I recently translated ตำนานดวงดาว Dtamnan Duang Dao (Legend of Stars) (written for Add by ทิวา สาระจูฑะ Teewa Sarachuta) in which the goalpost people aim for in life is the arch of a rainbow, and I went WOW! That’s an inspiring image. In the song, the rainbow is setting out stripes, painting a line from the end of the sky! At the same time, you realize, while it is not spelled out in the song, that you can never reach this goal of arriving at the rainbow; it will always be before you.
The unattainable promise of the rainbow is leveraged to good effect in Add Carabao’s informally published song บันไดรุ้ง Ban-Dai Rung (Rainbow Stairs)–which I now notice is littered with other symbols often used in Carabao-type songs, including the moon, crows, and fireflies). The last line is “Looking at the arch of the seven-colored rainbow, I would like it to be a stairway.”
In Thai songs, the sky or heavens represent sacredness and god-like beings while the ground represents ordinary earthbound people. Of course ordinariness and sacredness can be associated. According to lyrics of the Add Carabao song มาเถอะมาร้องเพลง Maa Tuh Maa Rong Playng (Come! Come Sing a Song), music helps Heaven remain tied to Earth (though no rainbow is mentioned).
In at least one modern-day Thai protest songs, calling for reform of the monarchy (which claims sacred characteristics), a rainbow connects Earth and Sky—but for the purpose of undermining the dichotomy between the two! For those willing or eager to flaunt the lese majesty law (I can do it from the safety of the United States), check out the song รุ้ง or “Rainbow,” celebrating current day activist Rung (her name means “rainbow”). It is by the band Commoner and features rapper Jacobi from Rap Against Dictatorship; it is translated at the website Music of Thai Freedom.
The word for butterfly in Thai means “spirit shirt,” bringing to mind the spirits of loved ones being amongst you, in a cheerful way. Of course, in English we can say “butterfly” without thinking of butter; and it’s the same for Thais saying “spirit shirt”– it just means “butterfly.” Still, I have heard Add Carabao say in an interview, that many of his friends have “turned into butterflies,” meaning that they have died.
How are butterflies used in Carabao songs? ผีเสื้อนักสู้ Pee Seua Nak Soo (Fighter Butterfly), is the key song here. It’s an irrepressibly cheerful song about a butterfly (held up as an example) that happily struggles on towards its goal (a flower) although its wing is injured. This butterfly even is “snuggling with a rainbow.” I just realized that Thai-Belgian singer Palmy has a very similar, but much sadder song titled “Butterfly” [translated at the website Deungdutjai.com].
Butterflies also used as decoration in Add Carabao’s song คนแบกเป้ Kon Baek Bpay (The Backpacker.) The backpackers arrive at the sunlit side of the mountain, and the friends stand absorbing the moment amongst flowers and butterflies.
The metaphor of a butterfly as a returning ghost is a powerful connotation in the moving song พลจันทร์เดือนเพ็ญ Polachan Duan Pen (Polachan’s [Song] “Full Moon”). Assanee Polachan was a dissident who was missing at the time the song was written. In fact he had died in Laos, as everyone would learn in another few years. The song “Polachan’s ‘Full Moon” begs the missing dissident, “Where are you?” and Add sings: “Whoever is imprisoned/ Whoever is shut in, and locked away/It’s only a body/The heart has wings/Make way to the place/Whatever place is obstructed/ That butterfly is/Polachan[‘s]/song “Full Moon” It seems that Polachan, in the form of his famous beloved song “Full Moon” can reach across all boundaries and connect people who are separated.
A song by the current-day Thai protest band, Commoner, for activist Pai Dao Din (a political prisoner at the time) is titled ฝากรักถึงเจ้าผีเสื้อ “Entrust Love to You, Butterfly,” and includes the line, “Before a body will turn down into the earth, a butterfly will fly to the star[s].” Translated at MusicofThaiFreedom.
Speaking of Pai, his name means “Bamboo.”
To understand bamboo metaphors in Carabao songs, it is important to know that bamboo spreads by sending out runners underground, so that every piece of bamboo in a clump or grove is likely related to each other. ไม้ไผ่ Maai Pai (Bamboo) is one of the most poetic Carabao songs period, and is in fact the second song on Add Carabao’s recent compilation album “Poem” (available by that name on Amazon Music). I have done a rhyming English translation to prove that the lyrics are stunning. In the song, the sound coming from the bamboo flute reminds us that just as all the bamboo in a grove is related and connected, all the people in the world are related and connected.
This metaphor pops up again just once in the Carabao song Tuk Kwai Tuey 8 (The Buffalo with the Short Twisted Horns, Part 8), from a 10 part Tuk Kwai Tey series of songs spread across the first 10 albums. Manohk, the hero of the Tuk Kwai Tuey saga has had a difficult, persecuted life and has just made a mistake such that he must run away and fight in the jungle so he isn’t arrested. By song number 8, it looks like Manohk has doomed himself. But the song encourages him, saying the world still needs people who do good, “you are not alone/On the contrary! A clump of bamboo!” The next verse further spells out that other shoots of bamboo, will pop up soon, “to be shoots, to be rows, to be skin and flesh, to be energy, to be strength of spirit, to be moral support.”*
Of course birds can illustrate freedom (check out an excellent but overlooked Carbabo song แสงทองส่องทาง Saeng Tong Song Tang (Golden Light Lighting the Path), or ความฝัน-ความจริง Kwam Fun- Kwam Jing (Dreams-Truth) by Teewa Sarachuta).
But in Carabao-type songs, birds, like butterflies, are often struggling to survive, in a positive way that is held up as an example for humans. The crows in Kon La Fun (Dream Chaser), the birds in Beek (Wings), Little Bird in Weehok Plad Tin (A Bird Falls to the Ground), and the seagull in Kae Kit Yang Mai Koie (Only Thought About It, Still Haven’t Ever . . .) are all great illustrations of this metaphor.
Birds in Carabao-type songs are also often getting lost (most famously in Telay Jai (Ocean Heart)), and returning to their nests (most famously in คืนรัง Keun Rang (Return to the Nest), by Nga Caravan). Return to the Nest is beautiful song about a famous amnesty in 1980 that allowed many Thai Communists, including presumably Nga Caravan, to surrender and return home. [Translated at Music of Thai Freedom.]
The significance of the Vulture in the famous Carabao song Reng Koi (The Vulture Waits) needs no elaboration. He “waits to see who will fall and who will die” and adds wildness and reality to the scene.
Seagulls are featured in both “Telay Jai” and “Kae Kit Yang Mai Koie.” The Thai word for seagull is นกนางนวล (nok nang nuan). “Nok” means bird, “nang” means woman and “nuan” means creamy white. In older Thai songs, including Carabao songs, woman are often described with this adjective.” An informant explained that the reason “nang” (นาง) (women) are always being called “nuan” (นวล) or “creamy white” ) is it evokes the word for seagull and just sounds nice. That’s good to know. Conversely, we can infer that the seagulls mentioned in Thai songs are perceived as beautiful.
[Incidentally, the word for crow sounds like the sound that a crow makes, “Gaw.” Check out the song กา กา กา (Gaw, Gaw, Gaw) by Palmy, in which she “dances with vultures and crows,” a metaphor for independence. The dancing is awesome!] [Translated at Duengdutjai]
And of course a red bird is included on the Carabao logo, on top of the buffalo skull. I assume that it symbolizes, hope, renewal and freedom.
Any Carabao fan already understands the symbol of the Water Buffalo: they are hard working, uncomplaining, much underappreciated animals that used to plow the fields to provide rice for Thailand. They represent the working class. However, in Thai the word “kwai” (buffalo) is also used as an insult. It is usually not a good thing to be compared to a buffalo. The “Child of the Drunken Uncle,” in the song by that title, migrates from the countryside into Bangkok and is treated as if he is “stained with earth and the smell of musty mud and buffalo.”
The word “Carabao,” of course, means water buffalo, but not in Thai. It comes from Tagalog, a Pilipino language, where if I understand correctly, the water buffalo was used as a symbol for the working class, minus the strong negative stigma. In any case, the band Carabao was formed and named by Thai students studying in the Philippines. (A secondary reason for the band’s choice of name is it sounded like “Caravan,” a Thai Songs for Life band that preceded Carabao.)
The symbol of Carabao is a buffalo skull with a small red bird on its forehead. This symbol is referenced in Carabao songs as “the buffalo head” (Num Bao Sao Parn “Carabao Boy and Parn Girl”) or even just “horns” (secondary meaning of “Wan Waan Mai Mee Kow” (If it weren’t for Her [Today I’d not be here]. The word for him or her (“kow”) is the same as the word for “horns.” Consequently, another way to translate the title, and key line from the song is, “If it weren’t for the Horns (Carabao), today we (the fans) wouldn’t be here.”
To be clear, “Carabao” is not, on its face, an offensive word, like “kwai” (the Thai word for buffalo) might be. To make the name edgy, one has to take an extra step. A Carabao symbol of two buffalos mating does this nicely! You can see this as a sticker on some band members’ guitars, lol.
Carabao wasn’t the first Thai Songs for Life band to symbolically sing about buffalo. One of the band Caravan’s most famous songs is “คนกับควาย” Kon Gap Kwai (Person with Buffalo) set to the tune of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” in 1975. (You can google the YouTube). Though I haven’t translated Kon Gap Kwai, according to Wikipedia, it paints an idylic picture of how a poor farmer and his buffalo take care of each other. It almost certainly helped inspire the aforementioned Tuk Kwai Tuey series of songs (1981 to 1990), which is about a farmer, Manhok, whose favorite buffalo, Tuk is poisoned to death in the first song by an evil capitalist, so that Manohk will be forced to sell his land to him.
Of course, buffalos aren’t only symbolic. There is also direct concern for the buffalo as an animal and their disappearance (along with the elephant) from everyday life as agricultural technology changes. For examples of songs about Buffalos simply look for that heading under Lyrics by Theme.
Stars and hidden stars
Stars are of course a sign of hope. Stars that are hidden by clouds are nevertheless still there, to shine once again when the clouds disappear. There is an old famous Thai protest song, แสงดาวแห่งศรัทธา Saeng Dao Heng Sata (Starlight of Faith) by Jit Phumisak [translated at Music of Thai Freedom] that I believe is key to understanding many other Thai protest songs, and the Thai prodemocracy movement in general. It is hard to overstate the influence of this song. It is sung at current-day protests and lines are quoted in speeches. And, via social media, I’ve heard it sung at both weddings and funerals of activists, including one funeral that Add Carabao attended (of a Caravan band member). There is zero chance that Add does not know this song, which became famous during the Thammasat University Massacre. Legend has it that, right after the massacre, when thousands of students, who had survived the massacre, were arrested and taken off jail, with the movement squashed perhaps forever, the prisoners spontaneously broke out singing this song throughout the prison. [Add Carabao has a lesser-known album commemorating the Thammasat University Massacre: ข้าวสีทอง: รำลึก 20 ปี 6 ตุลา( Golden Ears of Rice: Commemorating the 20th Anniversary of October 6 ). Look for this album in the Lyrics by Album list.]
It is not clear to me that Add Carabao’s songs ever directly reference “Starlight of Faith,” but like the seagull adds it’s special beauty to an adjective describing women, knowing this song adds extra depth to every poetic mention of a star, especially hidden stars. I urge all Carabao fans to familiarize themselves with this song. (I was convinced of its greatness before realizing its historical significance.)
We have already noted the rainbow in Teewa Sarachuta’s ตำนานดวงดาว (Dtamnan Duang Dao) Legend of Stars. Here I note that this song, with “star” in it’s title, is very much in keeping with the feel of “Starlight of Faith.”
The song สุดขอบฟ้า Sud Kob Fah (The Horizon) by the rap group Thaitanium, featuring Add Carabao, is come to think of it, very similar in theme to both “Legend of Stars” and “Starlight of Faith.” Like “Starlight of Faith,” it makes stunning use of the metaphor of the hidden star, but with an individualistic twist. In the punchline of that song, up in the heavens, behind the stormy clouds where our fate is supposedly determined, “a shiny star is sparkling, shining brightly. Who is that star? . . . Tell me, who are you?” Very inspiring. You must check it out.
In many Carabao-type songs, people, especially migrants, look at the moon and miss home. They often ask the moon to send a message to their families, often with the help of the wind.
Young people may not realize that in 1980s when early Carabao songs were written A) cell phones hadn’t been invented yet B) in Thailand, only a few rich people had landlines, and C) everywhere, international calls were prohibitively expensive. Once upon a time, not that long ago, when you left home, there was no way to communicate until you returned. Meanwhile there is always one moon, the same moon the world around, and it’s comforting to think that you and your loved ones, who you can’t reach, at least may be looking at the same moon.
เดือนเพ็ญ Duan Pen (Full Moon) is the iconic looking at the moon and missing home song, which has influenced many other songs. It began as a song by Asanee Polachan, as mentioned above in the “Butterfly” section, and was adapted and popularized by Nga Carawan and Add Carabao, as explained more fully with the song translation. Like “Starlight of Faith,” its influence is hard to overstate. Although it’s not an explicitly political song, its origins are political. It is loved by Thais away from home for any reason, from those going to school abroad to political refugees in exile.
The precedent for asking the Moon for favors may come from a famous Thai children’s lullaby, จันทร์เจ้า Jan Jao (Mr. Moon). A babysitter asks the moon to give the young child a list of things, including rice, and curry; a copper ring, and elephant and a horse toys, a chair, bed, a show [lakorn] to watch, and a grandmother to take care of them. This lullaby is the basis for two other Carabao songs: Summer Hill and Jan Jao Ka (Hey, Mr. Moon). (If you click through to “Hey Mr. Moon,” that page also includes a translation of children’s lullaby with a YouTube version of the song).
Of course, the Moon is used poetically in many other interesting ways. Check out Chang Man Tuh Ngao (Forget it! [I’ll Be] Lonely), the last song on the Bodyslam album Dharmajāti (2014), a song which Add Carabao helped write.
[And Eed Opakul (Add Carabao’s identical twin) has written a mind-bending poem titled, กระต่าย จันทร์ ตะวัน รัก Gradai, Jan, Dtawan, Rak (Rabbit, Moon, Sun, Love) about whether love is real or just imagined, comparing it to seeing the image of a rabbit in the markings of the moon,]
Finally, on the first Carabao album, in the famous song “Drunken Uncle,” the Drunken Uncle famously drinks himself to death and dies under an overpass (one imagines a walking bridge over the traffic in Bangkok). In the sequel, ลูกลุงขี้เมา Luuk Lung Kee Mow (Child of the Drunken Uncle), done for the 25th anniversary album, there is again, in Bangkok, an overpass, this time metaphorical, that Son of the Drunken Uncle expectedly will cross from poverty and hardship over to the good life.
The illustration was made by the author at NightCafe.com using DALL-E and the title of this article.
*[Footnote][Actually, Manohk himself may be a metaphor for a specific person, but until I can verify that tip I won’t go into it. (For a clue, read my footnotes below the translation of the song Tuk Kwai Tuey 6, and, if you can do it, read Add’s shocking “ความในใจ” notes on the album อเมริโกย “Amerigoy.”)