May 28, 2024

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How a Thai ‘poor kid with a dream’ became an international jazz musician and author; and opened a free music club in Chiang Mai: Video, Photos

Pharadon Phonamnuai picked up the saxophone in Chiang Mai, Thailand, as a teenager, then worked and studied jazz in New York, before busking his way around Asia.

He opened a jazz club in his home city, and hitchhiked half the way to France for a festival, a trip that spawned a book. Entry to the club is free for a reason.

I was born in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, in February 1981, but my parents were from Bangkok. They divorced and I was raised by my mother, Sawalak Somsong, while my dad took care of my older brother.

As a single-parent family, we were poor. My mum rented a house right behind the market and opened a laundry shop. Chiang Mai was quite different from the city of today. There weren’t many hotels and seeing a foreigner was as alien as seeing (the Na’vi in) Avatar.

Live music at North Gate Jazz Co-Op, the Chiang Mai jazz club that Pharadon owns. Photo: Thomas Bird

Everything was much slower, nature felt closer, the city was greener and winter lasted forever. We used to make a fire in the kitchen.

My mum was really cool. She used to say to me, “Anything could happen, we could die tomorrow, so follow your dreams.” She taught me that it’s important that whatever makes you happy, as long as it wasn’t illegal, you had to go for it.

I was quite a short kid and really quiet in kindergarten and primary school because I didn’t feel a sense of belonging. My parents had come here from the centre of Thailand so I couldn’t speak the local Kam Mueang (northern) dialect that the other children spoke.

I was an outsider – the food, the culture, everything was different. But there was a school for the deaf near my house so I befriended the kids who went there. And they taught me that it’s OK to be an outsider.

Chiang Mai native Pharadon Phonamnuai picked up the saxophone as a teen and busked around the world. He’s written a book about his travels, and now owns a jazz club in his home city. Photo: Thomas Bird

As we couldn’t talk, we just played together. This helped my travels overseas later on, when I was forced to communicate with people beyond language.

My introduction to music came from my aunt, who helped raise me. She played in bars and hotels, gigging classic pop and rock songs for a living. When my mum had to work, my aunt would pick me up from school and then we’d go directly to a bar where I’d watch her soundcheck.

I gravitated to the guitar when I was around 12 years old and my mum paid for lessons, once a week after school and on the weekend. Classical guitar was my first instrument.

My teacher was great, he told me music is something that can heal people. Looking back, that’s a simple thing an adult might say to a child, but I still believe a musical instrument is a tool that can change the world.

As a teenager in the 1990s, I went to a technical school with a special focus on architecture. This made me think about the surrounding landscape. It made me want to understand the place I lived in, and what made people feel a sense of belonging – how the human spirit is connected to the mountains and the earth.
So I started to learn traditional Lanna instruments (indigenous to northern Thailand) at school. I then began going to Wat Loi Kroh, a temple on the east side of the city where a lot of bars are today.

I went once a week, just to study Lanna music. I played the sueng, which is a stringed instrument, and got my introduction to wind instruments by playing the Thai flute.

Pharadon learned to play traditional Thai Lanna instruments as a teenager, before moving on to the saxophone. Photo: Thomas Bird

In high school, I won a drawing competition and the prize was to go to Japan for 10 days. It was my first trip overseas and it changed everything. You can spend years studying the philosophy and history of a country, but when you’re in the real place, you just know it.

I loved Japan. The landscape was beautiful and the culture rich. After I came back, I was sat up front in a red songthaew (a truck used for public transport) and the driver was listening to the radio. There was a story of a saxophone player who was touring the world and was coming to Thailand to perform.

That made me think that if I played the saxophone, maybe I could travel around the world, too. I always wanted to play the saxophone. It looked like a mysterious instrument to me, and I thought it sounded great.

Songthaew are a symbol of Chiang Mai, and aboard one is where Pharadon became inspired to learn the saxophone. Photo: Shutterstock

All that jazz. I found a local teacher. His style was so unique. He made me play one note for months. Then practise scales for another six months. No song, no tune, no improvisation, no melody. It was pure concentration, like a form of meditation.

And then, after two years, he suddenly said, “Now you’re ready to go to the United States.” I was halfway through university at this point. In the middle of it all, I dropped my classes at Chiang Mai University and sold my motorbike to raise money.

I carried tourists’ bags up the mountain just to practise some English. Then I went to the US. I ended up in New York studying with Jason Gillenwater, who is a really great jazz guy. It wasn’t easy. I had to work to finance my classes.

I cleaned toilets, worked in a tattoo parlour and laboured on construction sites in Queens. But I learned a lot from him and from America, where great saxophonists like John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders came from.

After half a year of intense sax study, I came back to Chiang Mai, finished my studies, then told my mum I wanted to go travelling to learn about the world. But it was hard. I had a lot of student debt. My mum’s boyfriend had died and we’d lost our house. There was no money.

The only way I could get anywhere was to hitchhike, sleep rough and busk. So that’s what I did. My saxophone took me around Southeast Asia, through China then on to Osaka, in Japan. I stayed in Japan for three months, sleeping in the railway station and playing music.

I felt my only choice in life was to be a good musician. For two years I lived this way. I went to Malaysia and Singapore and ended up in Koh Samui (in southern Thailand) gigging in hotels.

Pharadon’s jazz club North Gate Jazz Co-Op was an immediate success upon opening 15 years ago. Photo: Thomas Bird
Pharadon’s jazz club North Gate Jazz Co-Op was an immediate success upon opening 15 years ago. Photo: Thomas Bird

I was 26 years old and busking in Chiang Mai when I met a wonderful guy from West Virginia, in the US, called Russell Imbac, who had a stall at the Sunday market selling jazz CDs. He was selling really weird stuff, avant-garde and free jazz. I knew he was a serious jazz lover right away.

He burned me a CD and asked me to listen to it so I’d be able to learn some new material. We talked about the fact that there was nowhere to play real jazz in the city at that time and so we rented an old shophouse opposite the Chang Phuak Gate (the location of the city’s most famous night market) and the crumbling wall of the moated Old City.

The North Gate Jazz Co-Op was immediately successful but that didn’t mean we made any money. I slept upstairs in the bar for the first few years. We were really bad at accounting and managing. We didn’t know you had to count bottles.

That caused some problems and Russell eventually left. But the venue has survived and has now been at the same location for 15 years.

We showcase local musicians and get jazz players from all over the world dropping by to jam.

A French friend called Vincent asked me to play at a jazz festival in France in June 2009. I agreed to go, even though I had no money for a plane ticket. As I thought about how to get there, I had an idea to see how far my saxophone could take me.

To hitchhike, busk and travel to Beijing, hop on the Trans Siberian, then travel by bus and train across Europe. So, on the last Sunday of April, I set off on a trip that took me 66 days and led me all the way to Paris to perform.

I published a book about it, Blowing West, two years later, which was translated into English by my good friend Paul Sugars. It was even translated into Korean.

Paying it forward

Over the past few years, I’ve been involved in social work. We do things like canal cleaning, planting trees and urban reforestation.

I do this because, when I was young, I had a dream and a lot of strangers helped me out. They gave me somewhere to stay or perform. For a poor kid from behind the market, to be able to play music and travel the world, well this was a big thing.

So we want to keep hope alive. And music is great for that, as we can use it to raise funds for environmental campaigns or simply to bring people together for a good cause. That’s also why I don’t charge an entrance fee at my jazz club.

When I was younger, getting into a jazz club was so expensive. Here in Chiang Mai, you can just come in and listen to music and then go home after a great night. Then, the next day you’ll have more energy to work and follow your dreams.

Songthaew are a symbol of Chiang Mai, and aboard one is where Pharadon became inspired to learn the saxophone. Photo: Shutterstock

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