In 2017, English football fans were left bemused when the English Football League Cup was rebranded as the Carabao cup. A cursory Google led fans to an energy drink, seldom seen in UK shelves, and an ageing Thai rock band.
No bands in the lexicon of Thai rock have as much success and staying power as Carabao. Comparatively in the western catalogue, even The Beatles fail to capture the universal recognition of Carabao in Thailand. From sold-out concerts around the globe to internationally branded energy drinks, to sponsoring English Premier League clubs and trophies, Carabao has reached heights of global recognition few Thai brands could ever dream of. From their folk roots penning songs about the plight of the working class and those on the fringes of society to global stardom, the cultural phenomenon of Carabao, specifically frontman Aed Carabao, can give us a unique window in which to view the past four decades of Thai politics.
Yuenyong Opakul, better known as Aed Carabao, was born in 1954 in Suphanburi, central Thailand, to a middle-class family. Aed’s father was, among many other things, a band manager for luk thung (Thai country-pop) artists. Aed’s family professions, along with Suphanburi’s storied musical history (look no further than Suphanburi Soul: Kwanjit Sriprajan), fostered a love of music in Aed from an early age.
Aed went on to study architecture at Mapúa Institute of Technology in Manila, the Philippines in the early ’70s. It is here where Aed met future Carabao bandmates and bonded over a mutual love of Led Zeppelin, John Denver, and other contemporary western rock and folk bands. Carabao, meaning buffalo, began in Manila but soon took a hiatus when Aed returned to Thailand. It is after this return to Thailand that Aed began his songwriting career in earnest, first for the acclaimed Thai-Muslim folk band Hammer, for who he penned a handful of tracks.
Aed’s first hit song, Tuk Kwai Tuey (ถึกควายทุย, which roughly translates to Tuk, The Buffalo with Unusual Horns) featured on Hammer’s first album, Our Southern Home as well as on Carabao’s first album, Khi Mao (ขี้เมา, sometimes named Lung Khi Mao or ลุงขี้เมา). The song, like most on the album, is simple in its instrumentation, lyrics, and overall composition. The lyrics tell of Nok, a farmer whose family has worked the land for generations. Tuk, the song’s namesake, is his buffalo. Together, Tuk and Nok plough the rice fields.
The antagonist of the story, Neut, is introduced in the second verse:
Neut, a person with money and capital,
Neut has factories and buildings. He provides for children (better understood here as underlings) instead of for buffalo
Neut’s business is setting up factories and now is an important time.
Neut is scheming with others, planning to expand and to increase profits.
In short, the capitalist Neut wants to buy the peasant Nok’s farmland to build a factory. Nok declines, saying without his farm he will be unable to earn a living. Neut, ever the villain, can’t accept no for an answer and seeks retribution on Nok. The song ends with Nok discovering the poisoned corpse of his beloved buffalo Tuk, and lamenting how he will work the fields on his own.
While far from revolutionary, Tuk Kwai Tuey sets the stage for what will be a theme throughout most of Carabao’s early work – the plight of the working class. It was early songs such as this that would earn Carabao their reputation as unafraid to tackle social and political issues and championing regular, working-class Thais.
Carabao’s output was characteristic of the Music for Life (เพลงเพื่อชีวิต) genre of folk music, which was first popularised in the late 60’s as a kind of socialist realist lyrical style, typically telling stories reflecting on the suffering of the peasantry and working class.
For more insight into Aed and how the band’s politics developed in the following decades, we can look at Rachaa Ngern Pon (ราชาเงินผ่อน, or King of Credit). This song is found on the band’s best-selling album, Made in Thailand, released later in 1984. King of Credit is a song that could be about the working class anywhere in the world and addresses the inequalities between wages and cost-of-living.
Aed impressively explains and laments the pitfalls of credit systems and how they subsist by preventing the poor and working-class from ever getting ahead. The first half of the song seems to coincide with Aed’s rugged working-class politics and his previous folksy peasant calls for justice. However, the second half is where Aed begins to lose the plot as the lyrics warp into Thai nationalism:
Don’t let anyone come and take our workers to a foreign country
to go help that country prosper. It’s disgraceful!
Thailand isn’t the Middle East
When I see a friend go to work outside of Thailand, I am disappointed
Even if I become a king of credit
I won’t regret it because it helps Thai people
In short, Aed seems to suggest that capitalists exploiting labour in Thailand is wholly different from foreign capitalists elsewhere exploiting Thai labour. Somehow, Aed seems to think that becoming a domestic creditor wouldn’t be regrettable as he sees it as a way of helping his countrymen remain in the kingdom.
The Rise of Nationalism
During the early 80s, Carabao was still firmly perceived as a socially conscious rock band, but songs like King of Credit begin showing us the shifting politics of Aed. It was the mid-80s that saw the ascension of Prem Tinsulanonda as well as near-universal Thai nationalism within the kingdom. Prem, one of Thailand’s most influential modern political leaders, is credited with being one of the key figures in ending Thailand’s communist insurgency. Order 66/2523 was a formal shift in policy in the fight against communism enacted by Prem. The 70s saw intense bloodshed, assassinations, torture, and extrajudicial murders enacted by the government towards the rumbling communist insurgency and other dissidents. However, under Prem’s governance in the early ’80s, Bangkok began to move away from the hard-line military stance to a more reconciliatory approach. Calling for liberal reforms and participatory democracy, this law also granted amnesty allowing the communists to leave the forest insurgency and join mainstream society, despite the same mechanisms of capital remaining firmly in place.
It’s during this period where we begin to see the nature of Carabao’s output notably shift, both lyrically and musically, with more rock and electronic elements incorporated into their music, while retaining a distinctly Thai musical aesthetic. Lyrically instead of lamenting the material conditions of the working-class and capitalist exploitation (such as in Tuk Kwai Tuey), Carabao songs take on a decidedly more nationalistic approach. Aed began writing songs that criticised what he perceived as the ‘evils’ of society such as drugs, alcohol, and disco. Several songs from this period in the mid to late 80s demonstrate a disdain for the direction Aed perceived society to be heading. It also saw the release of some of the band’s most enduring songs, Ameri-goy and Welcome to Thailand.
The song Ameri-goy (อเมริโกย, a pun that can be translated as Greedy Americans) comes from the album of the same title. The album, released in 1985, coincided with a conflict between the Thai and American governments. Before looking at the song’s lyrics, it’s worthwhile to quickly look at America in the 1980s. Ronald Reagan was sworn in as US president in 1981, pushing through two notable bills that had grave effects on Thailand. The first was the ‘Textile And Apparel Trade Enforcement Act’ which restricted textile imports from Thailand. The second was a series of agricultural bills that placed higher subsidies on US-grown rice, effectively lowering the international price – something that would disproportionately impact Thai farmers.
Aed’s outward condemnation of America was nothing new to Thai folk music. However, unlike its predecessors, Ameri-goy features strong themes of national identity and pride of the nation which at the time was still under distinctly right-wing leadership.
Thailand is big, wide, and abundant
It is rich in rice fields and orchards,
[Thailand is] the property of all the Thai people,
who come together to tend to the rice
Paen Din (แผ่นดิน, The Land)
If I don’t have money
I’m not sad
มีแผ่นดิน ปลูกข้าว เราอยู่ได้
Because I still have land and can plant my rice
If there’s no money, I’ll earn more
on the greatest land
of every Thai person
When looking at songs like these, a careful examination of the underlying motive is necessary to differentiate between ‘good’ or ‘bad’ patriotism. On one hand, nationalist furor against imperial exploitation (as America and the imperial core is certainly guilty of) can be defended as necessary in achieving domestic independence from colonial forces. For example, national pride amongst the people of Cuba or Vietnam is seen as a natural response to imperial conquests rather than chauvinism.
However, Carabao’s work in the 80s, more closely parallels the reactionary ‘patriotism’ of the American pop-country music scene after Sept. 11 as opposed to the songs of solidarity penned by the likes of Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, or Carlos Puebla. The reactionary trends of American pop-country can be traced to Henry Ford, but became most visible in the Bush years.
Modern American pop-country and Aed’s 80’s nationalist tone both carry sentiments of nostalgia, anti-intellectualism and paint a deliberately obfuscated picture of an uncomplicated rural life, overlooking any sorts of material poverty in favour of nationalist jingoisms. In short, Aed was demonstrating a clear call for reactionary provincialism. In his music, he was deliberate in harnessing his songwriting abilities to paint pictures that were narrow in scope and without concern to any organised movements of working-class solidarity. In short, Aed transitioned his rugged working-class aesthetic to suit a new Thailand, post-communist insurgency, where being working class was portrayed as more of a cultural trait than a grievance.
It’s also worth looking ahead to 1994 when Carabao released the album ‘Nation Builders’ (รุ่นคนสร้างชาติ, Run Kon Saang Chaat). This album features two songs worth examining, the eponymous track itself and 20 Bpee Carawan (20 ปี คาราวาน, 20 Years of Caravan). The title track Nation Builders is an important note in how it echoes the same sentiments of Thai people sacrificing for the great nation. An optimistic listener can view the song as a unifying anthem for Thai people to accept one another’s differences. Aed even sings “We are all born here together… one land, sharing a dream… joining with the ethnic groups.” However, any goodwill is quickly undone when he follows with the chauvinistic line, “Whatever tribe you are from, it is a Thai tribe.” Aed is simultaneously calling for acceptance and rights for the numerous indigenous tribes in Thailand, while also denying their autonomy, akin to Thai fascism of the 1950s. He goes on to sing:
ชาติต้องการ คน ที่ซื่อสัตย์
The nation needs people who are honest
ชาติต้องการ คน เสียสละ
The nation needs people who sacrifice
หาก ประชาชน เกียจคร้าน
If the people are lazy
They will be destitute
Nation Builders is a song of contradictions. It calls for unity but denies autonomy and shifts burdens of responsibility from the state to the people, as was typical during the Bhumiphol era. While the above verse can be taken as a call for honesty in politics, the sentiment remains the same.
Democracy – Red and Yellow
In 1987 Carabao released one of the most interesting albums of their career, Bprachaatipbpadtai (ประชาธิปไตย, Democracy). Musically, Democracy is a huge shift from Ameri-goy. Democracy is made up of fast-paced guitar riffs, massive snares, and 80s synths. Carabao’s folk-oriented rock sound has gone new-wave, think Pete Seeger goes 80’s Bowie.
In hindsight, Democracy featured one of the most puzzling entries into the Carabao catalogue. Maha Jamlong Run 7 (มหาจำลอง รุ่น 7, The Great Chamlong the 7th) is a song praising the politician Chamlong Srimuang. Chamlong received a military education in the USA and made his name in the 1960s by fighting communism in Laos and Vietnam. In the 1970s, Chamlong was a member of the infamous ‘Young Turks of Thailand’, a notoriously anti-leftist movement active in many of Thailand’s military coups and bloody crackdowns. Chamlong played a major role in the infamous ‘Village Scout’ rallies in the 1970s, which were the beginnings of the ultranationalist paramilitary used to counter the student movements of the late 70s, culminating in the 1976 Thammasat Massacre.
In 1988 Prem Tinsulanonda stepped down as PM and in his place, Chatichai Choonhavan was elected in the country’s first liberal-democratic election in 12 years, while the extremist Chamlong was elected as governor of Bangkok. Running on a platform of virtues, morality, and incorruptibility. Aed’s song for Chamlong opines those virtues:
He doesn’t spend his salary
He eats simply, beans and sesame seeds
He created 6 billion in funds
Every cent accounted, don’t be sceptical
Thai people don’t have to watch their backs
He isn’t using his influence to get what we wants
The people are giving him their trust
Buddha’s teachings lead him to serve us
Just a few years later, a military coup would topple Chatichai’s government for accusations of corruption, nepotism, and parliamentary dictatorship amongst other claims. Chamlong would soon find himself embroiled in post-coup politics, resulting in the infamous Black May Incident where hundreds of protestors, led by Chamlong were gunned down in the streets.
Over the next several years Chamlong would remain present in Thai politics. He became a key leader of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) who rallied against Thaksin in the 2005-2006 political turmoil. After Thaksin was ousted by a coup, Chamlong would be appointed to parliament. He remains a staunch supporter of the monarchy.
What makes the ‘Democracy’ album even more confounding, especially in light of Maha Jamlong Run 7, is the song Poo Ton (ผู้ทน, Enduring Person). Poo Ton is a song lamenting the state of Thai democracy, though the message is vague and could be applied to virtually any other nation’s electoral democracy:
Look, come check it out everyone
The price of rice is guaranteed to be how much?
Look, come check it out everyone
The price of gasoline will be much lower?
These are the kind of words spoken while campaigning
seems just like a business, am I right?
Pity the person who is honest
And would like to serve the public
But it’s just a dream
The song goes on to criticise the role of money in politics. Only those with money and power can run for office, which leaves those with virtue and honest intentions unable to compete. Aed goes on to sing that he is, “Fed up with the words of the campaigning.” In short, Poo Ton is a tale of how Thai people must endure corrupt elections and representatives.
However, Poo Ton seems highly contradictory when sharing the album with Maha Jamlong Run 7, a song wildly praising a politician, and a far-right one at that. Clearly, Aed was aware of the shortcomings of electoral politics, yet at the same time, he was basking in the election of Chamlong. As history progresses, Chamlong’s inclusion on the album ‘Democracy’ raises more questions than it answers.
This connection between Aed and Chamlong, and by extension the future PAD (yellow shirt) movement, signalled things to come. After Black May and the 1991 coup, Thailand saw a period of increased liberalisation. The 1997 Constitution of Thailand was treated as the pinnacle of democratic reform. The constitution featured election reform, increased separation of executive and legislative branches, the recognition of human rights (including free education, the right to protest, and the rights of indigenous communities), as well as legislative reform, just to name just a few.
However, like most of its kind, the 1997 Constitution didn’t last long. Thailand found itself in yet another political crisis from 2005-2006 following the ousting of Thaksin. This period would lead to the pitched red vs. yellow battles, and culminated with the 2006 military coup to oust Thaksin. Unlike many of his celebrity peers, Aed was not a visible member of the yellow shirt movement. Indeed, many of the red shirts that took to the streets of Bangkok in support of the ousted Thaksin perfectly fit Aed’s well-curated aesthetic of the rural, rugged, working-class hero fighting for their rights, perhaps he feared alienating his fanbase or damaging his brand.
However, that is not to say he was silent. After the 2006 coup, Aed’s response was the song Wayn Wak (เว้นวรรค, Some Space). In Thai, ‘wen wak’ can be translated to “interval,” in the same way one would use the English phrase, “we need space.” The song is a plea for calm, calling back to the turmoil and bloodshed of 1992 with lines like, “Cruel May hear the sound of the guns firing.” Aed’s take seemed to be that Thaksin should step down in order to restore peace and urged him and his supporters to, “make a sacrifice, and see if the other side reciprocates.” The song ends with a telling verse:
After all, there’s no other way out now. Our country has arrived at a dead end.
We will head towards heaven or hell
This path of Thailand, it’s up to one person… take a break!
Standing in contrast to this message is the song 20 Bpee Carawan. This song, released well before the red vs yellow protests (of which Nga Caravan would become a regular face on yellow shirt stages), is a tribute to the band Caravan. Aed was a lifelong fan of the legendary folk band made up of former communist insurgents. While the song is simply a tribute, it leaves much to unpack. First are the lines that accuse America of being the oppressors that Caravan resisted and fled to the jungle to hide from.
[Caravan sings] a story of resisting oppression
Resisting the country of America
Who came to set up a military base (in Thailand)
Caravan came together to expel them
[Caravan] had to flee to live in the jungle [in danger because of their activism]
They later came back like a bird returns to the nest
First, the notion that it was Caravan (and other communist insurgents) battling (and fleeing from) America is only a fraction of the story. There is no doubt that America was a massive antagonist to leftist revolutions in Thailand throughout the 60s and 70s. In fact, Thailand’s Communist Suppression Operations Command (CSOC) was established in 1965 with direct assistance from the USA. Their goal was to coordinate nationwide anti-communist operations. It is the CSOC that are alleged to have carried out some of the most brutal murders and violence of the period, including the infamous Red Drum Killings. In 1974, the CSOC changed their name to Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), which still operates today.
While the USA should not be absolved of their role, Aed carefully overlooks the complicity of the Thai state in the violent crackdown. In many ways, pointing the finger towards the Americans is easy, rather than laying any blame on the Thai state, or figures like his beloved Chamlong, was a step too far for Aed.
20 Bpee Carawan is a song that returns Carabao to its roots, celebrating the spirit of ‘songs for life.’ When released in 1994, few could predict that Carabao and Caravan would fall squarely on the side of the yellow shirts, the privileged, middle-class foils to the ‘commoners’ that made up the ranks of the red shirts. Eventually, despite his somewhat cautious approach, Aed became the target of red shirts, leading to criticism, boycotts, and several of his shows being shut down in protest.
The King and The God of Rock
One argument to be made for Aed’s support of the yellow shirt movement is not necessarily related to his opinion on Thaksin or the working-class, but on his support for the monarchy. In 2011, Aed released Poo Bpit Tong Lang Pra (ผู้ปิดทองหลังพระ, Person Who Puts A Gold Leaf on the Back of the Buddha). The title roughly translates to ‘doing a good deed without calling for attention.’ Featuring lines such as:
“65 years serving on the throne. Thais throughout the country are proud of him. We have a great king who watches over and cares for us, who devotes his royal body for us,”
The song is unabashed in its praise for King Bhumiphol and his sufficiency economy philosophy. In light of this, it is worth noting that Aed has previously covered the famous Caravan song Tang-Tohm Moh Raeng Fai (ถั่งโถมโหมแรงไฟ, Strike with Fire). Strike with Fire was released in 1976, shortly after the massacre at Thammasat, and calls for a “Revolt to overthrow old society,” and to, “Overthrow the fascist emperor and feudalism.” Aed seems to always be a man of contradiction.
The most remarkable single moment of Aed’s career was without a doubt the performance of Poo Bpit Tong Lang Pra in front of King Bhumiphol himself at his coronation anniversary celebration in 2012. Aed literally walks on water, surrounded by boats, live elephants and fireworks, all for a King who looks fairly nonplussed by the whole affair. It’s a sight to behold.
Aed’s slide into reactionary sentiment continued after the fall of Thaksin. In 2014 Thailand saw yet another coup, this time led by current PM Prayut Chan-O-Cha. Just a few days after the coup, Aed released a song titled The Statesman (นาวารัฐบุรุษ). The Statesman, while vague, seems to be a call for the nation to give Prayut a chance. The song uses the metaphor of a ship to mean the government:
When there is a challenging investment, in the eyes of nation
this is a chance for the statesmen
[Are we a] battleship or fishing ship, now is the time to prove.
The turning point of the country is dependent on the leader.
The turning point of Thailand is with you
Let the world remember the statesman
In recent years, Thailand has again found itself embroiled in political turmoil. While Aed and the rest of Carabao are generally dismissed by the younger generation who are now leading today’s protests, he remains vocal and extremely popular amongst the general public.
Perhaps one of Carabao’s most stunning contradictions can be viewed through the lens of the song Che (เช’), released in 2018. Che is a tribute to the revolutionary Che Guevera, spurred on when Aleida Guevara, daughter to Che, asked Aed to join the promotion of a book about Che being translated and released in Thailand. The song opens with a line that will be immediately recognisable for anyone who has spent time on Thai roadways, “Che never died! He lives on the back of a truck!” The image of Che (and sometimes Serpico) is a mainstay on bumper stickers and mudflaps of trucking rigs all over Thailand.
Che is a model hero who rises up and fights with hope.
Leading impoverished people to overthrow the source of power. He is an example of a daring person and he’s world famous
The song goes on:
เชคือผู้กล้า ผู้มีศรัทธา มุ่งมั่นในอุดมการณ์
He is a daring person, a person who has faith, deep in ideology
[of the] the communist world. The evil capitalist world
probably would not blossom if not for brave people like Che.
Clearly, Aed holds Che’s ideals in high regard. However, this form of revolutionary worship calls to mind the opening paragraph of Lenin’s ‘The State and Revolution’:
During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonise them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the “consolation” of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarising it.
It’s clear that even in his most daring songs, Aed only ever paid lip service to the true ideals of revolution. Time and time again Aed preached a middle road, calling for calmness and reconciliation between conflicting sides. The notions of revolution and solidarity for the oppressed were paramount in many Carabao songs, yet Aed consistently echoed reactionary sentiments such as those in The Statesmen. Similarly, Aed condemned the evils of capitalism countless times throughout his career, yet he consistently seemed to value maintaining his image above all else, in the famous words of Michael Jordan, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
One of Aed’s more recent songs, Nam Peung Reua Seua Peung Bpa (น้ำพึ่งเรือเสือพึ่งป่า, Waters Depend on the Boat; The Tiger Depends on the Forest) carries a similar sentiment. The title is a Thai proverb about the importance of reciprocal benefits. A tiger depends on the forest for obvious reasons, but similarly, the forest depends on the tiger to maintain the ecosystem and the circle of life. The song is vague and complex in its meaning.
น้ำพึ่งเรือแต่เรือมันรั่วก็หมดกัน จมลงสู่ใต้บาดาล เพราะแรงโน้มถ่วงของโลก
Waters depend on the boat, but the boat is leaking. Sinking down to the depths because of the gravity of the world.
เพลงชาติไทยมีแค่คนไทยที่ร้องกัน ธงไตรรงค์นั้นยืนยัน คนไทยเคยรักกัน
The Thai national song has Thais singing it together. Reaffirm the three colored flag, show that Thais used to all love each other.
ความรัก ความสามัคคี คนไทยวันนี้ อาจเป็นแค่ความฝัน
Love and unity, for Thais today, maybe it’s just a dream
ปัญหาอย่างที่รู้ๆ กัน แค่เอาปูนยางชัน ไปอุดรูเรือรั่ว
[The] problem, which we all know, just take rubber cement and fill the hole in the leaking boat
It’s not immediately clear what Aed means by “the problem we all know,” but one interpretation is the monarchy. Aed is again calling for reconciliation, this time between the young protestors and the older generation. His idea of plugging the hole in the boat could mean many things, Aed claims that it simply means, “Fixing whatever problems may be.”
If Aed won any goodwill with this veiled reference it was quickly lost again when he released his song Wakseen Pua Thai (วัคซีนเพื่อคนไทย, Vaccine For Thais). Perhaps due to willful ignorance more than malice, the song is a rallying cry for Thailand to develop their own Covid vaccine, rather than accept donated vaccines from overseas, which was indeed attempted in 2021. Criticism of the imperial core over vaccine hoarding is merited, but hindsight shows us how shortsighted Aed’s take on the subject was. As Thai residents saw, the nation’s vaccine rollout was slow and mired in difficulties and controversies for many months. Thailand’s desire to rely on its own vaccine production facilities and shun Western imports was heavily criticised and was a point of contention both politically and domestically.
Aed Carabao is undeniably Thailand’s most prolific songwriter. At his best, his songwriting can rival virtually anyone. His lyricism and ear for melodies have produced not only popular hits, but also songs of intense beauty. However, the politics behind the songs deserve to be examined and questioned. Aed is consistently inconsistent in his messaging.
Like so many other musicians and artists around the world, it is up to the listener to decide if these contradictions diminish the enjoyment of his art. Bruce Springsteen made a career singing about the worn-down streets of forgotten industry towns in America, only to support the architects of the policies that led to the collapse of those very towns. Bob Dylan was derided as a sellout and a fascist for simply going electric. Perhaps the last bastion of widely popular leftist music, Rage Against the Machine, was mired in controversy when Tom Morello released an NFT collection.
Holding any artist to puritanical standards can be problematic. In the case of Aed Carabao, perhaps he gave the best answer:
Interviewer: According to some critics, you’ll write for whoever hires you. and that breaks with the spirit of the Music for Life genre.
Aed: I have to distinguish something first: I’m a composer, OK. I’m just like anyone else in society. I have to make a living. They hire me to write political songs for this party and for that party. I compose for both sides, whether it’s the party of Mr Thaksin, or the party of Mr Kuan, I write for all of them… If you hire me to write a song about football, I write about football. If you hire me to advertise a product, I’ll write [the song]. I’ve been doing this forever. Songs for Coke, I’ve always done them. Songs for Pepsi, I do them too… I don’t know where I’m going wrong, because, as for me, I didn’t do it for any sort of ideology. I did it for a living.