Like a scene from one of TV’s reality sitcoms, it was a throwaway comment in the dimmer tent that completely embodied the bizarre and sometimes hysterical fun that was had by the production team at September’s Koh Samui Music Festival. Glancing at his checklist and enquiring in absolute seriousness, lighting technician Simon ‘Boff’ Howarth asked crew chief ‘The Reverend’ Dave Black (a.k.a. Blackie): “So will The Wailers want smoke?” Cue uncontrollable laughter…

With Thai narcotics law and order being as it is, it’s unlikely that Marley’s old backing band would have been so foolish to include the sacred ’erb on their rider, however, the heroic efforts that secured a consignment of Old Speckled Hen for ale aficionado Jools Holland were sufficient to capture The Independent’s attention.

Welcome to the musical paradise that is Koh Samui – a sweltering, 257 square kilometre tropical island in the Gulf of Thailand with a population of around 48,000 that’s a short flight from Bangkok. When asked if I might like to spend a week here to experience a new festival with an eclectic line-up of names from Jerry Lee Lewis, Ike Turner and Woodstock veterans Big Brother & The Holding Company and Canned Heat, to Jools Holland’s Big Band, UB40, The Wailers and the British Blue All-Stars with Snowy White, there was no hesitation in accepting the invitation. After all, it’s not everywhere you can get a full body massage under the midday sun before wandering over the road to the gig. Therapeutic massage, of course.

Koh Samui Music FestivalBoasting a world class production infrastructure, installed and operated by the crew of Entec Sound & Light, and staged at Chaweng Beach, the Koh Samui Music Festival (KSMF) is the brainchild of Alan Sadd, a British entrepreneur who has set up a veritable empire of businesses on the island – from villa construction and rental, to diving tuition, boat and seaplane rental, and restaurants – under the umbrella of his company, CoCo International.

A Bristol-born man with a colourful past, Alan Sadd’s life has followed a path loaded with unexpected twists and turns. That CoCo operates an immensely popular blues bar on Samui is a throwback to the early ‘60s when, as a teenager, he would spend his nights in West Country jazz haunts and later discover some of the greatest artists of the era whilst hitchhiking around Europe. On a visit to Germany, where he took part in a youth soccer tournament, the seeds of his rich appreciation of live music were sowed when he chanced upon The Beatles and George Fame during their pre-fame residencies at Hamburg’s infamous Star Club.

His career started in wholesale fruit and veg, then diverted into the textile industry which essentially made him as a businessman. It was this phase of his life that took him to Saudi Arabia to set up a textiles plant – a venture that suffered from the insecure, post-9/11 commercial fallout. Having holidayed on Koh Samui for 15 years and purchased land with a view to future semi-retirement on the island, Sadd saw this hiatus as the opportunity to bring his plans forward and set about building up his now considerable CoCo chain to serve local life.

After setting up home in Koh Samui in 2001, Sadd established his immensely popular CoCo Blues Bar in May 2004 and began attracting some of the best touring acts from the USA and UK to perform there. Sadd commented: “Having been to New Orleans and soaked up the jazz and blues environment, I was absolutely set on opening a bar/restaurant that didn’t resort to run of the mill cover bands, but gave its visitors the real, authentic American music, seven nights a week. There’s not been anything like this on Samui until now, and I wanted to make a change.”

With Mexican sound engineer and technical manager Jorge Bernal at the helm, the Blues Bar – situated in the heart of Chaweng’s hyperactive, strip-like main street – is a well-equipped venue by most standards. The PA and monitor systems are comprised of emPAD Acoustic Design speakers and amplifiers, a brand created by a former Meyer Sound technician. Other kit includes an Allen & Heath GL4000 dual function console, Shure and Audix wireless UHF microphone systems, Digitech Studio S2000 multi-effects processors, and a rack of dbx EQs, comp/limiters and gates.

Fuelled by the bar’s success and its ongoing physical growth, at the end of 2004, he fulfilled an ambition to stage his own blues and world music festival, putting on a free, week-long schedule of 40 international bands and artists across nine venues on the island, both indoors and outdoors. The event was held only days after the tragic Boxing Day tsunami struck other parts of the region, but thankfully the positive reaction to Sadd’s enterprise that his ambitions grew overnight.

“It was a ‘toe in the water’ exercise that we did totally within CoCo’s resources, and the feedback was so resoundingly positive,” explained Sadd, “that we knew we’d have to go bigger, except that we would confine it to one large, 5,000-capacity outdoor site and the bar, and expand the music brief to take in rock’n’roll, reggae, ska, pop, soul and funk.

“One of our sponsors, Bangkok Airways, requested that we move it out of season which I was against. I wanted it in August when there would still be a tourist presence, but the airline insisted we’d benefit from the cheaper flights and less crowded hotels.”

A major selling point of the KSMF is its links with the John Lee Hooker family. Sadd’s colleague, Ollan Christopher Bell, is the husband of the late bluesman’s daughter, Zakira. It is through this association that not only did she perform both last winter and at this year’s festival, but a number of artists were imported for a Hooker tribute weekend, including the great Jerry Lee Lewis and the Blues Brothers Band. Sadd also sees the Hooker link as a way of attracting some huge names for future events.

As well as the afore-mentioned headliners, KSMF ‘05 was notable for sets by some of Thailand’s leading bands, including Modern Dog, T-Bone, Fong Naam and Sek Loso – underlining the fact that, although Sadd’s favouritism runs through the veins of this event, he fervently supports local music.

The Build

Koh Samui FestivalRealising that CoCo would need to ‘up the ante’ for this year’s event, Sadd enlisted the help of Kevin Mathews, a well-known British movie industry rigger. Entec’s involvement in the festival stemmed from its relationship with Mathews who back in the late 1980s and early ‘90s staged a series of notorious illegal raves in the UK, with Entec supplying production services. Now a rigger in the film industry, Mathews recalled Entec’s professionalism when this year’s festival was mooted, and invited the firm to supply its expertise along with LD Derek Watson, who Entec had supplied to Mathews for those original raves.

Anyone thinking that Samui was a walk in the park for the crew should think again. Entec’s Dick Collins arrived on Koh Samui in early September along with other key members of the crew, including production manager Gordon ‘Gungi’ Patterson, co-site manager Dave Hall and Dave Black. Their first move was to create a festival site out of literally nothing. In 90% humidity, this presented a gruelling task.

Owned by two sets of people, the site had previously been used for one of the island’s popular Black Moon raves, so a wealth of debris had to be cleared before anything could proceed. With help from Sadd’s locally-based construction company, Cheops, all steamed into the transformation.

A major operational challenge in the site build process was creating concrete footings for the ground support system. These immediately flooded in a tropical rain storm, delaying everything while they were drained and made good again, with all towers and platforms raised just that little bit higher as a safety measure!

The production containers’ arrival being delayed for six days also made the build time somewhat tight although it did allow the crew a window for exploring the island’s myriad charms. Said Black: “Everyone then pulled together to make up the time, they worked tirelessly despite the annihilating humidity, and I can’t praise them enough.”

“Look, learn and adapt to the local flow was one of the first lessons learned,” said a philosophical Collins. “There was no point turning up and expecting all the facilities of a Western festival. But there were plenty of pleasant surprises as well. No one thought the beautifully tailored coconut wood picket fence stage barrier would either last or have any effect… but the sceptics were proved wrong!”

Black also became the site’s de facto power guru, which involved a few issues in this environment! The generators were all supplied by MTT from Bangkok, and Black elucidated that once he had “explained a few basics, such as the virtues of good earthing” to their crew, everything ran very smoothly.

Joining his ever-expanding flock were six 350 KVAs, run in three synched pairs for the lighting power, one 250 KVA powering the pumps for the water show fountains and a 125 KVA for sound. There were also two back-up sets and four additional sets for the lake water show lighting. Black also organised electricity supply and distribution for the stage, backline, backstage and across the site.

Lighting

The overall lighting design was created by Derek Watson, who was also instrumental in putting together the lighting rig at CoCo’s Blues Bar. The two FOH operators were Andy Emmerson and Adam Copland, with Emmerson mainly taking care of the moving lights on a WholeHog II and Copland dealing with the generics using an Avolites Sapphire 2004. They also had an Avo Pearl 2004 and another Hog available for visiting LDs if required.

The rig consisted of a 10-legged, 140 x 60 metre ground support system with two tonne masts, purchased new by Entec from Tomcat for the event. This covered the stage and the first section of audience area. It was trimmed at 25ft off the ground and the stage was then built underneath, reducing over-stage headroom slightly, This was a deliberate decision to keep it low as the coastal location was prone to capricious high-speed bursts of wind appearing without warning. Overstage were three trusses, each loaded with 12 bars of six PARs and eight bars of ACLs. Over the audience were a further 14 bars of six and 12 strings of ACLs.

Thirty Vari*Lite VL2000 Spots, 20 VL2500s and 30 VL2000 Washes were located both over-stage and along the audience spans of the structure, with some on the floor. Twenty-four PAR 64 floor cans could be dotted round the stage as needed. The trusses were toned with 20 Martin MAC 300s pointing up and three PAR cans per section for down lighting, and the lighting picture was completed with 18 ETC Source Four Profiles on the front truss for use as key lights and specials. Two upstage tab tracks were available — weather and wind permitting.

The dimmers were housed in an extremely neat and tidy air conditioned dimmer room, next door to the Rev. Black’s ‘crew confessional booth’. They consisted of an Avolites ART 4000 72-way and four ART 2000 48-ways, all fully loaded. Entec supplied one of its own renowned moving light distros, plus two 36-way and one 54-way power distros.

The lighting team was completed by Simon ‘Boff’ Howarth and Urko Arruzo, and irrepressible rigger, Danny Spratt.

Ladies Of The Lake

Staged in the interval just before the final band set of the evening, the nightly 15-minute water show and fireworks proved hugely popular. It was staged in the lake beside the site and set to a three-movement musical piece composed by Bruce Gaston especially for the occasion.

The water show and lasers were supplied by Ovation Studio of Bangkok, featuring over 200 fountain jets, run off their own customised PC-based controller, explained Ovation crew chief Pinthip Satpretpry. The 24 pumps were floated just below the water’s surface, rigged to special flotation chambers made by Lekotiti of Bangkok. These had to be specially adapted as the lake was relatively shallow only 3-5ft deep, and firmly anchored to the bottom to avoid being dislodged by high winds.

Ovation also supplied floating lighting for the fountains, consisting of Studio Due City Colors, 12 moving lights and a selection of PARs. The fireworks were supplied and the show designed by award-winning Bangkok-based pyro company, Somkoi Fireworks after a brief to produce “something special” for the occasion.

A nightly inflatables show including two giant dragons that moved into the middle of the arena for a ‘fight’ and inflatable prawns, squids and other crustacea was supplied by French company Elasticiens Voltano. The audience was also greeted by a huge octopus which sat over the main entrance.

Video was also supplied by Ovation, featuring a three Sony camera PPU, recording each night’s show on to Hi-8, mixed via a Sony switcher at FOH. The cameras were also Sony. Ovation provided one side screen for I-Mag, also fed by a 4500 ANSI lumen projector for on-stage effects on to a BP screen, and another projector for throwing images on to the water screen and fountains.

Samui Sound

The sound system deployed for the event was a slightly trimmed-down version of the d&b line array system that Entec supplied for this year’s Guilfest. The main hang consisted of eight Q1s per side and due to the presence of the large box truss covering the stage and seated audience area, and extending out to the FOH mix position, the crew installed delays to keep the sound as contained as possible.

Sound crew chief Stefano Serpagli explained: “We went for eight AQ1s as delays for the main hangs, plus three Q1s per side, all hung on the box truss. The original plan was to create a quad system whereby the speakers would be on rotoclamps, enabling them to rotate 360°, but that wasn’t the way we went in the end. We simply reverted to a standard delay mode.”

To provide close proximity front fill for the first four or five rows of seating, one Q7 cabinet was bracketed to each of the left and right front-of-stage truss legs. “The Q7s are great sounding boxes,” said Stef. “They are perfectly placed and provide a lot of poke for such a compact box.” For subs, Entec used three B2s and six Q1s in cardioid mode, which helped to reduce the amount of sub ‘rumble’ kicking back into the stage.

Entec sub-hired this system from Singapore-based Showtec, which has a local office in Bangkok. The company recently purchased the Q system along with an amplification package, and consequently this was the very first outing for this ‘fresh-out-of-the-box’ PA. Overseeing its debut was Showtech’s project manager, William Lee, who assisted with set-up along with his Thai technician, Hom.

The Steeldeck and stage was purchased and built by Kevin Mathews. “On the first show day we still weren’t sure of the roof height, and our whole approach throughout has been to ‘suck it and see’,” said Serpagli. “We’re basically putting up a show in a place that has never seen live entertainment with this scale of production, and it’s therefore been a huge learning curve for everyone involved.”

Yamaha PM5D digital consoles were controlling the mixes at both FOH and on stage. “I’ve been a long term user of the PM1D and I count myself amongst the console’s biggest fans,” enthused Serpagli. “But I have to say that the PM5D is an even bigger step forward. It’s a real joy to mix on it. Having the PM5D at both ends of the multicore means we can significantly reduce our kit by removing the need for a second desk for flip-flopping between acts.”

The system was powered by d&b’s latest generation D12 amps, which have built-in processors that are run by the firm’s proprietary ROPE software. Only one major system change was necessary during the festival, when the stage was completely stripped to make way for the monitor system that travels everywhere with UB40.

Freight was handled by Phil McDonnell at Horizon Entertainment Cargo. Two 40 foot containers brought in a package purchased by the CoCo group, including the stage and trussing, plus scrims and drapes; three 40 foot containers carried ground support and lighting; and a further 40 foot container accommodated Entec’s audio control systems and rented backline from Music Bank. Two additional air shipments brought in the d&b PA and Yamaha consoles from Showtec in Singapore, and a Yamaha grand piano and backline purchased by CoCo for subsequent use at the Blues Bar.

Holiday Destination

For musicians coming to the island to perform, the Samui vibe offers something quite unique. UB40’s Ali Campbell told me: “We’ve been lucky to have played some very exotic places this year, and Samui is beautiful. An added bonus being that we get to play on the bill with The Wailers for the first time, and doing it here, well, it’s like the perfect holiday!”

One of many who has discovered the myriad charms of both the festival and Sadd’s popular Blues Bar is Keith Nolan, an American keyboard player with leading Thai-based band Cannonball, who is a regular at the bar and played an influential role in shaping the festival.

He said: “In Asia, if you don’t do things for yourself, don’t expect others to do it for you. It’s all about self-motivation. Alan has created a unique music venue here that is designed to give musicians the resources they need to deliver very high quality entertainment. I’ve played all over South-East Asia and I’ve never come across a venue like this.”

Load-out began after an independently-organised finale rave on October 3, by which time I was back on terra firma and succumbing to a dose of good old autumnal ‘flu, as wild tales of the Samui fest began to circulate around the industry.

Despite being the ultimate professional heroes, the crew never once lost their sense of fun… or irony. Special mention should be made of Jorge Bernal, a local production co-ordinating saviour; Entec’s lighting manager Noreen O’Riordan, a calming influence on the hot and bothered crew; and the production office, it must be said, had the only reliable Internet access portal we could find.

Staging such an ambitious event out of season, so early in its history, compounded by an absence of major media promotion, resulted in disappointing ticket sales on some of the nights. However, even some of the greatest events struggled in their early days, and word-of-mouth accounts of the sheer quality of the production and the irresistible location will go a long way to luring a new audience of music-loving holidaymakers in 2006.

I asked Sadd how passionate he was about seeing his festival grow. “I’m very serious. OK, this has been one hell of an expensive rehearsal for next year, but we’ve learned an awful lot. Sharing the responsibility with a group of like-minded sponsors is the way forward, and there is huge potential for us to create one of the most attractive music events in the world.”

Blues in paradise? It gets my vote.

Report by Mark Cunningham from the November 2005 issue of TPi magazine

Photography: Louise Stickland