The Wire

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Bell Labs: Goes like the clappers

May 2016

Could the success of Leicester City FC be down to the ancient power of South East Asian music, asks Clive Bell

You might have read elsewhere about Leicester City FC’s mysterious conquest of what US soccer fans call the EPL or English Premier League. But is there even something magical about Leicester’s championship-winning campaign? Some deeper element, less susceptible to statistical analysis? For it seems that East Midlands football has been subtly, though loudly, drawing on the ancient power of South East Asian music. I’m referring to the clappers, or clap-banners, that nearly 30,000 fans at Leicester’s King Power stadium find on their seats at every home game. If the crowd are Leicester’s 12th man, then their kit includes a cardboard clapper, turning the stadium into the league’s noisiest venue.

Leicester’s owner is Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, a Thai billionaire with a monopoly on Bangkok airport’s duty-free shopping, who sometimes lands his blue helicopter on the King Power pitch before home games. According to the Daily Telegraph, Thai monks have visited the stadium and blessed the pitch and the Leicester players, and Srivaddhanaprabha spends £12,000 a match supplying each fan with a bright blue clapper, made by the London company Clap-Banners.

Fans on Leicester forum Foxes Talk have pondered the clappers’ power: “I thought the novelty might wear off but it hasn’t,” reports one supporter. “The Thais are very superstitious and for as long as they and even us believe that they’ve had an impact they won't be getting rid anytime soon.” Daily Mail sportswriters meanwhile have calculated the effect of the clappers as increasing Leicester’s points tally by 1.35 per game, and point out that only one home game has been lost since they appeared.

Leicester’s clappers are made of recycled paper and bear pictures of players such as striker Jamie Vardy, but clappers are proper percussion instruments, too. They even show up in Western symphony orchestras, where they’re called the whip or the slapstick. But perhaps they are most at home in Asian ensembles: Thailand groups employ them regularly, alongside the glistening finger cymbals that drive the rhythms in Thai classical music. We might speculate about their use in ritual contexts, driving out spirits, or perhaps summoning up an injury time equaliser. But it’s my bet that Srivaddhanaprabha took his free clappers wheeze from the more formal environs of the Mahori ensemble: a Thai string group playing dignified music, often considered appropriate for women players.

Several Thai clappers exist – the krab koo, the krab mai – but the most Leicester-like are the fan-shaped set known as krab puang. On a YouTube film of a concert at Srinakharinwirot University in Bangkok, the krab puang are played by a woman in a striking yellow shirt. The best moment is at just under 16 minutes in, when a Mahori group perform a tune called “Lao Duang Duen”, complete with clappers. The ensemble sound is especially smooth because they’ve included a harmonium. The harmonium is a pretty odd choice in this traditional Thai context – and maybe the musicians think so too, because we can see they’ve gone to some trouble to cover up the whole front of the instrument, using a great big sheet of bright, Leicester-blue paper.

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