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SEPTEMBER 18, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 11


Yvan Cohen for TIME.
Swedish-born Jonas Anderson, Thailand's hottest country music star, performing live in Nakhon Ratchasima in northeastern Thailand.

Swede Sound of Success
The hottest singer in the tradition-steeped world of Thai country music comes from the land of ABBA
By ROBERT HORN Nakhon Ratchasima

ALSO
'Never Did I Imagine I Would Be Doing Something Like This'
Web-Only interview with Jonas Anderson, the Swedish-born, Thai singing sensation

Thailand's newest singing sensation defies the typical image of the country's hitmakers. He isn't a teenager. He isn't a part-time model. He certainly isn't a fashionable member of the Bangkok club scene. In fact, he isn't even Thai. That's right, the hottest name in luk thung, Thailand's country music, is Jonas Anderson: blond, blue-eyed and 100% Swedish. "I love his songs," says Wanna Chaprakon, a Thai luk thung singer who performs in nightclubs around northeastern Thailand. "He sings better than a Thai."

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TIME at the Olympics: Sydney 2000
TIMEasia, TIMEeurope, TIMEpacific and TIME.com bring you our take on the first Olympics of the new millennium

SUMMER OLYMPICS: One More Scandal
On the eve of the Sydney Games, China suspends several athletes for, you got it, illegal drug use

INDONESIA: In Harm's Way
After the gruesome murder of three U.N. relief workers in West Timor, pressure mounts for Wahid to rein in the militias

BURMA: No Exit
The junta tightens its grip, calculating that the West won't care

CHINA: Cloak and Dagger
Missionary 007s are converting more and more Christians

SINGAPORE: Viewpoint
Philip Bowring praises efforts to lift the birth rate

INDIA: A Life Apart
Eunuchs are banding together to demand basic rights

MUSIC: Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)
Thailand's biggest country music star is a blue-eyed Swede

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The world has seen crossover acts before. White guys like Eminem doing rap; black guys like Hootie singing bubble gum; Vietnamese bands in Saigon belting out Sweet Home Alabama. But Anderson must be one of the music industry's wider stretches. The 27-year-old Swede's debut album Pom Chu Jonas (My Name is Jonas) has sold more than 200,000 copies since its June 15 release, an astonishing start for a luk thung album. "Right now, he's the most famous luk thung singer there is," says Panya Buranasoon, a salesman at the Saraburi branch of Mangpon, a nationwide record chain store. "His album is sold out." Not bad for a guy who grew up listening to ABBA.

Anderson's is partly a novelty act. Few Westerners bother to learn the local language, let alone master the distinctive flavor and dialects of the nation's music. "Being a foreigner definitely helps," says Anderson, who moved to Thailand as a child with his parents. The extent of his popularity becomes abundantly clear on a recent Saturday night in the northeastern town of Nakhon Ratchasima. Although the show has hardly been advertised, 3,000 fans crowd around a temporary stage behind a shopping mall to watch the Swede belt out bluesy luk thung classics as he shakes and sways with the lithe, slightly effeminate moves typical of some Thai country singers, backed by a 10-piece band and a dozen Thai dancers. Old women clap and children dance on plastic chairs. One man at the concert shouts out repeatedly that he's going to change his name to Jonas.

That outpouring of affection is ironic in many ways. Luk thung has traditionally been as much a symbol of Thailand as elephants or rice farming. During the economic boom of the late 1980s and early '90s, the music waned in popularity as Thais increasingly embraced Western dress, fast food and pop music. But after the financial collapse of 1997 many Thais blamed foreigners for the meltdown, and a renewed sense of national pride took hold. Campaigns were launched urging people to buy Thai products, eat Thai food and rediscover Thai culture. But the patriotic fervor didn't block Anderson's path to success. "Luk thung needed something new," says Suraphong Triamchanchai, president of Bangkok radio station Luk Thung FM. "Jonas came along at the right time."

The road to singing stardom hasn't been especially glamorous. Anderson began singing the music only five years ago, teaching himself the tunes and asking Thai friends to write out lyrics and help him with pronunciation. A member of a Christian volunteer group, he would perform at orphanages, old-age homes and prisons. Word of his singing prowess spread, and in January he was offered a recording contract. Anderson says he always wanted a career in music: "But never did I imagine I would be doing something like this."

At the moment, his songs are among the most requested on Luk Thung FM. But when the novelty dies down, it's hard to say how far the foreigner can go: even most Thai singers end up as one-hit wonders. For the moment, Anderson is happy to take whatever's coming. "I'll just keep touring and keep learning," he says. "It's all been such a rush."

ALSO
'Never Did I Imagine I Would Be Doing Something Like This'
Web-Only interview with Jonas Anderson, the Swedish-born, Thai singing sensation

Write to TIME at mail@web.timeasia.com

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