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30 years of Kamphee

Legend's songs of love, loss and life's struggles move the crowd at Impact Arena Muang Thong Thani

No matter who you were, where you came from, or what you did, all the barriers of class, education and politics were torn down last Saturday at Pongsit Kamphee's 30th anniversary concert -- "30 Years Kamphee: You're My Friend".

It was one of the loudest and emotional crowds ever heard at Impact Arena Hall, as almost 10,000 people of different ages and backgrounds became one -- letting go of their worries and sorrows to the songs of life and love.

Pongsit (also known by many as Kamphee) is known as the godfather of songs for life (pleng phua cheewit) -- a form of protest music that came about in the 1970s and centred on the hardships of the working class. For the last three decades, he's considered to be the voice of the voiceless -- releasing 18 full-length albums full of heart-wrenching and soul-tearing songs on adversity, grief and the sorrows of life and love. With his simple yet poetic lyrics, an emotional and guttural voice paired with heavy rock or melodic riffs, his music resonates with Thais from all walks of life.

Even though he's toured non-stop and is the only musician to perform repeatedly in all 878 districts in Thailand, tickets to the concert still quickly sold out. Impact Arena Muang Thong Thani was packed with fans from all over the Kingdom wearing bandanas (Pongsit's signature), northeastern style scarves (where Pongsit hails from), and commemorative "30 Year Kamphee" T-shirts to celebrate the extremely rare arena performance that happens about every once in five years.

Photos courtesy of Warner Music Thailand

The lines to get into the concert hall were so long they snaked their way outside the arena perimeters, causing many (including myself) to miss the first few songs of the show. Walking into the hall, Pongsit, wearing a black bandana, a black jacket, jeans and flaming red Converse was already rocking out centre stage playing Raeng Yung Mee (I Still Have Energy) with 10-or-so people up with him dancing to the music.

The circular stage where he stood was located in the middle of the hall with the crowd surrounding him from all sides. Once a few more fast songs ended, he moved to sit at a different point in the circle with his acoustic guitar, drawing huge screams as everyone realised that they would all get to see him equally.

"My father isn't here today," he mused into the microphone while strumming his guitar. "But my mother is."

His mother appeared on the circular LED screen above his stage. The crowd roared, knowing his heartbreaking hit song Mae (Mother) was coming up next.

"I'm happy for everyone who can take care of their mother, because I don't really have the chance," he said as he started off his song.

At that very moment, the voices of 10,000 people flooded the arena, almost muting Pongsit's deep and soulful voice. Pongsit's songs provided an outlet for whatever frustrations his audience was experiencing and they responded with cheers and by singing along. He played hit after hit on the hardness of life for another three hours and the crowd's sound and energy never wavered.

After 10 songs, Pongsit took a pause and unexpectedly invited Nga Caravan and Lek Carabao -- the true fathers of pleng phua cheewit on stage. After a bit of banter and Lek commenting on how strange the stage location was, the stage started to spin, and the trio hit off with Thung Puan (To My Friend), a song from his very first album which Pongsit described to the laughing crowd as "a complete failure".

Playing two more songs together, the pair left, with Pongsit picking up the pace, playing another seven hit songs including Rak Dieaw (One Love), Noom Noi (Young Boy), Oh … Yeh, and Sood Jai (Wholeheartedly).

Although the impressive stage, lighting, confetti, fire cannons and even a surprise performance by Thai boxer Buakaw Banchamek added to the atmosphere of the concert, it was the connection between Pongsit and the audience that was the most awe-inspiring.

The seats were barely sat on as most people ended up standing, dancing, or just moving their bodies hypnotised by the music. Nearing the end of the concert, Pongsit sang some of his most gut-wrenching and popular songs -- Kae Nun (That's It), and Yoo Trong Nee (Over Here). The audience sang along loudly, as the camera panned into the crowd and captured men and women tearing up and sobbing with the song. Ending the concert with his most famous song Samer (Always), he thanked everyone for coming, informed them that he'll be on the road again the next day, and the concert hall went dark.

The audience though didn't give up. In a deafening roar, they asked for more. They sang more songs, and finally Pongsit came back for one more song -- telling everyone to make their way out of the arena and get home safely while he played.

The three-hour performance went by in an instant, and no one knows when he'll ever do an arena show again. But one thing's for sure: he's a rare and legendary talent in the Thai music industry -- an artist that any Thai should watch live at least once.

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