Entertainer Todd Lavelle, aka Thongdee, aged 34, is from Scranton Pennsylvania. The son of Shirley (Black-Irish heritage), and the late Thomas Lavelle (German heritage), Todd is the third of six kids, and only God knows how many foster brothers and sisters. In 1985, he unfortunately lost two of his foster brothers in a car crash. He graduated from the University of Scranton in 1985 with bachelor degrees in biology and Asian history and then he joined the cruise staff of the Cunard Line as an entertainer on the Queen Elizabeth II.
After cruising the world Todd took his first Fulbright scholarship and came to study at Chulalongkorn University under the tutelage of Dr Ekarin Saifah, one of the world's great herbalists. Dr Siafah studies what herbs work for the treating the symptoms of arthritis.
While in Bangkok Todd performed on stage on spec, and so impressed Caravan's bass player Suthep that he ended up dragging Todd to Japan for two months as a percussionist and singer. So began Todd's mainstream musicianship, and when that gig was up Todd headed stateside, but problems including the death of his father made him unhappy so he headed back to Thailand ostensibly to sing and be entertainment director at a Chiang Mai hotel.
He then took a job as a staff development officer at the Phanat Nikhom Refugee Center which was run by "Consortium," a group of three agencies; Save the Children, Experimentation in International Living, and the World Children's Foundation. Todd later did a second Fulbright at Chiang Mai University in Burmese politics while working on his M.A. in Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii.
But by this time Todd's love of music and taken a firm hold of him and he began to practice and get better. In 1990 he performed in the Artists for AIDS concert at Lumpini Park in front of 50,000 people, and then he joined the ZUZU band in their tour of forty provinces throughout Thailand. The next year he did the Super Star tour with Aed Carabao, Nga Caravan, and ZUZU. The rest is history.
Lavelle has also penned a column for The Nation (called "Inside/Outside" also the name of his debut album which sold 20,000 copies and was acclaimed for blending Thai and western music). Todd is also currently being wooed by a Thai magazine to be their managing editor, and those in the know say his album The Promise (also a book) could in the near future be turned into a rock opera for Broadway.
Why did you stay in Scranton to study and not go away?
Well, I had offers from Colombia and Cornell, but my sister had a boy and wasn't in a position to raise it so my father asked me to do it.
The boy, J.T., is seventeen now. He's a big boy and he is mulatto. I brought him here to work on recording my last album. He is having a tough time now but he will be ok. He's a good guy, but he could be a great guy. He's just a little lazy, and a little too creative.
But, also the University of Scranton is run by Jesuits. I went to a Jesuit high school, and no one provides a better education than they do. They can be real tough and they can be real nice, but they really make you work. They take five and make it ten.
Who inspired you to study Asian culture?
Dr Ann Hill a beautiful Asian history teacher. Ironically, next year I will be going back to Scranton to teach a course called "Rhythm of the Earth" which is a biographical journey through Thailand.
Tell us a little about your folks?
My dad taught me that with respect and laughter you can go anywhere. He died twelve years ago. He was an amazing guy - an Olympic diver, a Broadway actor, and he ended up being an engineer. My mom is a paralegal and she runs a nightclub, She is the most famous mom in my town. She is my best friend, and my executive producer. Whatever I do, I call her first and get her opinion.
Has learning Thai been so easy for you because you are a musician and it is a tonal language?
I prefer to think of it as hard work. There really isn't much of an excuse to not learn Thai if you have been living here for a long time. I mean, we are not talking about a language that is ridiculously tough like German here. Foreigners that live here and don't learn Thai probably don't do well in a lot of things because a little pick of work will take you a long way in Thai. It takes a child's approach, and it's got to be fun.
Basically, farangs feel embarrassed when they try to speak Thai and Thais laugh at them. But, remember Thais are not laughing to be cruel but because they feel uncomfortable as well, and they don't know how else to respond. It is also easy for foreigners not to learn Thai because they have the pillow of English to fall back on.
Remember although English is a very exact, and very beautiful it is a pisser of a language to learn. The degrees of grammar I believe are meant to clarify meaning and I sometimes just to make people feel stupid. In Thai on the other hand there are no exceptions except maybe a couple of tricks like tha thahan and ra rua. If you know how to read and write Thai then you know how to read and write Thai.
Central Thai is actually just a bridge to the beauty of this country which is the regional languages. In my album Rhythm of the Earth we have about ten different languages. For a northern Thai song we use a northern Thai dialect, for a southern song we sing in a southern dialect, for a Hilltribe song we sing in Akha, etc. And I didn't even plan it that way, it just happened.
How have you been able to communicate so well with the Thai people?
I'm real, and it's all I know how to be, and Thai people have been very receptive to that. Start being real and you will get real friends, and real friends keep you real.
I've been successful at packaging - putting something heavy- duty inside something funny. Samee noi is funny, but there is something to be said there and it hits a nerve.
But, you have to be able to adapt. I am lucky in that I have always been around a lot of people. You have to be yourself in a whole bunch of colors. Remember human beings whether they be rich or poor share the same hungers so you should approach people at those hungers, the hunger to laugh, the hunger to know, and then you can transcend class.
My views are very strong and very clear, and to be honest I've gone against all the rules. Things like don't go on TV with long hair, don't - especially as a foreigner - talk about foibles in society like sex.
I get hundreds of letters from kids about fifteen years old which say, "I saw you on that comedy show - how come you were so stupid, how come you have to be so stupid?" But, the Thai people keep me in line, I mean I have forty million bosses.
Who are some of your heroes?
Most of my heroes are everyday people, but my more notable heroes include Father Joe Maier, the slaughterhouse priest in Klong Toey. Also musician Aed Carabao (Yunyong Opakul) who I think is the hardest working artist I know, and I think he is Thailand's greatest teacher.
I admired Sueb Nakhasathien who shot himself dead in September of 1990. I performed to help raise money to help safeguard both Huay Kha Khaeng, one of the largest natural forests in Southeast Asia, which he fought so hard to preserve, and the Sueb Nakhasathien Foundation.
I'm also a great fan of Aung San Suu Kyi. Burma is going to eventually blow-up, and I hope to be the first one to piss on SLORC's graves.
I don't talk much about my faith because God I can't stand missionaries, but I really admire Jesus Christ. Here's a guy who just took love and worked with it everyday, and put it into action.
Are you optimist or a pessimist?
I'm more excited than afraid about the future. Just let the grown-ups die and let the good people - the kids - take over. They are the owners anyway. We are all just renting this place. The kids today are creating some phenomenal things, but there are offshoots to that. For example, when a Thai boy learns how to express himself it is a good thing, but before being able to express himself correctly he says nasty things to his parents, so they say he has lost respect for them. But, the kid has gained some measure of independence too. So, it is important that Thai kids strike a balance by finding ways to express themselves without being disrespectful.
This is the first generation in the history of the world that ever was concerned about the environment. Before there was such an abundance of land and resources to destroy that it just didn't matter, we could kill it all and it just didn't matter, but now we will need absolute honesty if we are to go on. With the availability of press and Internet that young people have now this is the age of honesty where young people have their own choices.
You've butted heads with Thais over their relationships with their children - tell us about it?
How do you talk to your children? I've said on TV and in the papers time and time again, and some Thais disagree with me, that Thais have never talked to their children - just at them. I feel for today's Thais adults because they are dealing with a new language - one that involves a give and take with their children. My latest book A Life Handbook deals with: How do you talk to kids? Where do you start? How do you talk about sex? etc.
Thai students are good at what they need to do to survive. American students need to think to survive, Thai students don't have to, and in fact it would probably get them in trouble if they did.
When a farang English teacher asks a Thai student, "What do you think?," and gets a blank student, the students is really thinking, "I've never had the chance to practice but would I like to try? Yes." There is a censorship process here that starts at a very young age and in effect not only not stops the leaf from falling but the root from even growing.
In defense of Thai youths however, they outdo American youths in their ability to express themselves in letters, and given the opportunity to express themselves they are better than Westerners. So, the resource is there - now let's just manage it.
What about your work with prisoners?
Using my face as a ticket I can get into prisons but it is a selfish endeavor for me. I enjoy going to places with people who have been to other worlds. Am I Saint Joan? No, I'm a professed scumbag. But regular normal folks, so-called OK people, will bore you to tears because they are all walking around the same room. I'm just looking for new resources.
The anger that a man felt who has killed his family of four came from the same well that made me kick the sh*t out of my older brother but I didn't have a gun handy, and I had some form of anger management. But, I know that I am capable of killing someone given the right set of circumstances. So when I key into that emotion I'm not afraid of it. Besides without fear we can really sit and talk, can't we?
I started a seminar called, "Between the gun and the pen." It's about trying to get prisoners to think and feel, and find out what made them kill those people? What did it feel like to squeeze that guy's throat? Let's go into that emotion, and not fear it. And, can they take that fire and put it into a pen and not the barrel of a gun?
One of the first things I said at Lad Yao prison, and believe me the warden was slightly taken aback, was, "What if you spent one-third of the time you spend masturbating and read. Same emotion - desire, same action - fantasy but just translated it into another action. I'm not even saying its a good thing - just think about it. Remember, as there is such a fine line between anger and intelligence there is a wealth of intellects in prison.
How did you get started working with the handicapped?
I come from a very big family - there was always at least twenty of us. My sister was deaf and autistic so we were all became resource managers out of necessity.
Look, everyone has abilities and everyone has disabilities. It's just that some are more obvious that others. But it is not about what you are missing, it's about what can you do? And, then what's in the way of you doing that?
The thing that fascinates me about the handicapped is that some say, "Life stinks," while others carry on as if nothing is wrong. And I don't know why that is, but if I did I would definitely bottle it."
Rhythm of the Earth which is distributed by Warner Music, drew together between 300-400 disabled and traditional musicians. Our performances were designed to raise money for the Foundation of the Handicapped Children. The album itself was performed in ten languages, and so far we've put on about ten shows. The last show was called The Color of the Earth, and it was just songs by disabled artists with no fancy mixes.
You've accomplished a lot in a short time. Do you ever sit back and go "oh, wow?"
I don't take enough time to sit back and smell the roses. Once I finish one thing I'm on to the next. I did my latest album, The Promise, in one month, but I didn't even hear it until seven months later. I used schizophrenic patients for that album, but people told me that would never work - it did. Then they said no one would ever buy it - it has already sold 50,000 copies.
On keeping grounded well you know someone like Father Joe will call me and say, "What the hell are you doing? I've been thinking about you, and praying for you. Well, that will just rip the sh*t out of any aura you might have had around you.
How do you see yourself and your work?
Well, when I first started doing all this stuff I did it in the name of America, but now honestly more in the name of humanity. We need a new race, and we are creating it, we really are. And it is definitely not one world, that's a crock. We are all very different.
I'm not Thai, and I'm not trying to be. I'm not some guy who dresses up in government clothes and goes to fancy functions to play that drama - that's horsesh*t to me. I'm just me. I'm more than American, I'm Scrantonian, I'm Lavellian.
What about hobbies and future plans?
One day I'd like to have a farm with lots of kids and animals, but I don't know if that would be here or back in the USA. But even if I did go home I would never leave Thailand forever.
Next year "Rhythm of the Earth" will be "Rhythm of the Earth-Asia," and in the past year we've been to eight countries looking for musicians and loving it.
His newest album "You and Me" which is also a radio show and an album will be out in April.
My hobbies include hoop. I love basketball and I play everyday. In high-school I was a competitive Graeco-Roman wrestler. I love books and I love to write. Right now I write for the Nation Junior, and a Thai movie magazine called Star and Style, as well as a travel mag called ROM, but I'd love to one day have a regular column in an English paper.
Any advice for foreigners living here on how to deal with financial racial discrimination, and the `ignore the farang thing'?
Well, again if you are living here there really isn't any excuse not to learn the language. If you speak Thai it is easier to tell someone they are overcharging you. Also, always use humor - it helps. Makes jokes, and asks questions instead of making statements. For example, if a Thai cuts in front of you ask them, "Are you in a hurry," or "Can you tell me where the line starts?" That sort of thing. Also, find someone to translate if you can't do it yourself, lots of people speak both languages.
Educator, musician, environmentalist Todd Tongdee has been called a modern renaissance man, and the moniker fits. As Rod Stewart might say, "He wears it well."
Todd Lavelle can be contacted at:
V.P. Apartment 11/1 Ramkamhaeng Soi 50,
Pager # 162-089353
mobile: (661) 257-5277