Phleng Phuea Chiwit: Music for Life
Have you ever listened to a song that transports you to a certain place and time, bringing you great comfort like an old friend? That is the power of Phleng Phuea Chiwit (เพลงเพื่อชีวิต), or Music for Life, a genre of modern Thai music that emerged around 1976 and has become an icon of its era. With its motivational themes, Phleng Phuea Chiwit is known for its encouraging messages that inspire people to overcome challenges, especially during difficult times. This article will explore Phleng Phuea Chiwit and its impact on Thai music today.
What is Phleng Phuea Chiwit?
Phleng Phuea Chiwit is a genre of Thai music that focuses on addressing social issues and uplifting the human spirit. The name “Phleng Phuea Chiwit” comes from three words: 1. “phleng” (เพลง), meaning “music”; 2. “phuea” (เพื่อ), meaning “for”; and 3. “chiwit” (ชีวิต), meaning “life”. Thus, the name “Phleng Phuea Chiwit” means “Music for Life”. In terms of musicality, Phleng Phuea Chiwit employs raw vocals that incorporate Thai folksongs with Western musical styles. Examples of popular instruments used for the genre are guitar, bass, drum, musical keyboard, and even Thai traditional instruments such as saw u (a bowed string instrument) and phin (a type of lute).
In terms of lyrics and artistic goal, Phleng Phuea Chiwit emphasizes the aspiration to see positive changes in society. The essence of Phleng Phuea Chiwit lies in its focus on depicting the experiences of working-class people, capturing the shared frustrations and sorrows amidst social challenges and economic hardship. Thus, Phleng Phuea Chiwit has become a beloved companion to the Thai people throughout the years, serving as both a source of hope and a means of expressing views against social injustice.
Nath Thavornbutr, a well-respected composer, categorized Thai songs during 1937-1947 (the emerging age of Modern Thai Music) into three genres based on their lyrics and messages: 1. Nationalistic Music, 2. Romantic Music, 3. Phleng Chiwit (Music about Life). Originally, Phleng Chiwit were songs that portray details in the lives of people from various professions through simple but touching lyrics. Some song may reflect social conditions and include political satire, though it was a requirement. Beginning around 1947, Phleng Chiwit began to take on a more political note, addressing public issues and presenting satires om society. The genre would serve as the precursor to Phleng Phuea Chiwit and Phleng Luk Thung (Thai Country Music). The popularity of Phleng Chiwit died down in 1957.
In 1973, Thai folk-rock bands Caravan, Carabao, and Maleehuana used music as a form of activism during the democracy movement. They incorporated Western musical styles such as rock and acoustic into their songs, having artists like Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, and Simon & Garfunkel as the inspiring figures for the genre during that time. It was during this age that social songs in Thailand emerged in popularity as “Phleng Phuea Chiwit”. Unlike Phleng Chiwit, which focuses on discussing the social conditions and hardships of people from different professions, Phleng Phuea Chiwit also focuses on uplifting the people’s spirit in order to strive against all odds. Thus, it was named “Music for Life” to emphasize its purpose “for the better life of the people.” The term “phuea chiwit” (เพื่อชีวิต) can also be seen as a reference to a type of literature known as “Silapa /Wannagum Puea Chiwit,” (ศิลปะ/วรรณกรรมเพื่อชีวิต) meaning “Art/ Literature for Life”.
- Sayun Namthip
As a conservationist who believes in the significance of environmental preservation, Sayun expressed his commitment through his song “Sin Siang Puen (The Last Shot),” which was written by Seub Nakasathien, a dedicated environmental activist and Sayun’s co-worker. Sueb later committed suicide in 1990 to call out the animal hunting and deforestation problems in Thailand. In 1998, Sayun later picked up the written lyrics and produced them into a song. It was one of the famous pieces in the Songs for the Forest album. Today, the song remains a legacy of Sueb’s unwavering dedication to nature and is still well-remembered.
“Sin Siang Puen” by Sayun Namthip
- Jaran Manopet
Jaran Manopet or the King of Kam Mueang Folk Song (Kam Mueang means Northern Thailand language) was well known for his unique musical styles that integrated Lanna folksongs into Western musical instruments. “Dae Num Sao Pu Rao Rarn (Dear Broken Girls and Boys)” was one of Jaran’s most popular songs that reflects how underprivileged young adults during his time were struggling with social pressures, whether it is their studies that they have to pursue or a stable job they have to fight hard for. Featured with the soulful sound of acoustic guitar and Jaran’s soothing voice, the song offers comfort to those young adults to persevere through difficult times.
“Dae Num Sao Pu Rao Rarn” by Jaran Manopet
Caravan is a folk-rock band that is regarded as one of the most influential icons of the genre. The band is known for its inspirational songs for the democracy movement that sympathizes with the struggle of the working-class people. The band was founded by student activists, Surachai Jantimathawan (Nga Caravan) as the vocalist, Wirasak Sunthornsii (guitarist), and later joined by Mongkhon Uthok and Thongkran Thana. Their music is known for the incorporation of guitar, and traditional instruments like phin and wote (a panpipe-like instrument from Northeastern Thailand).
Caravan is known for its revolutionary songs that inspire listeners to stand up for their rights. For example, “Khon Kap Khwai (Man and Buffalo)” calls for justice on behalf of Thai farmers. It became a hit song and was widely popular among the Northeastern Thailand, where hard-working farmers can relate to the message of the lyrics. Caravan has also covered classic hits. For example, they recreated “Duean Pen (Full Moon)” which was originally written by activist Asanee Poljantra, also known as Nai Phi (Mr. Ghost) when he was living abroad. The song expresses a nostalgic feeling of being away from home.
“Khon Kap Khwai” by Nga Caravan
Nowadays, Caravan remains an icon of the genre. The new generation of Phleng Phuea Chiwit artists regards the band as their inspiration for not only music but also guidance for life. They incorporate styles and thematic messages of Caravan’s legendary music, upholding the spirit of the genre that speaks up for the people.
“Duean Pen” by Caravan
Maleehuana derived their name from “Marijuana.” For the band, cannabis is used as a symbol of freedom. The band consists of four members who gathered to create music inspired by the desire to free themselves from rules and societal expectations. Many of Maleehuanna’s songs are well-regarded within the industry. One of their most popular songs, “Lhom Phae Lhom Pad (The Blowing Wind)”, depicts the otherness experienced by a man who is poor and cannot afford to dress nicely or have a proper haircut.
“Lhom Phae Lhom” Pad by Maleehuana
Founded by three Thai students in the Philippines, “Carabao” in Tagalog means “Buffalo”, symbolizing laborers and agricultural workers. Carabao’s songs offer a deep dive into various social problems while shedding a light on underappreciated people. “Yai Gu Za (My Grandma is Fierce)” is one of their most famous songs. It speaks on the struggling experience of small-scale farmers. Many of them are elderly, who could be losing their livelihoods and their jobs due to dam construction projects.
“Yai Gu Za” by Carabao
Verses from many of Carabao’s songs can be widely recognized by many Thai people. For example, “Bua Loy” is a song about a man who has lost his kind-hearted best friend named Bua Loy. Even though the lyrics may be sad, this epic musical homage is energetic and addictive. With a fast-paced rhythm and raw electronic guitar, Bua Loy’s performance would fill the crowd with exciting energy that makes the audiences shake their heads and cheer along. Bua Loy is a very popular song and it was once used as background music in a volleyball match between South Korea and Italy in 2020 to energize and motivate the players as well as the spectators.
“Bua Loy” by Carabao
- Pongsit Kamphee
Growing up in the countryside, Pongsit Khampee moved to the capital to study and pursue his dreams. Pongsit later felt that life in the civilized city was nothing but competitiveness and inequality. Pongsit expressed this in his song “Rearn Lae Ngarn (Study and Work),” which tells the problem of inequality in Thai education that results in a high rate of unemployment among new graduates.
“Rearn Lae Ngarn” by Pongsit Khampee
“Jai Gern Roy (More than 100)” is another famous song by Pongsit Khampee. With inspiring lyrics, the song serves as a companion to help listeners navigate their feelings through difficult times, encouraging them to keep moving forward despite the challenges they may face.
“Jai Gern Roy“ by Pongsit Khampee
Comparison with other Styles of Music
Music is as universal as everyday struggles and social injustices. It is no surprise, then, that each culture has found ways to address these issues to music. In keeping with this theme, Phleng Phuea Chiwit can be seen as Thailand’s approach to address social problems through lyrics and melodies. By comparing the genre with similar music styles from other cultures, one can see Phleng Pheua Chiwit as a part of the shared human experience in yearning for change.
As mentioned earlier, Phuea Chiwit singers were inspired by Western artists such as Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, and Simon & Garfunkel. Likewise, the 1960s were a global phenomenon that was saturated with the free spirit of civil rights and anti-war sentiments, including a desire for change in society. Many Western artists have also contributed their music to these movements, making these types of songs known as “Protest Song.”
Despite sharing similarities in their purpose of addressing social issues, protest songs may differ in styles such as storytelling techniques, origins, and instruments used. There are also other genres that share similarities to Phuea Chiwit music, including:
With relaxing and slow tempo, reggae music is known for its positive and uplifting themes. But despite the chill vibe and happy rhythms, the story behind Reggae was filled with the ongoing struggles of working-class communities in Jamaica who were facing poverty and racial discrimination. Bob Marley’s “War”, for example, is a song that yearns for social equality and liberation amidst the colonial influences that were plaguing Jamaica during that time. In this song, Marley suggests that there should be no race that is superior and another that is inferior.
Amidst the chaos and unrest, reggae music brings calmness. And with such peace and love, the songs became a means of unification and were used as a form of protest, advocating for civil rights and social justice. Until today, Marley remains a revered figure in music, guiding people through his spiritual melodies. Although Marley’s active years were almost 50 years ago, his music lives on to tell the tale and inspire many more artists.
- Hip-hop/ Rap
Before stepping onto the world stage like today, hip-hop began in urban, predominantly black communities where poverty and violence were a part of everyday life. Bounded by these difficulties, hip-hop became a platform that allowed the neighborhood to express their hopes, dreams, and frustrations while critically examining the challenges they faced. Rap, regarded as one of the main pillars of hip-hop, became a way to convey stories of hardships in underprivileged communities though powerful and thought-provoking lyrics.
Many hip-hop artists had significantly contributed to this music genre as a form of protest against social injustice, such as Public Enemy, Tupac, Queen Latifah, and others. One example of such artists in our time is Kendrick Lamar. His song “Alright” becomes a protest anthem used in a movement against discriminatory practices against black people while empowering black individuals to acknowledge their rights and remain hopeful despite struggles. Today, Kendrick Lamar is honored as a generational icon for his culturally impactful contributions to the hip-hop music industry.
- American Folk Music
Another example of a genre that can be compared to Phleng Phuea Chiwit is American Folk music. The genre was known for simply arranged melodies from traditional instruments such as the acoustic guitar and harmonica, but its music was notable for the rich social commentary that documented multiple significant movements, while at the same time, advocating for a positive change in society. Like Phleng Phuea Chiwit, folk music often incorporates elements from other styles of music, such as blues, rock, country, and gospel. Many contemporary folk songs also include modern lyrical writing techniques like metaphor, alliteration, etc., which helped add heartfelt depth to the songs.
One of the greatest American contemporary folk music artists of all time is Bob Dylan. His song “Only A Pawn In Their Game” was performed at a protest for the civil rights movement in the United States. While the 1960s were often described as America’s darkest times with rising problems of poverty, political tension, and unrest, Dylan’s music was inspiring and filled with hope.
The Legacy Today
Today, the genre continues to influence modern Thai music. Many of its prominent artists have become highly-regarded role models for the generations after. The all-time classic bands and singers have earned immense respect for their musicality as their legendary songs continue to shape the music industry.
Just like their pioneers, many new artists mix their styles with other genres such as pop, rock, soul, country, and hip-hop, presenting themes that revolve around different aspects of people’s lives and showcasing empathy and compassion for the struggling. Some of the popular Phuea Chiwit artists and artists who draw inspiration from Phuea Chiwit Music today include:
Vaivit is one of the new generation artists who grew up listening to Carabao’s music. He aims to create inspiring songs that continue the legacy of his idol and address social issues in Thai society as well as inspire his listeners. For example, Vaivit leaves a powerful message in his song “Kradat Kham Top (Answer Sheet)” to comfort those who might be struggling to find their purpose in life, just like looking at the blank answer paper during a test.
“Kradat Kham Top” by Vaivit
Formed of three inspiring students, YENA is a band set to produce music that aims to portray various aspects of life. For example, the song “Kaeng Tai Pla (Fish Soup)” tells a story of a soldier who is obliged to do his duty and gain ranks for the better life of his family. It also has a simple line that says how the soldier will gain rank so he can get his mother fish soup, a seemingly mundane dish but can be less affordable for underprivileged people.
“Kaeng Tai Pla” by YENA
Known for its incorporation of Latin rock and Phuea Chi Wit elements that address the social issues in everyday life, TaitosmitH’s upbeat music is fresh and reminiscent of Carabao’s music. One of the songs that made the band well-known is “Bang Khai Thua (The Nut Seller)”. The song sympathizes with the challenges of immigrant workers who have moved to Thailand in search of better job opportunities.
“Bang Khai Thua” by TaitosmitH
HERO is a rapper and songwriter who often addresses social issues with straightforward and provoking language. Though a hip-hop artist by trade, his style draws heavy inspiration from Puea Chiwit, using the power of art as a voice for underappreciated and marginalized communities. One of his inspiring songs is “Sawasdee Wan Chan (Alarms)” featuring Phuea Chiwit star Pongsit Khampee. The song begins with the sound of an alarm that may exhaust those who hear it. However, the uplifting lyrics of F. HERO and Pongsit encourage listeners to persevere and stay strong, inspiring them to keep going despite any obstacles.
“Sawasdee Wan Chan” by F. HERO feat. Pongsit Khampee
Bodyslam is one of the most famous contemporary rock bands. The band first gained popularity among Thai teenagers by addressing the experiences of youths, such as having your heart broken or being in a toxic relationship. They made a huge move on the Phuea Chiwit scene when one of their most famous songs, “Kwam Chuea (Belief)”, featured Aed, the lead singer of the band Carabao, blending Popular Rock with the soulful vocalization of Phuea Chiwit. The song became a hit with its inspiring lyrics, leaving a message to the listeners, “In life, we must chase our dreams, no matter how many times we stumble and fall.”
“Kwam Chuea” by Bodyslam feat. Aed Carabao
The Spark of Compassion and Respect
Phleng Phuea Chiwit is a genre of music that welcomes every walk of life, whether laborers, farmers, students, and many more. From one’s dedication to nature and the untold stories of the underappreciated groups, Phleng Phuea Chiwit is a song that sings for its people and fellow beings. No matter who you are, regardless of your background or occupation, the song treats you with respect as a companion that will uplift your spirit through thick and thin. It challenges injustice and encourages you to not be afraid to stand up for yourself.
And these are the three traits of openness, respect, and compassion that have been close to the hearts of the Thai people. Phleng Phuea Chiwit resonates with their unique characters that embrace diverse music incorporation. And most importantly, it delivers uplifting messages that illustrate how Thais respect fellow human beings and are compassionate for marginalized groups, guiding them to remain bright and hopeful despite hardships.
The story of “Phleng Phuea Chiwit” is a truly inspiring facet of Thai culture and heritage. The story Phleng Phuea Chiwit brings to light the values of respect, compassion, and openness that are central to the characteristics of Thainess. Respect is represented through respect for fellow human beings. Compassion is represented through empathy towards those who are struggling or are facing injustices. Openness in represented through openness to accept marginalized groups, as well as the artistic openness that allowed for the genre to grow through the musical fusion of East and West. Join us in exploring more stories of Thailand and the Thai people, as we take you on a journey to discover Thainess.
Author: Pranaiya Panthanuwong
Editor: Tayud Mongkolrat
5 June 2023