DJ Orawan is leading Bangkok’s drum’n’bass awakening

Red lasers cut between the tiny upstairs club’s black walls, illuminating a crowd that jostles for a view of the two figures stepping up to the decks. The floor is sticky with beer spilt during the last deep-roller set; the air dense with humidity and cigarette smoke. Bringing the mic to her mauve-painted lips is Gene Kasidit – a transgender singer who’s legendary in Bangkok’s thriving queer scene, and Thai music royalty thanks to her success heading up electro-pop band Futon.

Kasidit wears a silk leopard-print robe, rockabilly sunglasses and an indescribable headpiece of geometric plastic diamonds. By her side on the Pioneer turntables is a petite figure in black headphones and a chunky silver necklace that bears the word ‘BassClef’. Kasidit, as well as the crowd of around 150 – half Thai, half western expats – have come to electronic music venue Safe Room to worship heavy basslines at Bangkok’s only regular drum and bass rave. And none would be here without this DJ.

Orawan Suppasupphawat, founder of BassClef, spins a backing track as Kasidit premiers two drum ‘n’ bass songs – her first toe-dip into the genre. Then the lights dim as DJ Orawan launches into a high-energy headline set, switching gracefully between jump up crowd-pleasers like Macky Gee’s ‘Tour’, and the dirty basslines of Chase & Status’ ‘Program’ and Break’s ‘Keepin it Raw’.

Thailand has dabbled in drum ‘n’ bass since jungle was first played at 90s Full Moon parties on Ko Pha-ngan. Yet it’s rarely broken out of the Western tourist scene into local club culture, which favours K pop and EDM. “I heard jungle for the first time at a Full Moon party in 1999, when I was 19,” says the now-40-year-old Orawan. “I fell in love with it. The beat was different to a 4/4 beat, you didn’t know how to dance to it but you could still groove along.”

Back in Bangkok, Orawan started digging into the UK drum ‘n’ bass scene via burnt CDs sold from bootleg record stores on backpacker stretch Khao San road. The tourist district was the only place she could find records by Fabio & GrooveriderLTJ Bukem and Goldie, who became her introduction to the sound. But it was in New Zealand, where she moved a couple of years later to study audio engineering, that Orawan taught herself to mix and found her niche in the bass music scene.

Orawan built her reputation with a monthly residency at Auckland’s Fu Bar, while also returning to Bangkok every year where she was booked by Dubway Sessions, one of Bangkok’s first drum ‘n’ bass promoters. These nights, which started in 2008, were the brainchild of DJ Dragon – one of the first Thai DJs to play the genre, and who is on the bill at tonight’s BassClef show.

After 14 years deep in the Auckland scene, Orawan arrived back in Bangkok as it was on the cusp of its first drum ‘n’ bass movement. She took a job as head of marketing for Bed Supperclub, where British promoter Dave Milligan ran parties each Thursday night. Over six years he booked international acts like Diplo and Fatboy Slim, plus the likes of DJ Hype and Marky. Orawan would spin supporting sets for the drum ‘n’ bass acts, until the club shut down in 2015.

By this time, she’d also been part of monthly drum ‘n’ bass night Phatfunk with Jeremy Guessoum and Ashley Williams – DJs who bring dark, deep rollers to tonight’s line-up, too – and BassClef, which she started in 2013 to represent all bass-driven music. It’s one of a kind in a city whose nightlife leaps straight from streetside bars to the commercial sheen of mainstream clubs.

“It’s easy to find EDM, house, hip hop and generic pop on a night out in Bangkok,” says BassClef regular Craig Coppack, a Brit who now lives in Thailand. He sips a Singha and tells me how a slower pace drew him to Thailand, but the drum ‘n’ bass family kept him there. “What you struggle to find here is deep, dirty basslines, especially from artists like Sub Zero, Benny Page, LTJ Bukem, Fabio & Grooverider and Shabba D & Skibadee.”

Orawan has managed to attract each of these names through word of mouth. While the scene’s not established enough to pay them the fees they’d expect from UK shows, the DJs come here for the welcome from Bangkok’s bassheads, and to play across Southeast Asia: Orawan works with Asian promoters Defused Mood in Hanoi, and Unchained in Shenzhen, making a compact regional tour.

In Bangkok’s earliest bass-heavy days, Bed Supperclub’s drum ‘n’ bass sessions exposed the UK sound to a new generation of bass-hungry Thai ravers – one of whom was a quiet, indie kid called Wongsakorn Tharonnitiwong, who now goes by his DJ name Black Rain. Orawan remembers seeing him at the front row of every one of her shows. She took him under her wing – he calls her ‘mum’ – and now employs him at both BassClef and W Bangkok, where she works as music curator.

“I would go to the club with a fake Korean passport when I was 16,” reveals the now-25-year old Black Rain, soft-spoken behind Clark Kent-style glasses and dressed all in black. “I’m the youngest DJ in BassClef and I can see the scene picking up. People take notice of the big names, we just need more consistency from Thai DJs in between.” Black Rain is helping to provide that, tonight laying down an intelligent set back-to-back with Instinct (Phatfunk’s own Ashley Williams) that weaves between dark neurofunk and upbeat classics.

All agree that until Milligan’s nights ended five years ago, Bangkok’s underground bass scene was mostly driven by expats. Drum ‘n’ bass never features on Thai radio and Netsky reportedly lost the crowd at last year’s Songkran festival, in Bangkok, by playing a drum ‘n’ bass track. But over the past two years (after taking a break from music while having her son, now five years old) Orawan’s relentless promotion of her event and local DJs has created a cultural shift.

Thai regulars make up the front line of the dancefloor, gun fingers jabbing over the decks, skanking in chunky trainers and miniskirts. The dance is easily 50 per cent female – something that’s less common in London, where male-heavy moshpits take over the heavier jump-up nights.

“More Thai people are starting to know drum ‘n’ bass because of Orawan, always promoting it on Facebook and Instagram,” says Tanat Laonooncha, her kohl-rimmed eyes expressive from behind a mint-green surgical mask (we’re raving in the early stages of fears about coronavirus, and tonight turns out to be the final party before a four month break for lockdown). “I don’t see many Thai boys at drum ‘n’ bass shows, but there are always lots of Thai girls. They come with foreigner boyfriends and then they like it. I discovered it through my friend from the Czech Republic.”

One of Bangkok’s few dubstep promoters, a Bangkok native of Gujurati descent, discovered the genre at a SubDub night while at university in Leeds. “Everything I thought about music changed that night,” 23-year-old Kishan Vedia remembers. “I was like Jesus, I didn’t even know music could go that loud.” He now runs the monthly Oriental Sub Sessions, expanding Bangkok’s bass-driven offerings to dubstep in a parallel attempt to bring more Thai locals to the scene.

“It’s hard to push music if you don’t have local talent,” he says. “And we don’t have the precedent of rave culture. But I am starting to see more Thai people at drum ‘n’ bass nights, and even more so reggae, as they recently legalised medical marijuana here and it’s impacting the mindset towards reggae culture. From there we can start to build the scene to dub, then to dubstep.”

Orawan plans to appeal to the younger generation by playing the long game. She’ll keep booking international acts when she gets the opportunity, and bigging up the local community in between – whether that’s via up-and-coming musical talent, charities (this night raises almost 30,000 baht for local organisation Sirisaro), or her cousin Nud – BassClef’s own accountant, doorman and sound engineer.

“If more locals have a chance to come and experience the vibe, we can get them hooked,” Orawan smiles. By the looks of tonight, her plan is starting to work.

BassClef was recently back in action post-lockdown with the Disinfected party, follow BassClef on Facebook

The Telegraph

Trundling through Europe on the overnight jazz train to Berlin

Deep in the Dutch countryside, the vintage train trundles past windmill-dotted hay fields and canals stacked with state-of-the-art houseboats. Cyclists stop to watch as the burgundy carriages roll between level crossings, slow enough for the lilting sound of a saxophone solo to lazily drift through the open windows and into the late-June breeze. On board, the Ntjam Rosie Quartet croons out soulful RnB, while a packed-together audience sips on two-euro beers and sways to the rhythm of steel tyres and bongos, languid in the golden-hour heat.

Having departed Rotterdam at sunset, the first Jazz Night Express is in full swing. Travelling overnight to Berlin via Amsterdam, it hosts an eclectic lineup of jazz acts to play back-to-back en route. Engineer and rail travel enthusiast Chris Engelsman is the idea, which took two years to plan and incorporates sleeper cars, two live music carriages, an area for book readings and talks, and a restaurant. Hiring out a rickety, 1980s train to reinvent the magic of old-school travel, Engelsman calls it a ‘jazz festival with a night train message’. In partnership with Rotterdam-based jazz festival North Sea Round Town, the Express links the Dutch music capital with one of the world’s hottest jazz cities.

“The rhythm of jazz and the train goes well together,” explains Engelsman. “I’ve always loved night trains. When I was growing up, every day the Nord Express would pass my house on its way to St Petersburg. But the last night train in Holland was cancelled by 2016 because the railways were focusing on high-speed trains. It was such a pity, because there’s still a demand for them.”

If anything, that demand is increasing. Summer 2019 has been characterised by both sweltering heatwaves (one of which we’re in the midst of on the Jazz Night Express, which arrives in Berlin to the tune of 38 degrees Celcius) and flygskam, a Swedish movement meaning ‘flight shame’ that has translations in German, Dutch and Finnish. Europeans are considering the impact of their holidays on the environment – a train from London to Edinburgh produces 87% fewer CO2 emissions than a flight – and rail travel is skyrocketing as a result.

While the majority are Dutch and German, there’s a great deal of Swedish passengers on the Jazz Night Express, as well as a handful from the UK, Belgium, Portugal and Italy. In a surprisingly age-diverse mix, gaggles of friends lounge on retro-blue banquettes beside older couples and young families. With the windows down and the farmland-scented air rushing through carriages swaying to brass and percussion, our 12-hour trundle to Berlin feels like the epitome of slow travel.

Night creeps in over a Great American Songbook set by the Thijs Nissen Trio and I make my way to the retro dining car, all bright-blue curtains and varnished tables. It’s three courses for 59 euros – including wine that’s topped up whenever your back is turned – and surprisingly gourmet. The first course, under the name ‘Miles Davis’ on the menu, is a sharing platter of steak tartare, chipotle chicken and smoked salmon; the ‘New Orleans’ main course is beef bavette or asparagus and polenta tart; and the ‘Saxophone’ dessert is a pineapple pannacotta impaled by a shard of tempered dark chocolate.

The one-hour dinner slots have drastically run over. By the end of the final serving, it’s gone midnight – and the music is due to come to a close at half past. But all scheduling is thrown out the window in the party carriage, where DJ Maestro (founder of online radio station Jazz De Ville) is spinning funk, house and soul. Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the train’s stop-off cities, this crowd is here to party. Reserves of cheap beer are starting to run low as we move onto gin and tonics, dancing ever-more wildly as the train gathers speed into the early hours of the morning. Disco ball spinning, the dance floor lurches from side to side as we meander through northern Germany. We briefly pull in at Bad Bentheim and Hanover, and passengers spill onto the platform to smoke cigarettes and swing each other around in the balmy night air, before the doors slam shut and we hop aboard to visit the bar again.

When the train creaks to a halt at Berlin Zoo, at 7.30am on the dot, I’ve had three hours sleep. We drag our bags off the train and blink blearily at the bustling station. New-found friends exchange hugs and contact details as the train staff and musicians prepare for a sleepier train ride back to Rotterdam.

“We have several ideas for the future, in addition to another Jazz Night Express in July 2020,” grins Engelsman, elated from the night’s success. “We’re considering a Jazz Night Train to Copenhagen, an Oktoberfest edition to Munich, a party train to Eurovision in The Netherlands.” While the passengers are enthralled by the night train’s romanticism, the musicians loved it too – “it was up close and personal, like playing a living room set,” singer Ntjam Rosie tells me – and the first edition even caught the eye of the Dutch national rail network, who hosted an on-board talk on the future of the night train. Meanwhile, Austria’s ÖBB and the Swedish government have both announced plans to invest in night trains. Perhaps the golden years of Europe’s night trains aren’t behind us after all – and you can count on Engelsman to be at the forefront of the new movement.

The next edition of Jazz Night Express runs on 3 July from Rotterdam to Berlin. Tickets cost 159 euros one way and 189 euros return.


My First Time: Massaoke

It’s the epic, closing bars of Bohemian Rhapsody and the silver catsuit-clad guitarist is playing the final notes with his teeth. Packed to the rafters, the venue sways as the audience members, arm in arm, sing their hearts out in unison. The atmosphere nears euphoria, but that’s not Brian May up there, and this is certainly not Live Aid. We’re at Camden’s Electric Ballroom on a dreary December evening, witnessing a cover act that’s managed to draw the same level of crowd as the chart-topping acts that play this venue every other day of the week. Welcome to Massaoke

The concept was launched eight years ago when five musicians – who go by Bat, Rebel Rye, Mac Savage, McClean and El Neilio – formed a singalong covers act under the name Massaoke. “We’d all been in separate indie bands that had flirted with some kind of success,” says drummer Bat. “We did the first one of these in a pub in Russell Square the day that William and Kate got married. We gave out lyric sheets and just got people together to have a singsong.”

Karaoke increasingly takes up space in leather-boothed rooms in Soho or raucous upstairs rooms in east end pubs, while interest in cover bands also seems to be growing in London. Ten-piece brass band Old Dirty Brasstards regularly treats Londoners to renditions of classic Arctic Monkeys or Oasis albums, while the hugely popular Re:Imagine series brings orchestral versions of seminal albums to the Jazz Café and XOYO: think Dr Dre’s 2001, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill or Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. Inspired by Swedish singalong TV show Allsang, Massaoke sits somewhere between the two.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that music fans are turning to smaller versions of big-name shows when standing tickets at the O2 Arena often cost upwards of £60; the Massaoke boys tear it up for a smidgeon of the entry fee, and you’ll still get to hear all your favourite songs. You also get to join in: each song is accompanied by lyrics projected on big screens around the room, karaoke-style.

Tonight, it’s a Christmas-themed show, and it’s sometimes hard to see the stage through all the bobbing Santa hats and reindeer antlers. The energetic band blasts through a medley of Christmas favourites – by Slade, Wham! and Wizzard – before bringing out a guest female soloist to belt out a Mariah Carey tribute. We stomp our way through The Proclaimers and growl out The Pogues, before Bat swaps his drum kit for a handheld snare and plays to a downbeat cover of Little Drummer Boy. Not one person in the room isn’t singing, whether they’re in couples, groups of friends or raucous work outings. It’s rare to see a club venue like Electric Ballroom filled with such an age-diverse range of people, and the unlikely coming together of so many different groups makes the room glow with Christmas spirit.

Massaoke might be a fairly new concept, but congregating to sing together is a natural form of human expression. “Throughout history people have always passed along and borrowed songs,” Bat says. “With Motown they all swapped songs and before that you had songs called standards that everyone knew. This is a returning to something that’s always happened. Getting together in social spaces and having a sing-song is entrenched in every country in the world.”

And despite its name, Massaoke is also popular with people who aren’t into singing karaoke. “Karaoke can be negative because people can find the spotlight difficult,” says Bat. “There’s no spotlight here and people who feel like they can’t sing get the opportunity to do it. There’s no one hogging the mic and it’s about all being together. And when people all sing along it sounds really good.”

The musicians behind Massaoke have just announced that they’ll be holding a singalong residency at Electric Ballroom from March 2020. They’ve also started holding matinees, bringing the phenomenon to an even wider range of ages, and regularly tour in Australia, the US and Europe. It’s plain to see that a mass singalong is, just as Bat says, common to all creeds.

But what does the band do if someone’s too cool to sing along? “We always break them by the end of the night,” Bat laughs. “There’s always a fella who’s been brought along by his partner and he’s stood there crossed arms. But by the end he’s usually the one that’s got his shirt off and waving it around his head from someone’s shoulders.”

Thankfully, no one’s too cool for the festive edition. We leave feeling like we’ve been at the world’s most raucous festive work do. The world seems a little rosier and a bit less disconnected. And that’s a feeling that shouldn’t just be for Christmas.