Pisitakun KUANTALAENG started making visual art in 2009, and started playing music sometime later, interested in how expressions are shaped in different media environments. Historical events, synthetic sounds, and musical instruments inspire his songs. Pisitakun’s practice represents a decisive break from many of his Thai peers at a time when the country’s history was unfolding under ongoing martial law following the military coup d’état on 22 May 2014. He questions fundamental and increasingly universal values without merely decrying the fact of corruption or offering neat palliatives. His works are based on political speculation and the external and internal frustrations that artists are subjected to.
How did you get interested in the topic of politics and music, and music as a tool with which to protest and voice discontent? I guess it is influenced by your background and the situation in Thailand.
I was originally more of a visual artist. I became actively interested in music around 2015; music seemed more touching and understandable for people. I had been interested in politics before that, too; we had a lot of coups and demonstrations. In 2010, I started to become interested in politics and the relationship of people to the political situation. Since then, I’ve been using visual art and integrating politics into it. And I also started thinking about how to incorporate politics into my music. I tried to find a way to mix experimental music and the voice of the people.
Were you participating in any of the protests in Thailand musically?
I used to participate in a lot of demonstrations, musically speaking. And I tried to think how I could use this experimental sound in the context of a protest. When you think about it, experimental music is quite distant from the society at large. People don’t listen to experimental music every day in their house. When I started incorporating politics into my music, I was interested in the sound of the people, what they were listening to. What is the political message in the sound? I started to use a lot of sources from different genres in Thailand, and mixed them together. I mixed the sound of north-eastern music, what we call Molam music, and dance music. Many north-eastern people came to demonstrations in Bangkok. I tried to incorporate this sound people were familiar with into experimental music, using samples from demonstrations, for instance.
How did people react? A lot of protest music has lyrics and songs, the words being the tool to convey political messages. It might be more difficult to do so with more instrumental music. Although there are some examples of electronic instrumental music being at the centre of protest (like in Georgia recently).
We were organising a small music & art part of a protest around 2019. I got invited by the demonstration organisers to play at the Democracy Monument. When I first started to play the music, I thought people were not going to enjoy it, but then I thought people don’t only connect to music via lyrics, it’s also about the message of the sound. For instance, I used a traditional royal funeral song at the time. When people heard it, they thought about what I was saying. I would mix this sort of music with north-eastern dance music, and this would make you think about what it was trying to say about the political situation. For me, the concept of a protest song is about people uniting, coming together.
Are you based in Thailand still?
I’m currently in Berlin, but I moved to Porto last year.
Are you also inspired to make protest music while being in Europe, or is it really connected for you with the situation in Thailand?
Every country has many different issues to talk about. Now I’m trying to understand and research into what is happening around me. Sometimes the issues people are fighting for are the same. I’m also currently working on a research project about this topic. We have a voice and something to speak up for. I’m a global citizen and I want to talk about many different regions and issues. In Myanmar, Hong Kong, Thailand, how can we unite people? The border of a specific country doesn’t matter for me right now; I’m trying to speak out more to understand what is happening on a global scale.
What is the relationship between experimental music and politics, in a more explicit way (political engagement, protest, etc)?
In the past, I didn’t care about politics. But even if you feel it’s far from you, it affects you in one way or another. In the end, you are a citizen of one country, and global politics also affects you. Especially here in Berlin, where there are many people from different parts of the world. And some people have escaped to Berlin because of the situation in their own countries. This city has taught me to understand politics and multiculturalism.
You are working on a new complex project dedicated to the concept of the protest song.
The project is called the Three Sounds of Revolution. I was trying to think about how politics can be incorporated into music. One way is through revolutionary songs. I used the symbol of the three fingers – coming from the French revolution – solidarity, equality and liberty, and was also inspired by the film The Hunger Games. This symbol is used in Thailand and Myanmar as well. My project is divided into these three main parts (solidarity, equality, liberty). The Three Sounds of Revolution project is aimed at bringing up the possibility of creating ‘new areas’ of protest and revolutionary music among a diversity of races, genders, ethnicities, age ranges and languages, which might have created common ground for protests and revolutions in the past . I invited artists to remix their own revolutionary songs from their countries, and I also tried to think how revolutionary music can be presented in a club context.
The project has several outputs – there’s a research part, remixes, an AI model.
I also want to find an AI model that will help people create their own revolutionary songs online. There will also be a release and an event.
Do you see the protest song changing over time?
In Thailand, we have had a lot of changes in terms of protest songs. In the 1970s, during the Communist times, the songs were inspired by the Communist party music, folk songs, and national anthems. In the 90s, the songs changed – they were more about people’s daily lives. In the early 2000’s, they were about the suffering of the people in the countryside. Musically, it was a mixture of familiar songs and local music. The new songs are incorporating pop music, J-pop, K-pop. The revolutionary songs are also changing according to the political situation. After 2010, in Thailand we had a problem with the lèse-majesté law, which protects the monarchy and prohibits people from talking about issues connected with the monarchy. Many musicians are trying to evade this law by creating parody songs about the monarchy.
There have been several cases of musicians getting arrested at protests in the last years. Are you ever scared of getting arrested?
I’ve already been arrested many times. If you can bring people together, dictators are always scared. Dictators separate people.
Interview: Lucia Udvardyova