Mourning three legends

Theppabutr Satirodchompu, Johnny Clegg and Art Neville all died recently

Theppabutr Satirodchompu. Photo: John Clewley

Three legends died recently, each one of whom made important and distinctive contributions to their own musical cultures -- molam producer and impresario Theppabutr Satirodchompu, South African musician and bandleader Johnny Clegg, and New Orleans songwriter, pianist and bandleader Art Neville.

Theppabutr is credited as one of the key producers of molam music in the 60s and 70s. Born in 1943, he took up the bass guitar when he was 16, learning from one of the region's first Western combo, the Sarakham Combo Band (at that time, Western style bands were known as "wong Shadow", after the UK band, The Shadows). With the growing involvement of the US military in the Vietnam War, US bases opened in the Northeast; US GIs brought their rock'n'roll and rock music and savvy youngsters like Theppabutr picked up on the music. Indeed, his first band was a cover band, Theppabutr Shadow, which he formed in 1965.

This band quickly became popular in Isan but Theppabutr wanted to exert greater influence so he started work as a radio DJ, again quickly becoming popular. Radio work led to a chance to produce music shows for TV -- his first live show, Mahun Nakornchai, was the first live TV show on molam music. Despite all this activity, he still found time to form one of the most influential bands ever to emerge from Isan: the Rang Si Mun Band. Top singers such as Thongkham Pengdee, Chaweewan Damnoen, Chanpen Sirithep and drummer Saksiam Petchchompoo featured in his line-up.

He took the band to Bangkok for a first recording session, with Siang Siam, releases his efforts on the iconic Double Chicken Number 39 label. And he was still only in his 20s.

He returned to Isan to set up his own recording studio, Siam Studio in Maha Sarakham so that he would not have to go to Bangkok to record his music. And he also set up a network of offices -- Theppabutr's Office for the Promotion of Molam -- across the region to recruit and promote molam music and musicians. By 1972 he had formed some 200 bands, including popular ones like the Ubon Pattana Band with vocalists Angkanang Khunchai and Sombut Chimla, Sit Rang Si Mun Band with Chaweewan Dumnern, Kwanjai Jakkawan Band, Petch Siam Band, Sor Visadsin Band, Isan Lam Plearn Band, Petch Burapa Band with Thonghuad Faithed and Supaap Daoduangden and the Thep Rangsan Band.

But it was not just modern molam that interested Theppabutr, he was keen to compete with pleng luk thung bands from Bangkok and the Central region (luk thung pak glang), so while he was in jail on trumped up charges he wrote songs that combined elements of the Isan singing styles with pleng luk thung, becoming one of the first, along with legends like songwriter Surin Paksiri, to write what would be called, luk thung Isan. He spotted the singing potential of drummer Saksiam and he promoted him to singer, thereby creating the first big luk thung Isan star (a tradition that runs right up to the present day in the music of the biggest Isan star, Tai Oratai).

There's much more to this story, such as his relationship with singer Banyen Rakkan, who became his wife and the biggest molam star in the mid-1970s, his years in Australia and his return. But those issues can wait for biographers to investigate; for now, we have the music he produced, the stars and bands he created. You can get an idea of his creative work on the Zudrangma label's definitive collection, Theppabutr Productions: The Man Behind the Molam Sound 1972-75. Essential listening.

I met Johnny Clegg in a Tokyo hotel back in the early 1990s when he was on one of his first world tours. It was a fascinating interview-- the apartheid regime was in its last days -- full of hope but he was realistic enough to understand that it would take time for wounds to heal and for a new South Africa to emerge.

Although born in Manchester, England, he grew up in Zimbabwe and South Africa. He adapted his early guitar skills to Zulu music, learning from local guitarists. More than 40 years ago, he set up, with Sipho Mchunu, Juluka, which means "sweat". The band was mixed, black and white, and much of their music was banned from the airwaves, which naturally made them even more popular. In 1987, he wrote perhaps his most famous song, Asimbonanga. He said the word meant "We have not seen him" and was about the then-imprisoned Nelson Mandela. He said that the government had banned using Mandela's name, so he used Asimbonanga instead. Look on YouTube for the video in which Clegg sings the song and is -- to his great surprise -- joined on stage by the great man himself.

Clegg was considered a symbol of a new democratic South Africa.

Sadly, another Neville brother has gone to the great Big Easy in the sky: Art Neville. I sometimes play at my DJ nights his first really big hit: Mardi Gras Mambo, which he released with his first band, the Hawkettes in 1954. This song is part of the repertoire of every Mardi Gras in New Orleans. In the early 60s, he formed a seminal funk band, The Meters, who were also the house band for producer Allen Toussaint, backing many stars and their soul-style hits.

In 1977, he formed, with his brothers, Cyril, Aaron and Charles, the legendary Neville Brothers (easily one of the best live bands I have ever had the privilege of seeing) and the band released a series of best-selling albums, including the seminal Yellow Moon in 1988. A brilliant keyboardist (piano, electric organ etc.) and songwriter, he joins his brother Charles in the pantheon of the music gods. He will be greatly missed.


John Clewley can be contacted at clewley.john@gmail.com.