This is Part One in a series about Lao American music artist, Sarky Mekmorakoth.
Music has always been an integral part of my life. I fell into it escaping from the harsh realities of being a 1st gen immigrant child of refugees: out of place, out of time. I found out just how much power it holds, too. Sometimes the electric charge was filled with feverish euphoria and other times, just an echoing sadness filled by gravity-induced silence, and everywhere in between.
Early on, it was my light at the end of the tunnel–the constant melody that sang to me about my worth, filling that primal need for hope within me with hollow, deep, bass-filled down beats. About the only thing that could compare to my love of music and its magic, was my insatiable love of books. If music gave me hope, books and stories showed me what could be waiting if I persevered.
In the mid-80s, when I first discovered Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” it became my anthem. I didn’t know what all of the words meant because I was still learning English–but boy did I believe her when she said I was the future. That’s all I needed to know. Before you write me off as completely bonkers: imagine being the youngest of 8 kids; no one likes you, no one likes having you around, and you’re just bullied daily by one sibling or another the moment they get back home from school. Then, one evening, through the family-calibrated cacophony and the sizzle of protein, sauces, and herbs hitting the oil in the wok; an effortlessly understated, powerful, serene voice, soars above the daily din. In the most clear and heartfelt lifts and riffs, she reassured me that I was not only worth something, but that I had an actual future. Exhale. I clung to that. To this day, I’ve never stopped believing in the power of youth.
One night, after I got home from school, I found my 2nd oldest brother (5th of 8) listening to some heavy metal. It turned out to be a Lao rock group called Mekmorakoth. I don’t know how the hell my brother got hold of these things. Honestly. We were in the middle of freaking nowhere. But I remember sitting there as a band nerd and thinking–there’s Lao people like us out there making music? That have albums out? In America? And it’s not our traditional morlam? Like, that’s a thing? Didn’t they feel the same pressure to succeed in this new world in the expected way? More importantly, the world I inhabited, much like the Grinch’s heart, “grew 3 sizes that day.” In an instant, with one amazing guitar riff, my world became larger, became brighter, and the tunnel became a room with a few doors, bathed in light.
In elementary school, I found I had a knack for music and my band teacher, Mr. Thielen, nurtured that talent in ways every teacher should: high expectations mixed with constructive criticism, and consistent acknowledgement. So, even when it became uncool and high school status meant everything, I kept playing. The flute was my primary instrument from the 5th grade and all through high school. But, like any band buddy worth the moniker, I added to my repertoire because what else are you going to do? I did well with most of the instruments I added but definitely regret that I chose not to do more with the oboe (which turned out to be a big mistake if you’re poor, because: reeds). I never learned any cool instruments, though.
Still, the most powerful piece in that refugee puzzle being solved, was finding out that this kid named Sarky: fingers glossing over that guitar as easily as dry dirt receives water, rocking riffs I’ve rarely heard anyone have the talent do (let alone someone Lao) was the guy with the mad skills from the Lao band. Mind.Blown. I was so proud I took it in to my band teacher and made him listen to it. And he confirmed what I knew, “Wow, that kid has major talent.”
Sometime during the year 2000 or as pop culture will remember it, Y2K, Sarky’s debut solo album, “Sao Online” made its entrance. It was a massive hit of unbelievable proportion. The album proved to be successful both nationally and internationally. No one could have predicted how impactful this album would be to the community. Hell, I was originally a full blown daughter of the Seattle “grunge” scene before making my way across the pond to the likes of the Arctic Monkeys (which meant I hadn’t listened to Lao or Thai music since I was a kid) and it still found a way to reach me. Side note: having older siblings guarantees you’ll know all the famous artists of yesteryear that the community was listening to: Bird/Thongchai, Linda Trang Dai, Ketsana Vilaylack, Phone Phoummithone, Tom Rainbow, all the way to Tommy Page. As you can see–on top of the American music we listened to, there were not many Lao artists we could even choose from. “Sao Online” not only reintroduced me to Lao music, but taught me that it never left, and moreover, that it could last. I just hadn’t been paying attention.
Consequently, Sarky’s “Sao Online” also became the first Lao album I ever willingly chose to purchase. Mind you, these were the days following Napster and burning music and movies was still alive and well.
So, when the opportunity presented itself for me to nab an interview with one of the major influences in my life, I did the whole “Misery” thing and finagled my way to an interview, right? No, luckily he was gracious and obliging. I don’t think I’ve met someone quite so humble and quite so genial. Read on and get to know one of Lao music’s earliest, consistently successful pioneers, the talented and iconic, Sarky Mekmorakoth.
Little Laos: Hey! Thanks so much for agreeing to do this. I know I seem like a stalker, but I promise I’m super lazy with it all. We’ll start easy. Let’s start with the Lao national pastime: food. I’m gonna make that a real thing, I swear. Anyhow, what’s your favorite Lao dish and what would be your last meal?
Sarky: Coming from Luang Prabang, there’s this dish. It’s, wow. It’s called “Moo Nam” not to be confused with Nam Khao. It’s amazing. I can’t speak enough about it. If you’ve never had it before, you need to. For my last meal, I’d add in: Or lam, Mok Poo, and of course Khao Niew. What meal is complete without it, right?
You’re right! That’s a pretty incredible spread. I can’t find fault with it except that I’d add in Mok Nar Mai. Only because that’s MY personal favorite dish. On the flip side, what Lao dish could you live without?
Oh, man. That’s hard. I’ll eat anything that’s put in front of me. I guess, if I had to choose one, gang kee lek? Only because it probably won’t ever make my top favorites list.
That’s fair. That sewage looking stew is not for everyone. So, you come from a long family line of music artists, right? Was it something you fell into or do you really love what you do?
I love music, but definitely fell into it, too. No regrets, at all. All my brothers are musicians. In the early days we formed a band called Mekmorakoth. My dad is 90 years old now, but he was a musician, too. Heck, back in Laos, my dad’s grandfather was a Panya Chao Muang, but he loved music so much so he became, like, a sort of patron of music. I remember our house always having music. I remember grabbing anything and banging on it like drums. My father would give me stuff to bang on, as well. I even remember when I was in the 8th grade, I made my own electric guitar out of just parts. Man, I wish I had been able to take a photo of it or still kept it somewhere. Those days, having pictures was still hard and expensive. Now, it’s so different.
That sounds like an amazing childhood. I mean, how many older siblings want to do anything with their younger siblings–and here, you were in a legitimate rock band with yours! And you’re right. I think the younger generation don’t really know how difficult things really were back then. You really had to want something to make it happen for yourself. I mean, for you to try and create your own electric guitar, is insane. In a cool way. But it shows just how much you loved this and wanted this. As for pictures, I remember it taking weeks to get back and costing a ton of money just to develop one roll! It would be crazy though if you had a picture of that somewhere. So, how many albums and songs have you come out with?
(Above: Sarky’s favorite Mekmorakoth song played by his older brother, and front man for Mekmorakoth, Aroun)
Yeah, you know, it’s crazy how much technology has changed. You don’t think about it so deeply then. Just know in your gut that this is what I want so you just try and do what you can to make it happen. I’ve had 2 solo albums out. There was also an 80s album I helped my brother produce for my dad, Ounheuane Mekmorakoth. My dad was really big on charity and helping the temples back home and one way to do that was through what we already loved and knew: music. All proceeds went to the temple in Banh Xieng Ngeun because it’s not like we were trying to steal from the temple.
Imagine stealing from the temple, and not just someone else’s shoes. It would be the height of baap, tae-tae! Another thing that seems like a strange thing to do would be genre hopping. But you’ve successfully gone through a lot of musical genre hopping: from heavy metal to pop. so I’ve got to ask, what is your actual favorite genre to listen to and what is your favorite genre to play?
Listen, when it comes to music: I love all genres. Good music is good music. I’m not one of those people that restricts themselves to some elite code. Music is made for enjoyment. Not everyone will enjoy the same things. For me, there’s always something I can take and learn and grow from just by being open to what is out there. That’s why I’m just really always listening to the radio. I’m just a huge fan of music. There’s nothing that thrills me more than hearing a new song.
But it’s funny cause, while I’m this huge fan of music, in general, as a guitarist growing up in the 80’s, it’s all about the rock music. Especially when you play the guitar. Nothing is more fun to play than rock music for a guitarist. It’s where you can let go and just go crazy. Let all the stuff inside you just play itself out and so often, it’s never the same twice. Pop is more tame. Guitar riffs is like the microphone for rock music and the 80s. It defined a whole genre and era. I’ve been teaching guitar for the past 15 years, and you don’t get to do anything crazy while teaching them the basics. It’s about getting them prepared and growing them to the next level. So, while that happens during the lessons, there’s times when I miss just letting it all go. There’s this clip of me doing that. I call it “19 seconds of guitar” and it’s wild cause I get to have fun with it. It makes me happy to reconnect with that.
It’s funny, hearing you talk about music and its effect on you. It really just sounds like you’re just this huge fan of music. I love it. I’m the same way. Music is powerful stuff. How many albums and songs have you recorded and created? Of your albums, what’s your favorite and why? From your songs, what’s your favorite and why? Where you’re at right now–was this always your end game? Sorry, that’s a barrage of questions.
I am. I just feel like I’m this lucky kid. A lucky guy. Music to me is about speaking your truth from the heart. I never felt talented or that it was something I could claim alone. But it just always made me feel like magic was flowing through me and I just let it. So I’ll keep doing it because that’s how I feel and how much I love it. This was always my end game. I’ve never had any other dreams or desires for a career. It’s just always been about music.
I’ve been a part of 7 albums. The first 4 albums were written and produced by my brother, the frontman, Aroun Mekmorakoth. I played guitar. There’ve been about 40 songs. After Mekmorakoth, I hit it big with The Exile, in the 90s. This was huge. This was the big break every musician dreams of–being signed by Thailand’s GMM Grammy label. Everyone huge in our neck of the woods has come from them. I wrote my own guitar riffs for the Grammy album. After that, I went solo for my last 2 albums. Around 2000-2001, I released my first solo album, called “Sao Online.” My second solo album was released in 2012, titled, “We are Lao.” That had 10 songs on it. Some songs from that album has been featured in some short films, dramas, documentaries, and will be featured in a film currently shooting in Laos, right now.
My favorite album is “Sao Online.” It’s the first one I went solo on so it holds some sentimental value to me. People made fun of me for it but it was a fun album and I think despite the silliness of it, it spoke to people. I didn’t expect anything from it and it turned out to be hugely successful. So it was a really nice surprise.
My favorite song is off the second album, “We are Lao,” called “Hao Pen Khon Lao.” I wrote it for Lao people. Our people: scattered all over the world. This song was about bringing us all together and uniting us as Lao and proud. It was about how no matter where we are or how far we go, we’re still Lao together. I hope it reconnected Lao people everywhere with our roots.
I loved “Sao Online.” That song and that album came out during the internet’s infancy and everyone was chatting and reaching out to this greater world around them. It was bright and full of light and possibilities. “Sao Online” was also the first Lao music album I ever purchased! That’s how much I liked it. As for “Hao Pen Khon Lao”…I think you accomplished your mission. I’ve been to a live show now and the shift in energy that song brings out, not to mention the insane decibel the crowd reaches…it’s wild. I really feel like this has become our anthem. Lao America’s call to power and pride. I know for me, it’s a definite shift in my energy and intensity. Speaking of something that could potentially be difficult–if you could change one choice you’ve made, musically or business-wise, what is that one thing you’d change?
Wow. This is an amazing question. I think this is a great question. I wouldn’t change my decision, but I think every artist has that “What if…” moment. The big decision they make that changes their future. For me, it was in 1996. I mentioned earlier I was the guitarist for The Exile. It was a big album, signed by Thailand’s GMM Grammy. It’s the largest label in Thailand. Every big Thai artist comes from that label, from Thongchai “Bird” McIntyre to Loso! They had their people from Thailand fly to Canada and we were flown out to Canada to shoot the video. I’d never been involved with something that was that big a deal. It was this huge production. We finished the first five music videos and that’s when it happened. We were all supposed to go to Thailand to tour and support the album. I didn’t think anything of it at first, until I found out it was for 2 years. It was crushing. I knew I couldn’t go. I wanted to, but I just had a daughter, she was two years old at the time, and I had this heart to heart talk with the producer. He told me that the tour would make us bigger than I could even dream of; but that we’d be exposed to drugs, models, women constantly throwing themselves at us, and everything else that comes with that world. He asked me if I thought I was strong enough to withstand that constant pressure for that long, and, if I thought I could, then I’d still have a family to come back to. But if the answer is no, a decision would have to be made. It was the biggest moment in my life, starting a family and now the biggest moment in my career.
I chose my daughter.
I chose my daughter.
I knew that if I went, I would not have a future with her in my life when I returned. And, you know, I have no regrets about that decision. I have an amazing life and family now. So, while, I would not go back and change the past, it’s still in the back of my mind–that “what if” decision. So, I dropped the biggest contract of my career and chose not to do it. I’m so happy with what I have, and where I’m at in my life and the people in it, but, what if it happened? That’ll stay with some small part of me, too. A lot of people asked and couldn’t understand the decision. It’s pretty crazy. A guaranteed life and to give it all up for someone else. What would my life be like now if I had made the opposite decision? I mean, for one of the songs, they blocked off a portion of downtown Toronto for a video! That’s a lot of investment. They really saw a future for us.
They did contact me again after my first response to them to see if I would change my mind. But I didn’t. People don’t understand the situation you’re in. They think maybe I just did it because I got too big in my head. But it’s not like that at all, you know. It was a tough decision. I wouldn’t change my decision. I really wouldn’t. I love my life, now, but that doesn’t mean I don’t understand the full impact of my decision.
So, yeah, I do have one regret from that decision. And it’s something I’ll always carry. When you’re in a band, you’re a family. These guys–I’ve known them since I was young: we grew up together and we lived life like a family. I let them down. And that’s something that haunts me, to this day. I just wasn’t in the same place they were at the time. I couldn’t do it.
I carry that. I’ll always carry that.
(Above: Sarky’s favorite Exile song)
My turn to say, wow. That’s intense. I mean, this is going to sound strange, but what you had to do–is a decision every woman has to make at a certain point in her career. It’s either her career or a family. Right around the time someone’s career starts taking off is around the early-mid 30s and that’s also when that so-called biological clock starts ticking and the societal pressure builds into this roaring inferno of accusations. It’s not cool that you had to go through that, but I do wish more men had to. (laugh). For what it’s worth, it’s a tough decision. There are no easy answers to that. The women that choose to take a break and raise kids and have a family, once they try to reenter the workplace, the guy working below them is now their boss. The ones that choose their career are branded some pretty terrible names and take a huge risk. The majority try to do both with little to no help from the husband because while she’s taken on more of a role in society and is contributing monetarily to the family unit now, he has never had society pressure him into being more involved in the home. But don’t get me started here…
Stay tuned! Part Two of Conversations with Sarky: Going Solo will be posted soon.