The Isaan-born producer traces her rise.
All photos courtesy of the artist.
Nakadia Mungphanklang now sometimes jets between multiple countries in a day, but Thailand's most prominent underground techno DJ and producer grew up without running water, let alone turntables. "My friends and I used to go for picnics in the rice fields," says the artist over a shaky Skype connection from a private villa near Chaweng Beach, Thailand. "It was exciting to get away, but even then, we were never more than a few minutes from the village." Set in the northeast of the country, along the Laotian and Cambodian borders, Nakadia's home region of Isaan is the country's largest and historically one of its poorest. Despite the slow trickle of industrialization, the jade-green rice paddies are still the primary source of income for many in the region. Most locals are forced to choose between eking out a meager living selling crops and migrating to Bangkok to support their families. Once in the capital, khon isaan (northeastern people), with their darker skin and Lao- or Khmer-inflected dialects, often face prejudice from the country's wealthy elite.
None of this bothered Nakadia, who describes her childhood in the sleepy village of Khonburi as a happy one. Days were spent hauling water from a well and racing bicycles down dirt roads, usually leaving her friends in the literal dust. From an early age, as it does for so many, music provided a means of escape.
"My brother bought me a ghetto blaster when I was 14," she says. "I used to sit outside the house playing music for the neighbors." Dressed in a plain tee, she's still coming down from playing two packed shows with German icon Sven Väth on the islands of Phuket and Koh Samui, both hundreds of miles from where she started out. She grins recalling her first amateur forays into DJing: "I even took requests."
Owning the only large speaker in town made her something of a focal point of Khonburi. Friends, family members, and strangers would gather around to shout out their favorite pop tunes. It was a rare source of sanuk—a Thai concept that usually translates as "fun," but that also runs deeper than that, emphasizing the importance of seeking out joy in life regardless of the circumstances.
"I didn't see a nightclub until I was 15," she says. Itching to get out of her small town, she moved into an apartment with six other girls in the nearby city of Korat. During the day, she taught herself English while working at an internet cafe; after dark, she set off to find nightlife or bring it home with her. "At that time, only our apartment could go up to the rooftop, so we would throw parties up there," she says. "We'd play cassette tapes and dance and drink terrible Thai whiskey. No one else listened to Western music. We thought we were so cool then because we were different."
Nakadia's first taste of techno came in a smoky, pulsing nightclub in Frankfurt in 2002. She had come to Germany for a modeling gig, and fell hard for the dark, deep, utterly foreign sound. "It was [German producer] Marusha's party," she remembers. "It made such an impression on me to see a famous female DJ. The very next day, I went to the record shop and bought two vinyls."
From then on, Nakadia was certain she wanted to be a DJ, she just wasn't sure how to do it.
"I had no turntables," she says. "I had nobody to teach me." After begging a local club in Korat to use their turntables during the daytime so she could develop her chops, Nakadia realized she needed to immerse herself in techno in order to understand it. She resolved to find a way back to Europe. Sebastian Lehmann, a friend she bonded with while clubbing who would become her manager, spotted her charisma and drive when they met on her first trip to Germany. He invited her back for a three-month stint and, through a connection at a DJ agency, convinced a technical university in Braunschweig to let her practice on equipment in a back room. Throughout the summer of 2003, she refined her technique seven days a week, taking breaks only to eat, sleep and, and listen to the pros spin.
"I made a lot of noise. I think [the university staff] were happy when I left," she laughs. By the end of the season, the agency was sufficiently impressed with her technical abilities to put her before a crowd of 2,500. But while the German owners promptly booked her a second time, her reception back home was less than enthusiastic. International DJs, predominantly male, ruled Thailand's nightlife, playing mostly hip-hop and funkier house. For a female DJ like Nakadia, it was hard to break into the boys' club; that she came from the country's least affluent region didn't help matters.
"At that time, there were no female DJs at all," she says. "Everyone just laughed at me at first." Despite the initial resistance, she managed to land a gig at a 150-person venue on Koh Samui that year, with one condition: "They said, 'You can play, but you will play for nobody'—it was just the staff. I said, 'I don't care.' So I played this really deep progressive set. And they liked it, so they said, 'Okay, next time you can play for people.'
"Many club owners and promoters on holiday saw me," she says. "That night, I got a booking in South Korea." The show was quickly followed by slots in Nepal, India, Malaysia and the Philippines. In 2004, she toured in 15 different countries and set her sights on Europe, eventually relocating to Berlin for good in 2010.
Techno's spiritual home may be an ideal base, but Nakadia remains fiercely proud of her country and her Isaan roots. To Thais, she's the rare musician from the country to achieve global recognition; her credibility abroad has given her cachet, even if local musical tastes err on the more mainstream side. EDM currently dominates the decks in Bangkok, but Nakadia's international rise has helped spark a growing interest in techno. Photographs of her brandishing the nation's red, white, and blue flag on stage decorate many of the shops back in Khonburi, she says.
These days, her name earns top billing alongside titans of the genre at clubs like Watergate in Berlin; D-Edge in São Paulo; and Sankeys and Ushuaïa in Ibiza. Her artfully constructed sets—which interweave slow-building melodies with danceable basslines—drew crowds in nearly 30 countries during the past year, including 11 during a particularly grueling August tour. That astounding work ethic has won her fans and friends in high places, including cosigns from Sven Väth, a towering figure in the techno scene for more than 30 years, and renowned German DJ/producer Timo Maas. With 28 festivals booked for 2016, and a new EP for Get Physical in the works, the coming months are set to take this small-town girl from promising upstart to main event.
"Sometimes people pass my mother's house and say, 'Hey, I saw your daughter on TV'," she says. Of all the highlights of the past few years, she says the most meaningful was being able to show her family what she does for a living. "I brought mother to Koh Samui to see me play," she says. "She had never flown before and it was her dream."
If an airplane trip once seemed unattainable, her daughter's accomplishments proved quite the opposite. Nakadia has never shied away from the work required to realize her dreams, no matter how impossible they might seem. Far from an overnight success story, her tale is one of more than a decade of discipline. Even in the face of a brutal travel schedule, her energy levels never seem to flag when performing or in the studio. It is this relentless work ethic—coupled with technical finesse and very real passion for music—that has carried her from a quiet farming village to where she is today.
"I love my job," she says, flashing a broad smile. "I can sleep and eat on the plane, but when I see the dance floor with people, I'm not tired anymore."