A newly crowned King starts Bangkok’s first live musical radio broadcast, turning the nation on to jazz
Soon after His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej received the crown in 1950, and had settled into Ambhorn Sathan Villa, a modest residence hall in the Dusit Palace complex, he formed a musical group called Lay Kram consisting of himself on saxophone, clarinet and trumpet, and local Bangkok musicians—sometimes university students—on piano, guitar, double-bass, and brass. Few Thai musicians played jazz in the early 1950s, so the King would introduce them to songs from his record collection and, where necessary, teach visiting players the parts to be played. Some of the musicians in this band, and the later Aw Saw Friday Band, received all of their musical training, from the very beginning, from His Majesty.
The King soon had the idea to establish a radio station at Ambhorn Sathan so that jazz could be broadcast to the public. As a child in Switzerland, he had absorbed himself in radio technology and built his own ham radio. Bringing that knowledge to bear, and with consultation from radio experts, he submitted a plan to the Cabinet. Under decree by the Cabinet, the Public Relations Department presented the King with a powerful Johnson Viking 100-watt transmitter, and on 15 September 1952 the palace radio station began daily broadcasts of jazz pieces—including musical compositions by His Majesty—from 11am to noon.
It was known as Withayu Aw Saw (withayu means ‘radio’, with aw saw being the Thai initials for Ambhorn Sathan), and programming was decided by the King, who sometimes also acted as announcer and disc jockey. Later, when the station had a regular volunteer DJ and began taking phone requests, sometimes the King himself would answer the phone. The King also utilized the radio station as a platform for raising funds for charitable purposes, such as the Polio Assistance Fund (1952), Cholera Eradication Fund (1958-1959), and relief fund for flood victims in the north (1961) and storm victims in the south (1962).
Once the Lay Kram band began playing live Friday performances for the radio station, the name was changed to Wong Aw Saw Wan Suk (Aw Saw Friday Band), which eventually numbered 14 persons. All of the members were volunteers, and included bankers, students, professors, admirals, and even former Prime Minister Seni Pramoj, who played bass and trombone.
Sunday evenings the band would meet at the palace and practice for the following Friday’s broadcast performance. Pianist Manrat Srikaranonda, a Chulalongkorn University student whom the King had met while visiting the university, became the King’s chief assistant and remained the band’s secondary leader until His Majesty King Bhumibol’s passing. Professional musicians would occasionally join the group as well.
Dr. Pathorn Srikaranonda, Manrat’s son, had the highest musical education of any band member in the group’s history, having earned a bachelor of music in composition from the University of Michigan, followed by a master’s degree in musical composition at Yale University, and a doctorate in musical composition at the University of Edinburgh.
The youngest member of the Aw Saw Friday Band, since he joined at age 14, Dr. Pathorn has described the King’s approach as a bandleader: “Everybody leaves their worries at the door before we even start. There is no inferior or superior, whether class or musicianship; music itself is king and nothing else matters. From the first day I joined the band, I realised that His Majesty is a real teacher. He tries to encourage everyone to develop their abilities. He listens to everyone play, and his ear is perfect, getting all the details of each chord and each beat. He will know right away who is making a mistake, and then work with them to get the music on track. He is a very compassionate bandleader.”
When the royal family moved to the Chitralada Villa in Dusit Palace in 1966, the radio station was relocated there as well. By this time the King’s duties were so involved that daily broadcasts were reduced to Wednesday afternoons for Western music, Friday evenings for the Aw Saw Band, and Sunday morning and afternoons, when one hour of Thai music was followed by one hour of Western music. At its peak in the 1960s, the Friday broadcasts reached an average 22 million listeners in central Thailand.
The Sunday evening rehearsals and Friday evening broadcasts continued without change. According to Manrat, if the King had ceremonial duties outside the palace, he might arrive at a session direct from the occasion, pick up his saxophone, and began playing while still dressed in his royal uniform and regalia. Only urgent state matters, illness, or travel abroad would interrupt the weekly schedule.
Dr. Pathorn was surprised to find out that the King always cleaned and maintained his musical instruments himself. “His Majesty liked to compare the band to society,” he said. “He says everyone in the band has his own duty. The singer is not more important than the bass player or drummer or any player. Everyone is equally important in producing the music. Likewise, this applies to society at large. If everyone in society knows and performs their own duties, society will progress and be peaceful.”