A love for the late King still flowers in the jazz city of Thailand

The beach is packed for Shakatak. Whether or not the audience are actual fans of the English jazz-funk band doesn’t matter. After two electrifying sets, they spring to their feet for the most laidback standing ovation ever given; some run up to the stage with hands outstretched for a chance to touch lead singer Jill Saward. There’s no need to verbally request an encore—the four-man band takes their cue from the cheering crowd and starts up the drums for a final song. “I’m depressed; not good,” teases Saward, 64 and ever coy, to her adoring audience. Immediately they scream back in response, echoing her every line in song for a truly rousing finish.

So ends another show at the Hua Hin International Jazz Festival. A yearly affair, the festival returned for two days in May (18-19) 2018 on the city’s main beach. It may seem like a strange choice for a jazz festival, but Hua Hin is more than its reputation as a resort town.

Away from its noisier sister city Bangkok and party central Phuket, the seaside town of Hua Hin carries at its heart a jazz scene that’s been bubbling under the surface for the last 14 years. Even before the festival’s founding in the early noughties, Hua Hin has been associated with the country’s jazz community—due largely to the fact that the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej (or King Rama IX), a fierce lover of jazz and a composer and saxophonist himself, had his summer palace there. As such, many see Hua Hin as the undisputed jazz city of Thailand.

This year, the festival is organized by record company Hitman Jazz, returning for a second hosting stint after their first in 2017. Managing Director Vichart Jirathiyut made a point to bring in a varied line-up of international and local artists. Shakatak is one of the international headliners. There’s also Japanese jazz band Dimension, Austrian jazz darling Simone Kopmajer, Brazilian duo Veronica Nunes and Ricardo Vogt, and Thai band The Sound of Siam.


Singha was the official beer sponsor for the Festival

At first glance, the festival seems largely attended by the locals, with just a smattering of foreign visitors—who must either be jazz enthusiasts, or simply had the fortune to stumble across so organic an event. In shorts and on beach blankets they crowd the Main Stage, wining and dining from personal picnic baskets or food purchased from the vendors on-site.

In reality, there’s a mix of locals, Thais from Bangkok, expats living in Hua Hin, and tourists from around the world. Jirathiyut sets the local to foreigner ratio more closely at 1:1, adding that he’s seen the festival grow in popularity thanks to social media.

“The jazz scene is much better when you compare it to the last few years,” he said. “But I think the international artists, tourists and foreign travelers (have) come to know us because when all the artists go back, everybody just posts ‘Come to Hua Hin Jazz Festival; come to Hua Hin!’”


The Main Stage

Something old, someone new

Over at the Open Stage, a trio of Thai amateur musicians is covering a string of Top 40s hits. As part of the festival, anyone can bring their instrument, jump in and just play. It’s one of the things that sets Hua Hin International apart from other jazz festivals in Thailand; the commitment to showcasing undiscovered, fresh talent.

For this there’s Jirathiyut to thank. Before Hitman Jazz, the record producer was the Managing Director of EMI Thailand, working with big-name artists like the Spice Girls, Robbie Williams and Norah Jones. “One day it was enough for me, all those boybands and girl bands again,” he said. “It’s more challenging to pick up something that people don’t have any clue about, introduce them, and make people love it.”

“Most festivals are run on the purpose of being commercial—that’s why they only want the big artists, so they can sell to the sponsors and sell tickets,” he added. “But for me, no.”

Still, he has little to worry. The Hua Hin International Jazz Festival has its fair share of sponsors, including the Tourism Authority of Thailand, Thai Airways and a great number of hotels. Located on Hua Hin Beach, the festival is free for all to attend, and has been since its conception.

It’s to keep it accessible, said Jirathiyut, so everyone can attend. Despite his extensive music background, he isn’t a fan of traditional jazz or “academic music”; even less so those keen to dictate what jazz is and should be.

“In Thailand, there is a conservatory style—people study music in the jazz faculty, and the music they play and listen to are academic music. In my opinion, anything with improvisation is jazz.”

Hence his decision to pair international and Thai artists for collaborations on the Main Stage. In one performance, New York City Jazz pianist and his backing saxophonist have a battle of the winds with a Thai national flautist. The air sizzles with their energy and the crowd goes wild.


Who will win in this wind against wind?

“You can listen to academic music for like three songs, and then you’ll go out to buy some beer or use the toilet—because you don’t enjoy it; because the majority doesn’t have enough knowledge,” Jirathiyut said.

“The festival must be like a buffet, where you can come anytime. If you don’t like beef you can go for the chicken; you want spice you can go for the chili. We prepare for you all the dishes, we have everything for everyone.”

An artist's spirit

Over the two days, the Hua Hin International Jazz Festival also comprises free fringe performances and workshops at various locations around the island.

One particularly well-attended workshop sees a local bar under Hilton Hua Hin crammed with tourists and locals alike. Father-son duo Ulf and Eric Wakenius from Sweden sit on bar stools onstage, just two men with two guitars here to impart their knowledge.

Ulf runs through blues strumming, demonstrating everything from standard riffs to Charleston (‘30s jazz) rhythms. You don’t have to be a jazz aficionado to appreciate the gorgeous melodies.


Ulf and Eric Wakenius

It turns out Ulf was guitarist to legendary Canadian jazz pianist Oscar Peterson for 10 years. “But when you talk about his name in Asia or in Thailand, people are like ‘Wolf who?’” laughed Jirathiyut.

There is no bitterness in the jolly organizer’s words—because recognizing names isn’t the point of the festival. He stresses over and over again about creating a festival for all, and simply sharing in the beauty of good music.

“At the end of the day, we try to build the festival around the spirit of the artists. They come and enjoy, have fun, and express their music,” he said.

When the festival ends, people will return home, perhaps with an enlightened view of what the quiet town of Hua Hin has to offer. And until the secret of Hua Hin’s unspoiled charm gets out, they remain the only ones privy to the real richness of King Rama IX’s holiday home.


WHERE TO STAY


Newly opened in Feb 2018, Holiday Inn Vana Nava Hua Hin makes a luxurious addition to the Holiday Inn brand. Its location a little further out from the main area only strengthens the allure of being undisturbed in Hua Hin, though Vana Nava is nowhere near obscure. 27 stories high and with its own large-scale water park located onsite, it’s the first Holiday Inn water park resort in Asia.


Vana Nava Sky Bar

The 300 rooms and suites are comfortable and spacious, and offer stunning views of either the sea or the hillside. But three things stand out: the 36-meter infinity pool on the 26th floor, boasting an enviable view of the Hua Hin horizon; the complimentary, unlimited access to the Vana Nava Hua Hin Water Jungle (set aside a full day for some severe watersliding fun); and the rooftop Vana Nava Sky Bar, a standalone destination worth the trip out. Perched 110 meters above ground, the Sky Bar was designed by renowned architect Ashley Sutton, and comes with a daredevil, glass-floored observation deck that can give China’s famed glass-bottom platform a run for its money. Grab a cocktail and some cheap thrills, and be sure to stay for sunset.


ESSENTIALS

Getting there

For now, there are no direct flights into Hua Hin—but that’s the beauty of it. Fly into Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, and book a private transfer into Hua Hin. Starting Aug, a round-trip on Thai Airways Economy seats you on the roomy Boeing 777-300 and starts from $260.

Getting to Vana Nava Hua Hin

From Suvarnabhumi Airport, book a three-hour private car straight to the hotel. Or hop on the railway from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong station for a scenic, four-hour train ride to Hua Hin’s city subway (MRT) station in the center of town.

Currency

1 SGD = 24.27 THB