Samui Wining & Dining
Under The Spotlight

A virtuoso performance from Mark James
at Full Moon restaurant, Anantara Bophut Resort & Spa.


19You’ll have no doubt discovered that most quality restaurants have some kind of music to enhance their dining experience. One or two might have recorded music, but generally it’ll be live. And, over the last few years, the quality’s been improving. There are some hugely talented Filipino artistes on the boards and now a number of world-quality jazz musicians, too. These are mostly people who’ve had a formal musical education and many of them have also performed in a classical context. But it’s not all just jazz. You’ll come across several other musical genres, from folk to rock ’n’ roll, sometimes even with a touch of flamenco thrown in for good measure. And one maestro who’s able to proffer all this is the talented guitarist and singer, Mark James.


Mark’s been in Thailand for quite a while now. He first came here on holiday, to Phuket, back in 2000 – and never went back! There was a busy night-life in Phuket and Mark teamed up with another musician, Tommy Crawford. They hadn’t been playing together more than a few months when right out of the blue they were offered a job: as resident musicians at the annual Dubai Desert Classic held at the famous Emirates Golf Club. And they were successful enough to be invited back again for the following three years.


Mark’s an authentic troubadour and has toured and played in France, Switzerland, Spain, India and America, before he finally came to rest on Samui in the early part of 2005, a few months after the disastrous tsunami. But his story begins where he was born in the English city of Doncaster. Mark went on to spent three years on a Batchelor’s Degree at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, where he enjoyed the rare privilege of having the internationally-renowned classical guitarist, John Williams, as his tutor.


Over the next few years, Mark wore a number of different hats. He taught music at the very exclusive Stockport Grammar School, and then, progressing from the sublime to the sensational, was invited to tour with the West End musical, Elvis. He was a runner-up in the annual Flanders Festival International classical music festival in Belgium. And he also managed to squeeze in time to make several CDs before heading to take a break for a month in Thailand, from which, fortunately for us, he never returned.


Samui is very different from Phuket,” he told me, “but I’ve now dropped into the island lifestyle. When I first came here I had no idea how long I’d stay. It was all very day-to-day. And it’s been the same for the last six years! Except that projects and plans have gradually emerged and I’ve found the perfect place and lifestyle to be able to put them into practice. My technique has improved – and my voice has changed. It’s much cleaner and I can sustain longer notes. But that could well be the result of quitting smoking two years ago!


You can see Mark playing in several local venues. And his repertoire changes to suit the sets. One of his all-time favourites is the bouncy Billabong Beach Club in the attractive strip of Fisherman’s Village in Bo Phut. You can catch him there, in the pub, several times a week (an added bonus here is that his long-time partner, Khun Tan, works close-by). He’s also a regular at the exclusive SALA Samui Resort & Spa, just outside Chaweng. But possibly the most atmospheric of his venues is at Anantara Bophut Resort and Spa. The majestic and lengthy torch-lit entrance-way leads to another flickering feature; a mass of candles surrounding the ‘monkey pool’ outside the reception area. And all the way down to, and inside, their open-sided, signature fine-dining restaurant, Full Moon.


Mark’s a purist. He’s one guy with a guitar and detests the idea of boosting himself to sound like some kind of band via computers and synthesisers. And he really doesn’t need to. The sound quality is crisp, precise and quite effortless: there’s no sensation of the ‘loudness’ that often comes with cheap or stretched equipment. And it’s all precisely matched to the steel strings he uses. Every chord, every variation in finger pressure, every slide or pluck, comes across as cleanly as a clarion on a starry winter’s night. Other musicians could pick up some pointers here. But that’s of little concern to most people: they’re listening to the music.


There’s none of the muzak that you’ll sometimes hear in restaurants. Mark’s choice of material is wide and varied – and it’s been expanding somewhat as the times have changed. His first set begins at 7:30 pm and the dining ambiance is positively enhanced by his ballads and love songs. You’ll hear songs of The Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel and even ballads from the Rolling Stones: he’s an aficionado of classic rock. But what makes it all so special is the blend of his guitar and his voice. They’re just so perfectly matched that, at times, the two become inseparable, and then they’ll slide apart, each perfectly complementing the other. Then he’ll suddenly dive into Rodrigo’s Guitar Concerto or ‘Cavatina’ from The Deer Hunter, or distractedly strum a little flamenco . . .


But he’s by no means rooted in the past, and this is reflected by numbers from Counting Crows, The Pogues, Simply Red, Jack Johnson and, lately, Adele and Jason Mraz. “That’s the wonder of You Tube,” Mark enthused. “Somebody big does a song and in a week there are 20 covers and interpretations of this, each with a different treatment. A lot of my time is spent listening to all of this. I’ll catch a riff or a sequence that’s excellent and I’ll see the original in a new light. But now, with You Tube and Facebook, well, that’s a ready-made showcase for me. And I’ve been working on building-up my material, leading up to issuing a new CD. But,” he added with a huge grin, “you can always buy a copy of my current one!


You’ve got a choice. You can select a top restaurant, go there to dine and hope that the music is less than intrusive and, preferably, enjoyable. Or you can decide on a marvellous virtuoso musician in the first place. If you then combine this with the laid-back ambiance of the 5-star contemporary alfresco Italian with an Asian touch cuisine on offer at Anantara Bophut’s Full Moon restaurant, then that’s the best of all possible worlds. It just doesn’t get much better!


Rob De Wet


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