British producer Will Robinson is filling foreign ears with the mesmerizing music of Isan
BRITON Will Robinson – who’s been involved in the international music industry for more than 20 years – was visiting Thailand two years when, on a stroll down Sukhumvit Road, he heard a sound he’d never heard before.
It was morlam, the traditional music of the Northeast, heard most often in Bangkok on taxi radios and buzzing out of food stalls.
Robinson, a Manchester native, was immediately captivated by the funky rhythm and flowing melody issuing from a pair of street performers. “It was just a simple drum set and this tiny wooden guitar,” he says, “but it was nothing like I’d ever heard before, and I knew right then that I wanted to do something to promote the Isaan sound for people on the other side of the world to enjoy.
“I couldn’t understand a word they were singing, of course, but I could see there was a lot of soul and emotions and feeling.”
Robinson bought a stack of CDs to learn more and arranged through friends to meet singer Sopchai “Ford” Kraiyunsen and saxophonist Koh Mr Saxman, who gave him more insights into morlam and the Thai music industry in general. And then he set up the Isan Project, using a common alternative spelling for the region
Robinson was particularly interested in the pin, the four-stringed instrument most readily compared to the lead or rhythm guitar in modern bands. He was amazed by the delicacy of the tones.
“I decided to travel around the Northeast to learn about the culture and to see where morlam comes from, and that inspired me even more.”
Robinson took along a small camera crew, getting video of weddings, festivals and other local events, along with cultural and nature sites and scenes in Bangkok, and edited the footage into a series of music videos for the tracks he was recording in the studio.
Robinson tapped his connections as a promoter, producer and manager to recruit several professionals to accompany the morlam band he assembled. The result was an Isaan-Western hybrid. The Isan Project was soon arranging more such collaborations among musicians from Thailand, the US and Britain.
“Anyone can do a remix of morlam, and there are a few people doing it,” he says. “I wanted to combine the traditional Isaan sounds with Western lyrics and music and present it to the world. I want to the world to know Isaan music, and I want Thai people, especially Isaan people, to feel proud of it.”
The first track, issued last year, was “Forever”, a ballad with a lingering pin riff, Western pop flair and both Thai and English vocals. A remixed version entered the UK charts at No 21. The follow-up, “Strangers”, made it to No 11, powered by electronic dance music (EDM).
The instrumental “I Love Isan” wowed YouTube viewers with its danceable appeal, and the latest release, “Nana” – inspired by Robinson’s visit to the Bangkok entertainment hub – took top spot on the iTunes Thailand chart.
Robinson, credited as executive producer, has engaged almost 30 foreign pros for the Isan Project, recording in Cleveland, Copenhagen and London, as well as Bangkok and Pattaya. Robin Gibb’s producer Michael Graves has been involved, as have Erik Hargrove (former drummer for James Brown) and vocalists Mariam (from B5) and Errol Reid (formerly of China Black).
“Our songs have been doing well in Europe – we’ve had a lot of positive feedback so far,” Robinson says. “We don’t have enough tracks for a full album yet but we’re |getting there.
“It’s all being done out of love for the music, so we don’t feel the need to rush things. We have a lot of fun making these songs and we hope the listeners will feel the same – that’s what we hope to achieve the most.”
Check out the offerings on the Isan Project channel on YouTube.