“Go to The Jazz Bar at Northgate.”

That’s what you say when someone you respect asks where to go out in Chiang Mai, Thailand. You send them to The Northgate Jazz Co-op, and later they thank you for it.

Early in 2016, I arrived at Northgate during the collective chatter that occurs among the crowd just before the last band of the night plays. I stood in between two friends on the sidewalk facing the bar, swallowing beer between sentences. After a few moments, the man behind the drums said “hello”, and the band played “Ain’t No Sunshine”, originally recorded by Bill Withers in 1971. It was one of the most pristine live covers I’d heard in Thailand. It reverberated off of everything and everyone there, leaving most of the patrons in a happy shock.

The band’s talent didn’t startle me much at all. Chiang Mai, Thailand has a live music scene that sits its musicians on modest pedestals, and lets them impress foreigners who don’t expect to hear Thais perfecting music that originated nearly 10,000 miles to the East.

When someone you respect asks about the music that Lanna (formerly) has to offer, you’ll have more advice than it seems you’ve ever had. To name a few:

  1. Open Mic nights at Jazz Bar.
  2. The talented and omnipresent Boy, grinning and shredding at his Blues Bar.
  3. Getting on a table at Roots, Rock, Reggae because the trumpet is startlingly ill, and you got a jumbo mojito for reasons you can’t recall.

The live music scene is what defines Chiang Mai’s nightlife. Tucked into almost every nook and cranny of the city are bars that invite you in, and allow you to sing along to familiar classics with a diverse crowd.

What arises is a feeling beyond comfort. Hearing people from vastly different cultures than yours, perform classics of funk, soul and even hip hop — music that originated on southern patios and in projects in the South Bronx. There’s something in the shared love for that music. It connects you in a slight way to someone with a different tongue, and way of living. It is proof of the way we share emotion.

Writing about it is enough to yank me back, and wonder yet again: why on Earth did I leave such a soul-nourishing place?

Bars mentioned in this piece: Boy Blues Bar, Northgate Jazz Co-op, Roots, Rock, Reggae.

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