Hugo (Lek) Chakrabongse Levy

I had long been wishing to post at this site about singer/songwriter Hugo, who is half-Thai and half-Farang (Western), and who has totally conquered both Thai and Western music scenes. My desire to rave about this artist is due to an amazing concept album/music video (at the top of this page) that came out in 2021 for which he won Best Album of the Year from Thailand’s Guitar Mag. It is titled เรือสำราญราตรีอมตะ (Immortal Night Cruiseship), and is about a futuristic cruise spaceship from the perspective of the Thais who work and travel on it. I played the album over and over, translated most of the songs, and reviewed the album for friends on Facebook. The problem was how to tie Hugo to Carabao for the purposes of posting something at this site. Hugo did play Thierry Mekwattana in Young ‘Bao: The Movie (2013) about the origins of the band Carabao. With that slim excuse, I set out to research an article on Hugo for Carabao in English.

And I quickly learned that Hugo is as tightly linked to Carabao as any of the previous artists I covered in this series! And in almost exactly the same way: Carabao band members produced, composed songs for, and sang and played on some of this artist’s earliest albums (with the band สิบล้อ Sip Lor). And, if I understand correctly, Hugo broke into the English-language market after composing and singing a striking song in English for a special album by Add Carabao responding to the 2004 Tsunami. (For serious Carabao fans, details are listed at the bottom of this article under the heading “Hugo-Carabao Connections.” For others, I focus on those aspects of Hugo’s career that will likely be most interesting to Westerners.)

Hugo was born in the UK, grew up mostly in Thailand, spent a lot of time in New York City, USA, and may now be back in Thailand. What is fascinating, is that Hugo inhabits two cultures, Thai and Western, so perfectly, that each side naturally claims him as their own. Thais note that he has “royal blood,” being a direct descendant of King Chulalongkorn, and are familiar with him from the band Siplor and Thai dramas that he acted in in his youth. In the West, he is known for writing the song “Disappear” for Beyoncé, covering Jay-Z’s song “99 Problems” as a country tune, and for two exclusively English-language albums: Old Tyme Religion (2011) and Deep in the Long Grass (2014). He is signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label. It appears that most of his English-language fans are unaware he is Thai.

I went to see him once in New York City. Hugo sang through his English-language repertoire for the first half of the show, then announced (something like), “Heads up: I will be singing the next several songs in, strangely enough, … Thai [wild cheering from the Thai fans]. I don’t want anyone to fear they’re having a stroke” (if they suddenly don’t understand the lyrics, lol . . .).

The new album เรือสำราญราตรีอมตะ (Immortal Night Cruiseship) is fascinating. All 6 songs describe a space cruise ship using a variety of very different musical styles but all are spacey and sci-fi. The video’s amazing cartoon animation is an integral part of the whole artistic project. You will want to watch the music video at least once all the way through, and after that the album works well as background music as it is very “flow.” At least two of the songs are especially “Thai.” The second song tells about the experience of Thai entertainers among the international entertainers. The third is about migrant workers missing home, a common theme from luuk tung, mor lam, and plaeng pua chewit Thai musical styles, and he totally nails the feel of this “missing home” Thai musical convention even though the story is set in space. The fourth song is about the experience of workers in the engine room. The fifth is about the captain, who demands obedience and discipline. The sixth is about the positive experience of passengers of the ship, who it appears, find love (I haven’t looked at that one closely). Below is the list of songs, with hyperlinks to the translation (if I have done it):

1. เรือสำราญราตรีอมตะ (The Immortal Night Cruiseship)
2.( ดังที่สุดในจักรวาล The Most Famous in the Universe)
3. ลูกเรือ (Ship Staff)
4. ห้องเครื่อง (Engine Room)
5. กัปตัน (Captain)
6. เชื้อไฟ (Tinder)

Hugo explains the album concept (in Thai) here:

Hugo-Carabao Connections

[Edit: Long after writing this article, I realized that in 2002, Hugo and Add acted together a TV drama called ลูกผู้ชายหัวใจเพชร (Man with a Diamond Heart), with Hugo starring as the young man Phet (meaning Diamond) and Add playing his father Nop. This is why they are both associated with a song from the original soundtrack of that drama, which was first sung by Hugo: คนไม่มีสิทธิ์ Kon Mai Mee Sit (Someone with No Right). Add, as Nop, appears in the music video for the song.]

According to Wikipedia, singer/songwriter Hugo (born in 1981) is among a younger generation of artists influenced by the Songs for Life genre. His second album with the band สิบล้อ Sip Lor “มนต์รักสิบล้อ” (Sip Lor Love Spell), released in 2003, under “More Music with Pom” was produced by Thierry Mekwattana (one of the top three Carabao band members) with Asanee “Pom” Chotikul in charge. Siplor’s third album เสียงเพลงสิบล้อ (The Sound of Sip Lor) was again produced by Theirry. And Yuenyong Opakul, aka Add Carabao, composed one song for the album (alas, I can’t determine which one). The third Sip Lor album เงิน ๆ ทอง ๆ (Silver and Gold) was produced by Keow Carabao, because Thierry was too busy but he did lend advice and play acoustic guitar on the song ขอรักอีกครั้ง (I Want to Love Again).

Then, if I understand correctly, Hugo went “inter[national]” after he composed an English-language song for Add Carabao’s album about then-recent Tsunami. This was the most devastating tsumani in history, killing over 230,000 people the day after Christmas, on December 26, 2004, including 5,400 in Thailand (2,000 of whom were tourists). Add Carabao’s song “ซับน้ำตาอันดามัน” (Absorb the Tears, Adaman Sea) is here. Hugo’s song titled “26/12/04” song is below:

Later, Hugo played a young Thierry Mekwattana, in the movie “Young ‘Bao” (2013), the second movie made about the (somewhat fictionalized) origins of the band Carabao, the first being เสียงเพลงแห่งเสรีภาพ (Music of Freedom) made in 1985 with the actual band members playing themselves. Thierry, like Hugo, is half-Thai and half Farang, which may be a reason Hugo was cast as Thierry. Here is my review of Young ‘Bao.

Further information available in Thai in this joint interview with Hugo and Add: “คู่หูทางดนตรี คู่ซี้ต่างวัย แอ๊ด คาราบาว และ ฮิวโก้ จากรายการ พัน” (“Music duo, Best friends of different ages: Add Carabao and Hugo, from the show A Thousand Moons”)