Meet Music and Noey, the ‘senbatsu’ sharing the limelight on the latest single from BNK48
No one’s done an official tally of the numbers yet, but there’s no denying that the “idol worship” trend is exploding in Thai pop music, rocketed along by the massive success of all-girl singing group BNK48.
They sold out both of their recent “Starto” concerts, are guaranteed packed houses for “handshake events” as well, and even opened their own “campus” – a training academy where you can major in cute poses as well as stage presence.
BNK48 are Thailand’s answer to Japan’s most popular idol group, AKB48. Each of their three albums – “Aitakatta” (“Yak Cha Dai Phop Ther”), “Koi Suru Fortune Cookie” (“Khukki Siangthai”) and “Shonichi” (“Wan Raek”) – has three covers of the J-pop group’s hits translated into Thai.
“Fortune Cookie” was a huge hit for AKB48, and its Thai version has also caught fire, thanks mainly to the ear-grabbing “Aeb mong ther yoo na ja” (“I’m secretly watching you”), the video for which has passed 100 million views on YouTube.
The pop is catchy and the young ladies are as cute as can be, individually and onstage together. In concert and other public appearances, the designated key members take turns being the senbatsu – the “centre” of attention.
The centres for BNK48’s latest single “Shonichi” are Praewa “Music” Suthamphong, who had the same lead role on “Aitakatta” and “Oogoe Diamond” (“Kor Chob Hai Roo Wa Chob”), and Kanteera “Noey” Wadcharathadsanakul, who’s in the spotlight for the first time and certainly gets it right.
Noey, who just turned 21, says she was really excited to reach this point in her young career so fast – being named a senbatsu.
“I was thrilled when my name was announced right after Music’s! It was ringing in my ears and I was speechless.
“I’d initially thought the centre was reserved for the most outstanding member. But actually the centre is the representative for the single. We stand out front, so we’re already more in the public eye, but we still have to make it a really memorable performance.”
Music, who’s still only 17, didn’t understand the concept either at first. “I didn’t get why we had to have a centre – maybe because it always made me sad when I missed out.
“But being the centre is hard – you really have to do your best to convey the song. Everyone might be exhausted, but the centre has to keep driving the song so the fans can appreciate its mood and tone.”
Surely the centre is chosen depending on their qualifications or popularity.
“Yes, definitely – I’m pretty!” Noey laughs. “I think it depends more on whose character matches the song best. For this single, I think anyone could have been the centre, but there has to be someone special ‘in authority’, and everyone agrees with that.
“When Music was announced as the centre, it was because she really is the most appropriate choice for the song. She’s perfect with her voice and dancing and she’s developing her unique gifts all the time. She puts a lot of effort into it.”
Music explains that “Wan Raek”, the Thai title of “Shonichi”, means “first day”.
“It tells the story of how all the group members started out, so it could be for everyone, not just the two of us,” she says.
“I even asked why I was chosen to be this centre. The answer is because I’m myself. Other members who became centres are suitable for their songs, like ‘Khukki Siangthai’, which was perfect for Mobile [Pimrapat Phadungwatanachok] and her character.”
All 26 members of BNK48 go through the same rehearsals and each has a chance at the spotlight with a particularly striking performance. Noey points out that Milin “Namneung” Dokthian is especially popular with the fans thanks to her beauty and sense of humour. And Music says Noey is also naturally funny and has a unique personality. “I feel comfortable when I’m close to her.”
“Shonichi”, which came from the pen of singer-songwriter Prapop “Golf” Chomtaworn of pop band Superbaker, is presented in two versions on video.
BNK48 debuted the first, “The Stories”, which runs just under 12 and a half minutes, at their “Starto” concerts on March 31 and April 1. It’s about the members’ dedication, as described by Music and Noey and Thai national team footballers Pansa Hemviboon and Thitipan Puangchan.
In the second version, a third the length, a young boy who’s trying to play football joins the girls in telling the same story.
“I get teary every time I see the first version,” says Noey. “It focuses on the two of us, but the four-minute version focuses on someone else – a kid who’s crazy about football. It’s saying you should never give up on your dream.”
“When we achieve our goal,” adds Music, “it’s like a flower blossoming.”
Asked to compare BNK48 with AKB48, Music says she’s always followed the Japanese idol groups and thinks a key difference is the Thai group’s rules against having their picture taken with an individual fan and letting a fan touch them directly.
“Idol groups are still new in Thailand, so the rules are very sticky.
“But I think the aura surrounding the girls in AKB48 is stronger and more powerful than ours. It will be a long time before we reach that point, being real idols. The Japanese groups can send out inspiration to the fans all around the hall.”
Nevertheless, she does expect BNK48 to one day share the same stage with AKB48.
Noey says she saw an AKB48 show and watched their emotional facial expressions closely.
“Their dancing wasn’t that strong, but it was so beautiful, so charming. I agree that we can’t yet transfer our emotions all the way to the fans in the rear seats. At the rehearsals before our first concerts, the Japanese choreographer complained about our dancing. We were better by the time we went onstage, but it still wasn’t the best. We’d only performed at events on smaller stages than the one at Bitec, so we didn’t have the power to reach all the fans.”
In 2014, a man wielding a foldable saw seriously injured two members of AKB48 at a handshake meeting as 5,000 fans looked on in horror. The band’s management clamped down on security, but has tried to maintain the sense of intimacy at such events. BNK48 appearances routinely feature tight security, including metal detectors.
“That was so scary,” says Noey. “I don’t worry about it because our fans are so gentle, and I believe in our safety system.”
Music recalls with a shudder a fan’s attempt to kiss the hand of Vathusiri “Korn” Phuwapunyasiri at a BNK48 handshake event. No injury was intended, but circumstances might have been different – and it was strictly against the rules.
“We should all have self-confidence because we’re idols, but of course the security guards can’t necessarily help us in time if something happens, so we should take more care. If a fan slashed our hand, our idol career would be over.”
On the Web
Keep up to date with BNK48 at www.BNK48.com/#/home.
Watch “The Stories”, the first “Shonichi” video: www.YouTube.com/watch?v=7lKDNvhvMiM.
Watch the official version of “Shonichi”: www.YouTube.com/watch?v=IMx1ojx2fiE.