My Pen No Wri-
I got along
just fine till a Filipino musician buddy let me know that Nit doesn't
and Thai people are as different as Big Apples and nauseatingly-delicious
Thai durian fruit. New Yorkers' seem to be loud, aggressive, fast-talking,
grasping. They're Woody Allen-ish, often neurotic and often in therapy.
They live in a concrete jungle, they're confrontational, not afraid
to losing face and think everything is a problem. They rarely smile.
Thai people are soft-spoken, laid-back Buddhists who don't even
know what a psychiatrist is. They live in a jungle paradise and
rarely show anger, They think nothing is a problem and "mai
pen rai " (Thai for "no problem") is heard so often
it's like a national slogan. They smile so often, Thailand is known
as The Land of Smiles.
If there's a hint of
truth to these stereotypes, the question is: can New York musician Hy
Lyfe live in harmony with the people of Thailand? New Yorkers need cha
cha lessons. First I was up against the simple obstacles of speech. Thai
people speak "cha cha," which means slowly in Thai. As a New
Yorker, I've never learned the steps for the cha cha. My tongue does The
Locomotion, The Twist, The Hustle and when the mood strikes, Slam Dancing.
This created a problem with Nit Pik, the slow-moving proprietor of my
bungalow in Karon Beach, Phuket. Nit's command of English was as nitnoy
(small) as Nit. She'd be slowly ironing clothes when I'd greet her.
"Hi, Nit, how are you?"
"Good, Hy Lyfe, and you?"
"Fifty-fifty. Lot's of nice people in the piano bar last night. But
the bar manager, Khun Wangloopan, told me, 'don't sing so much! You not
Elton Joel. You not Billy John. People don't come the lobby lounge just
to see Mr. Hy Lyfe. They come to talk, to read newspaper, to relax. So
remember, don't play too loud. Don't dress too loud. Don't get too excited.
Try to blend in with wallpaper and everything be all right."
"Another thing, Nit. Somebody broke the mirrors on my motorbike;
I think a lady friend. Anyway Nit, could you please bring me three coffees?"
Tight-lipped Nit would keep ironing clothes very cha cha, and three years
later the java would arrive. I'd guzzle it down while having a conversation
with a bird in a cage who had a much better command of English than Nit.
I thought Nit and I got along just fine till a Filipino musician buddy
let me know that Nit doesn't like me.
"How come?" I asked amazed.
"She says you talk too much and too fast."
"Bummer! Just been trying to be friendly."
"Yeah Hy, but English is not Nit's native language. Thai people go
one-two-cha-cha-cha You? You're like doin' La Cucaracha. You get Nit confused
and frustrated. She thinks you're crazy, Hy. This ain't New York, New
York. Big Apples don't grow here." That was my language lesson.
Next, I land a gig as the token farang (Western) guitarist and singer
with a band at "The Tin Mine" in Patong Beach, Phuket. The band
leader was the popular, diminutive, long-haired Boon Kurt. Kurt was cool.
This native of Bangkok, had been performing in Phuket for nine years and
was accustomed to being around falangs. He was fluent in English and unlike
the vast majority of Thais, Kurt was so hyper you'd think he grew up in
Brooklyn and put amphetamines in his coffee. We got along great. The rest
of the boys in the band spoke minimal English. They smiled a lot and nodded
their heads, even when they had no idea what I was talking about.
But Et, the keyboard player never smiled at me. He knew I was a mediocre
guitarist, but an ace on the keyboard, and perhaps Et was threatened by
One night, Kurt broke a guitar string, so to fill in the gap, he let the
Thai guys take a break band and had me play keyboard and sing. Problem
is, I never had a chance to learn the sound settings on Et's keyboard.
On this night, in front of a huge audience, I hit a keyboard button, hoping
to pad the chorus with a lush layer of strings. What blasted from the
speakers was the roar of a helicopter. Perfect for Pink Floyd's "Another
Brick in the Wall." But not so wonderful for Eric Clapton's "Wonderful
Tonight." So at rehearsal the next day, I asked Kurt to ask Et to
show me the sound settings. Stone-faced Et reluctantly agreed.
"Where's the string settings?" I asked.
He pointed to a button and I pressed it. Horns blared.
"No, not horns"! I yelped." Strings!"
Et's stone face turned stonier.
"Please Et, can you show me the string settings?" I asked, running
my fingers over 128 buttons.
I fiddled around while Et peered over my shoulder. Then he said: "No
"Fine," I said, pulling a pen from my pocket. "I think
I found it. Just let me write down the setting numbers. One second!"
"No!" I put pen to paper but no inkling of ink. "Anybody
have a pen?" I yelled.
"Art, we have to get back to rehearsing," said Kurt.
"Damn!" I flung the pen against the padded disco door. This
hardly made a sound. But it was an explosive gesture. In high-stress New
York City, it's okay to vent anger at inanimate objects, maybe even healthy.
But, in Phuket, not cool.
I can see Et in New York now: How would he handle it?
"Oh, there's no subway to The Bronx because of a power outage?
There's rioting in the streets? Mai pen rai. No ploblem."
"You want my gold chain and wallet? You want to tie me up and watch
you rape my wife? Mai pen rai. Khrop khun khrap. Have a nice day."
Yes, throwing the pen at the door was bad, bad, bad! Stupid "farang,"
Et must have thought. He simply unplugged his keyboard and carried it
over to the bar.
I got the message.
Boon Kurt tied to mediate. After an exchange in Thai, Boon said: "Art,
you better not touch Et's keyboard anymore."
"Kurt, what's the problem?" I asked. "Throwing the pen?
It had nothing to do with Et. The pen didn't write, that's all. It was
"I know, Art. I understand farangs. Et doesn't. Mai pen rai. Just
This is absurd, I thought. What to do? I left the Tin Mine, found a stationery
store and bought ten ball point pens. Then I headed back to the disco
and gave pens to all six members of the band.
Et was standing guardedly behind the keyboard. I gave him two pens.
"Et," I said. Kaw toat. (I'm sorry.) No problem with you.
It was just that: my pen no wri-" He never spoke to me again.
© Hy Lyfe September 2002 : In addition to being a writer, over a
7 year period I've performed in piano bars from Norway to Spain, was a
guitarist with a Thai rock band in Phuket, Thailand, and bizarre as it
may sound, I was the lead singer with The Hanoi Swing Band in Vietnam.
Hy Lyfe publishing history: The Phuket Gazette Phuket, Thailand
The Sundsvall Tidning,Sundsvall, Sweden
ASCAP composer. Self-penned CD, 'My Train of Thought.'
Award winning advertising writer and jingle composer
(J. Walter Thompson ad agency: Burger King
BMG Music: KRS-One and Kool Moe Dee radio spots)
Author of ' Keys to the Highway' music / travel book
(at present, unpublished and seeking an agent).
More Travel in
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