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Khlong Toey Music Program

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Music has the power to launch you far and wide, create a sense of community, replace hopelessness with creativity and soothe the deepest roots of your soul. In Bangkok's poorest area, underprivileged kids are exposed to all of this and more thanks to Khlong Toey Music Program (KTMP).

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Khlong Toei is the largest and most notorious slum area in Bangkok. Many of the children who grow up here face daily challenges relating to poverty, domestic and gang violence, teenage pregnancy, drug addiction and alcoholism, just to name a few. Though loving families support and encourage some, a large percentage of children from Khlong Toei encounter obstacles that a child should never have to face.

To this environment, enter Geraldine Nemrod ("Gigi") and Siriporn Pomwong ("Amm"), a French-Thai duo who combined their passion for music with a desire to help Thailand's poor by founding KTMP in late 2012. With help from Playing For Change, a larger non-profit supporting nine charity music schools in Africa and Asia, KTMP established its own school in August of 2013.

Gigi and Amm at work with the youngsters.
Gigi and Amm at work with the youngsters.

Occupying a modest shophouse amid a dense slum known as Khlong Toei 70 Rai, the school is "about bringing people together and giving them some inspiration and dreams through music," as Gigi put it in her own words. Eight skilled volunteer music teachers, including Amm and Gigi, offer lessons and rehearsals to some 25 kids throughout the week.

Truly a bastion of creativity, the school also offers visual arts lessons taught by esteemed Bangkok street artist, Cece Nobre, among others, while doubling as a community centre. In this safe and uplifting environment, kids can celebrate birthdays, connect with friends, express themselves in a number of ways, and simply have fun.

No stuffy music school.
No stuffy music school.

On Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, the school focuses on small group lessons in guitar, bass, drums, keys, ukelele and voice, while Saturdays are devoted to band practice. Divided into beginner and intermediate groups and led by instructors, the kids rehearse together in rooms stocked with donated instruments. The songs they learn run from classic American rock tunes to modern Thai hits.

Feelin' the groove.
Feelin' the groove.

The school is run entirely by volunteers who rely on regular jobs for their income, but the doors are open whenever possible, allowing kids to practice on their own while perhaps taking refuge from less-healthy situations. In an area where many children are neglected, abused, or succumb to drug use and gangs, KTMP is an invaluable ray of hope – and it seems to shine brighter every day.

In addition to running the school in Khlong Toei, Amm and Gigi regularly teach music lessons to children of migrant workers and other poor families in various parts of Bangkok and beyond. They also donate instruments to remote villages in far Northern Thailand. Given the immense drive and enthusiasm of its founders, KTMP has the potential to do limitless good in the years to come.

KTMP brings meaning and joy into kids' lives.
Bringing joy and meaning to kids' lives.

KTMP collaborates with other local charities and is working with a Thai university to establish an art/music scholarship program for deserving youths. Gigi told us that donated recording equipment will soon be used to produce the program's first-ever album: a compilation of Thai children's songs.

Established Thai musicians like Nanglen Band and Thee Chaiyadej have rallied behind the program, taking part in events such as Playing For Change Day. KTMP perpetuates Playing For Change's theme, "One World One Voice", by connecting virtually with music schools in Nepal and elsewhere to share songs spanning seas, allowing students on both ends to heighten their awareness of the world at large.

The KTMP band wows the crowd.
The KTMP band wowed the crowd at Phraeng Phuthon.

In addition to being a vital element of fundraising, the program's regular performances help to encourage and empower the kids to keep playing. At last year's Phraeng Phuthon Arts Festival (coming again this December in Phraeng Phuthon Square), we had a blast watching the KTMP band electrify a sizable crowd. Check the program's Facebook page for the latest on upcoming events.

For all the excitement of festivals and celebrities associated with the program, at the end of the day, it all comes back to the kids. During our visit to the school, Gigi pointed out a young boy who was ever-so focused as Amm led the ensemble in a song. "When he first came, he couldn't sit still and focus for more than a minute ... Then he discovered the drums."

A typical Saturday rehearsal.
A typical Saturday rehearsal.

"Now he comes almost every day, has learned ukelele and shows a real talent for music ... That helps to motivate us. We can really see the evolution, the development in the kids." Watching and listening to the students gain a solid footing in music at young ages, I imagined how a few of them will no doubt grow up to be successful musicians -- perhaps even superstars.

More importantly, every student has an opportunity to realise their own self-worth thanks to the loving support they find at KTMP. Any musician knows that music is like a journey through cascading doors, each opening outwardly to new opportunities while inwardly building calmness, presence and joy. That this journey is open to kids from Khlong Toei is no small miracle.

Music is also a celebration of life.
Music is also a celebration of life.

While KTMP receives a share of its funding from Playing For Change and other sponsors, it also relies heavily on private donations. If you want to help, contact the program directly (info below) to arrange a donation through a secure bank transfer or Paypal. If you would prefer to support several schools at once, donate to Playing For Change. Donations of instruments, toys and clothing are also appreciated.

The school is always looking for dependable, Thai-speaking musicians willing to donate some of their time as music teachers. Musicians who don't speak Thai are welcome to stop by and join in a music session (just get in touch first). Those based in Bangkok can accompany the KTMP bands on live performances when needed.

Thanks to KTMP and Playing For Change for letting us include a couple of photos from their Flickr page.

Each month a writer selects a charity or non-government organisation that they believe does excellent work on their patch in Southeast Asia. They write about them and we donate $100, a small way for us to give something back to the region. If you're looking to give back too, please consider giving a little cash as well.

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