mostly the people here respect music as a profession.”
 
The income from selling their songs on Bandcamp.com is also very little, and not enough to support the band members. Faiyen revealed to us that six months of sales of their songs reaped only 5,000 baht. “We don’t mind if you copy our songs, but a donation would be nice,” laughed Chor.
 
Nithiwat added that although the band members look cheerful and happy, joking with each other, their life in exile has taken much away from them. For example, it was impossible for him to visit his mom when she was in a car accident, or to attend a funeral of a beloved relative.
 

Songs from afar

 
With their increased free time in their new land, their 24-7 communal living, and an increasingly pressurized political situation, Faiyen have been compelled even further to write new songs. However, in their current country, the band’s travels are highly restricted, and every single baht must be conserved. Practicing or recording in a studio is no longer possible. Therefore, a small corner of Chor’s bedroom has been adapted into a workspace, mixing station, practice area, and recording studio.
 
Faiyen performing live in Chor’s bedroom
 
“We sing or record in the kitchen or my bedroom, and close the doors and windows. We have no recording studio. It’s good that we were able to carry over the instruments and the mixer from Thailand. We bought new microphones here. We’re not going to rent out a recording studio, since we have to save money,” said the Faiyen band leader to Prachatai.
 
Faiyen are planning to release a two new albums, the first titled Suem (เสื่อม), meaning “degenerate”, which will have Faiyen’s second batch of songs. This second album, Song of a Fellow Comrade, will have covers of other artists’ songs. Both of these new albums are focused on changing the look of the band to be younger and more modern to reach a younger audience.
 
In Song of a Fellow Comrade, Faiyen are including revolutionary songs from the period immediately after the 6 October 1976 Thammasat Massacre. For example, “Fa Mai” (New Sky) by the revolutionary “Che of Thailand,” Chit Phumisak will be included. Instead of being sung in the usual pheua chiwit (Thai folk music) and Suntharaporn (1940s popular Thai waltz style), Faiyen adapts “Fa Mai” by singing it in a punk-pop style with synthesizer backing. Other songs on this album include “Pride of the Free” and “Comrade” by Jin Kammachon as well as a Thai version of the Internationale, a song sung by Communists all around the world to rouse the proletariat classes. 
 
Faiyen is even including “Ayuhai Pemuda,” a song that youths in Patani, especially those in the student group “Permas,” use in their activism. There is both a Thai and Malay cover, in order to support the Malay activists who are “being oppressed by the Thai state.” 
 
“A lot of my friends in the three southernmost provinces have been arrested. So we decided to translate and tweak the song to make it more international, so anyone regardless of religion can appreciate it. We are also a group of people oppressed by the state, so we decided to sing it,” said Toey, who used to work with youth in the Deep South when he was part of the Student Federation of Thailand. 
 
One outstanding song by Faiyen is “The Tamarind Tree at Sanam Luang,” an adaptation of “The Hanging Tree” from The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014). In the film and books, the song is used to rouse the citizens to revolt against the Capitol, which is oppressing the other Districts. 
 
 
 
When adapted to the Thai historical context, the Hanging Tree becomes the Tamarind Tree at Sanam Luang, where the bodies of students accused of being treacherous to the state were hung and brutally beaten during the Thammasat Massacre on 6 October 1976. The building sound, the poignant lyrics, and Nithiwat’s mournful vocals, when combined with the music video’s footage from the actual 6 October Massacre cannot fail to rouse chills.
 
“This tree, this tree, if you’ve been here before
Where they strung up men said to be traitors
Strange things did happen here 
No stranger would it be 
If we met at midnight, ‘neath the moon forevermore” 
 
Song of a Fellow Comrade also includes “Returning Democracy to the People,” a parody of the “Returning Happiness to the People,” the junta’s theme song written by Prayut and blasted endlessly on TV ever since the junta took the power.
 
“The day that the People’s Party came in, changed the ruling system to a democracy
Building it up with blood and sweat, but at last it’s been stolen
Tens and tens of coup d’états, democracy’s getting too far to see
People’s rights trampled on, and for whose stability?” 
 
Contrast this with “Returning Happiness to the People,” translation by Khaosod English.
 
“The day the nation, the King, and the mass of people live without danger
We offer to guard and protect you with our hearts, this is our promise
Today the nation is facing menacing danger, the flames are rising
Let us be the ones who step in, before it is too late”
 
Other songs on this album also include contemporary activist songs, such as “Ratchaprasong Alumni,” written by Dear, a red-shirt activist, which talks about red shirts’ fights at the Ratchaprasong Intersection during the 2010 protests. “Uncle Nuamthong’s Last Letter,” by Tum DNN talks about Nuamthong Praiwan, a taxi driver who committed suicide by hanging himself in protest against the coup d'etat in 2006, among other songs.
 

Faiyen’s Future

 

Cho, Nithiwat, and Port having fun practicing one of their hits, “Don’t Love Ya”
 
Living in exile, far from familiar surroundings and loved ones without many visible prospects have made the Faiyen members view themselves as comparable to the also-exiled Communist Party of Thailand of the late 70’s. 
 
“Communists and the old left had to escape into forests, accumulate weapons, and rouse the people. However, their ideas could not be disseminated very far, only circulating in small circles and not towards the masses. Today, however, the tools have changed. The Internet is a crucial weapon for change. We upload our music videos to YouTube,” said Cho. “Before, any songs they sang would just be listened to in the forest by fellow comrades. By the time they left of the forest, they’re writing songs to console themselves. But today, writing and singing songs is the fight itself.” 
 
Port said that to fight for democracy, they are using the power of new media which can reach the elite.
 
Yet with even the tool of new media, Faiyen’s conditions in exile as well as the political suppression of red shirt movements has eliminated any possibility of live performances. “That sort of fight is over. There won’t be a large red-shirt stage with giant crowds anymore. We probably won’t be able to perform live anymore, since it would expose our identities publicly,” said Cho. 
 
Even though a live performance in Thailand is out of the question, Port dreams of doing a world tour for red shirts overseas. However, this endeavour would need sponsorship for transportation costs. Nevertheless, the band members still need official refugee status in order to be able to travel overseas.
 
Cho said that he has killed all hope of returning home. Ou said that no matter how hard his current hardships are, he is still not sorry about it since it is a path he chose himself. The band members have no intention of giving up their goal of politically “enlightening” audiences through music. 
 
Since every hour of every day Faiyen works towards social revolution in Thailand, the apathy and apolitical stance of many Thais is a large source of discouragement to them. “Once you’re politically enlightened, did you stand up and do anything? That’s the problem. We’re all waiting and watching for you to rise up. At the moment everyone’s all apathetic, carrying on without a care in the world as if nothing’s happened.” 
 
“I get lonely and discouraged often. I look up at the sky and ask myself what I’m doing here,” said Cho, looking away.
 
When asked which song portrayed the band members’ sentiments about being exiled best, they replied with the song “Through the Wind,” a song adapted from a poem written by Jin Gammachon to encourage the exiled band. 
 
An excerpt from the song:
“From home to lands afar, on a great mission for the people
We won’t wait to build up the country, forging ahead against injustice.” 
 
Faiyen playing “Through the Wind” 
 
Translated into English by Asaree Thaitrakulpanich
 
The content was modified on 6 November 2015.