be patient, and watch him all the way
On our way back from breakfast this morning I stopped to buy some fruit. While I delighted in the personality of the 80-year-old man who sells me pineapple and watermelon, I started to become aware of a distant rhythm. As I walked back to the bike the song got louder. I’d assumed it was the blaring speakers of an advertisement truck – you’ll see these (or more likely just hear them) all over Thailand; they play music or announcements or both over external speakers and billboards are rigged to the sides of the bed of the truck. Usually it’s announcing a radio station, a mattress sale, Muay Thai fights (in Chiang Mai, by the moat), or sometimes the truck itself is selling fruit or vegetables and the announcement is the price per kilo of whatever they sell. It’s easy to tune these trucks out after a short time, and I generally do.
But this tune sounded different. As I approached the motorbike I saw Kevin sitting upright with the camera held up in front of his face, pointed up the street toward the music. I looked at what he was shooting and saw an old man playing an electric guitar and pulling an amplifier behind him. The guitar was carved out of wood and was highly stylized, the head of the guitar was sculpted to look like a dragon head or flame shape that you see on the tops of temples – unbelievably cool. And he walked very slowly, tracking the side of the road with his left foot right on the edge of a gutter that runs the length of the street. He wore a hat that protected him from the sun and big, dark glasses that would have done the same if he were not blind… but he is.
In Thailand it’s not too uncommon to see blind musicians at night markets. Usually they’re seated in one spot and singing into a microphone with a beat playing backup for them. Sometimes you’ll see a whole group, but that’s rare. This guy had the background rhythm playing for him also and he did the guitar solo on top of it, and because he was mobile the slow kind of mosey he did looked like an aged 1960’s era lead guitarist slowly cruising around on stage at a concert. The sound of his music and the sight of him was absolutely mesmerizing.
At one point he ran up against a parked fruit cart that was right on the edge of his path. He stopped playing the guitar to reach his hand out and find his way around the cart, so the background beat just played by itself. The young guy sitting on the motorbike of the fruit cart put his hand out and held the forearm of the blind musician, kind of guiding him as he felt along the edge of the cart. The musician smiled at the contact. At this point I crossed the street and dropped some coin Baht into his donation vase. His hands were free from the cart now and he pulled them off the strings and neck of his guitar to wai to me (the Thai gesture to offer respect). A lady behind him dropped a few more Baht in and he thanked her, then found his left foot back on the edge of the gutter and got his fingers back on the strings of the guitar. And the song played on.
We watched him continue on his way down the road, slowly, for another minute. I could have watched him all day, that rock-n-roll stroll he had and his rockstar face in his dark glasses. I don’t know what it was, exactly, but the simple expression of music coming through that amp as this man moved down the road was just incredible. He wasn’t playing for anybody and yet he was playing for everybody. Most of the people on the street ignored him, the way in America we’re awesome at ignoring street performers or Subway performers, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. This was on the small residential street I live on, but it’s a very long street and all the stalls and restaurants are clustered at one end of it. That’s where he was. There are long stretches on the road where there’s nothing and I wondered where he’d started – how he’d gotten to this road – and as he passed, where would he stop or turn around? Does he live on one of the small streets off the side of this one or was he dropped off? None of that matters, really, but why I think about it is because he seemed to come out of nowhere and disappear back into it. I reckon he’ll haunt my memory every time I’m in that area of the street for some time, even if I don’t see him again. I hope I will though; my dad would love to see him.