Rough Guide to the Music of Thailand

Thailand may be one of Asia’s most popular tourist destinations, but very few of it’s five million visitors bother to get to grips with the local music. An undiscovered beach, is more likely to be on the average tourist’s mind, than the undiscovered music. Which is a shame, because Thailand offers some of Asia’s most pulsating sounds.

Without having to try you’re likely to encounter some local music. Some might stumble across a small classical combo in a hotel or a Bangkok restaurant. If you’re really lucky, you might even hear a traditional ensemble at a Buddhist temple, or more likely a tape that an orange robed Buddhist monk will gladly sell you. The traditional music can be spellbinding, and rather eerie, played on a variety of melodic and rhythmic percussion instruments, stringed and wind instruments. Walk into most record stores, especially away from the tourist areas, and the shelves are filled with lukthung, the central region ‘country’ music. You might even hear the emotionally charged vocals of lukthung from the back of a taxi, if you’re driver is tuned into one of the lukthung stations, or catch a concert on the TV by one of the big stars. Meanwhile, Thai girl and boy bands compete with their western and Japanese counterparts, blasting from speakers outside the local KFC. It’s the sounds however, from an area that very few visitors venture to, the northeast, Isaan, that is the hotbed of Thai music. Morlam is the traditional Laotian music, in its modern form rhythmically powerful and vocally dynamic. Morlam, in it’s various styles, is popular throughout Thailand with the many migrant workers from this poor arid region, in Bangkok and other centres of population. All these styles of music and more can be heard on this album, the vast majority available outside Thailand for the first time.

What is present day Thailand, has been inhabited by the Thai people since the end of the thirteenth century. The Thai meaning ‘free’ were originally indigenous exiles from northern China who settled in the south of China about 2000 years ago. Over the following six hundred years, the Thai and the Chinese had considerable contact. When Chinese from the north fled south with the Mongul invasion around the beginning of the tenth century, the Thai had even stronger contact with cultural elements from the north, and the similarities between Thai and Chinese music can probably be traced back to this time. As it became clear the Monguls would eventually conquer the whole of China, the Thai migrated south spreading into Laos, northern Vietnam and present day Thailand. By 1450, the Thai had put an end to the Khmer kingdom after capturing Sukhotai from the Khmer, and eventually the capital city, Angkor (now in Cambodia after they were forced to cede this area in 1907 to France). Much of the Khmer culture was absorbed by the Thai, it being said that while the Thai conquered the Khmer, the Khmer civilized the Thai.

Although little is known of the music of the Khmer, it is believed it contained early remnants of early Indian music, and possibly Javanese music too. The non-Chinese elements in Thai music are therefore likely to have derived through the Khmer. With the creation of the kingdom of Sukhotai in 1257, a stronger Thai identity was forged and throughout the Ayuthaya period (1360-1767), musical styles, compositions, ensembles and instruments all emerged. The two stringed bowed lute, the so-duang (track 16) was a common instrument in various ensembles from toward the end of this period until today in classical and court music. Born in 1917, the female performer on this track Benjarong Thanakoset, is from a musical family, and was already teaching by the age of sixteen. She is now considered Thailand’s greatest player of bowed string instruments.

Other instruments are believed to have originated with the Thai themselves, including the double reed instrument the pi. The pi phat, consisting of the pi together with melodic and rhythmic percussion instruments, is one of the earliest types of ensemble, represented on this album by Fong Nam (track 12). Under the guidance of American Bruce Gaston, Fong Nam are both the custodians of rare classical pieces, and known for modernizing the traditions in experimental styles. The Hong Nang Suite is traditional Buddhist funeral music, instead of a sorrowful nature it’s lively sound acts as an antidote for the grieving mourners.

Probably the most important folk instrument is the bamboo mouth pipe organ, the khaen, central to the sound of morlam, the music of the Isaan region. Found in northern Thailand and Laos, the instrument consists of usually fourteen long thin bamboo pipes, up to four feet in length each emitting it’s own fixed pitch. To resonate the pipes, the instrument is held with two hands cupped around a mouthpiece into which air is blown and drawn. Above the mouthpiece, in each pipe a small round hole is cut. When a finger closes a hole, the air is forced up through the reed, and a pitch is sounded, the pipes sounding simultaneously depending on which holes are closed.

Traditional morlam ensembles also feature the phin, a stringed lute, somewhat similar to the guitar, with between two and four strings, but typically three. Track 3, features a solo performance on the phin, by Surasak Donchia, a virtuoso on the instrument.

The term morlam derives from two words in the Isaan dialect, ‘mor’, meaning expert, and ‘lam’ meaning song. The Isaan dialect is not understood by most Thais, who speak central Thai. The Isaan dialect spoken in northeastern Thailand and Lao is essentially the same language and although some morlam is sung in Thai, a significant amount is sung in Isaan (Lao). Isaan shares a border with Laos to the northeast , and adding to a unique cultural mix, Cambodia to the south,(through Kantrum, Thai/ Cambodian country music)and the central region of Thailand to the west. Laotians make up a sizeable group in Thailand, there are some nineteen million Isaan people, who contribute to make this one of the most culturally rich areas in south east Asia.

Aside to providing entertainment, morlam is important for the transmission of culture from one generation to the next. It is not known when morlam first emerged, it’s birth linked to the belief in the power of spirits, the perpetuation of folk tales and allurement of the opposite sex.

There are as many as fifteen forms of traditional morlam. Chawarewan Damnern (track 8) is Isaan’s greatest female singer of traditional morlam, and a specialist in at least two styles, morlam klon (narrative tales) and morlam mu (a theatrical style performed by a troupe). Born in 1945 in Ubon Ratchathani province she is the seventh generation in a family of morlam performers. She started touring with her father from the age of two, eventually forming her own group, and is accompanied on this song by her long term khaen player Thongkham. The lyrics, written by Chawarewan in Laotian and occasional Burmese ,tell of a wife’s feelings toward her husband after he nonchalantly returns after an inexplicable long absence.

Also only found in Isaan, is the pong lang a suspended vertical wooden xylophone, it’s keys arranged upside down with the low notes on the upper end, and the high notes at the bottom. The type of music featuring the instrument is usually also called pong lang. The ensemble on track 19, Chagkachan, includes the khaen, phin, and an array of unusual instruments including the wod (a bamboo panpipe), klong (a collection of several large single headed drums), and hai soon, (a plucked ceramic jar that has rubber bands stretched over it’s mouth). ‘Pong Lang Dance’ is one of Isaan’s most popular melodies.

Today, the traditional instruments in morlam are augmented or replaced by electronic keyboards, electric bass, and a western-style drum-set. The keyboard is set up to emulate the sound of a 1960s organ. Large travelling shows had become popular from the 1960s, and continue to this day, as the big stars spend most of the year on the road. The 1970s saw the rise in the popularity of a modern style, when the Isaan people migrated to Bangkok in increasing numbers as Thailand became industrialized and the economy grew. Morlam has proved to be a unifying force for the Isaan people, far from their villages back home, which are gripped by poverty, and limited economic opportunity. Isaan workers, with a generally low standard of education, have become Bangkok’s construction labourers, street cleaners, bar girls and prostitutes. Some might feel ostracized from the mainstream of society by their education, language, and skin color, which is darker than that of Sino-Thais. The lyrics tell their story, with references to people they miss, lost loves, and the exploitation of city life. At karaoke bars in Bangkok, for a few baht, Isaan people can play a video CD of their favorite morlam performer. Track 10, by Pol Panlao ‘Amazing Isaan’ gives a taste of the pride the Isaan feel of their identity. As on this track, morlam can be fast-paced, with rapid phin playing, booming bass, surging organ, and drums with an incessant backbeat. Morlam songs typically begin with a slow section, that traditionally includes the wailing of ‘Oh, La Naw’ (Oh, Fortune). This might be followed by a ‘rap’ like chorus, which unlike western rap is melody-based, and generally only one chorus long, with an Isaan vocal inflection ending a chorus, consisting of several repeated, non-word vocal sounds. Folk has never sounded funkier than in Isaan.

Morlam singers can appear in several different changes of clothes, from traditional to modern, during the course of a concert. Singers are accompanied by dancers (hang krung) who could be dressed in traditional Thai costume, or glitzy disco garb, or a combination of both. In many cases, the dancers are scantily-clad, and might appear incongruous to the music. However, dancers in similar dress can be seen in sculptures centuries old, including at Angkor Wat.

Morlam elements are commonly mixed with Thai country music, lukthung, a bit of Western pop, and occasionally kantrum to produce a kind of all embracing Thai roots music, all normally grouped by the Thai record industry under the term lukthung. A faster, jazzed up style is sometimes labeled as ‘cha-cha-cha’ lukthung, such as Sao Somparn (track 14) or Krusala (track 15). Morlam singers realizing the market limitations of singing in Lao, can easily switch to lukthung which they sing in Thai. This blurring of boundaries is evident on tracks by the male singers Anand Jaidee,(track 10), Ekachai Srivichai (track 13) or Sorn Shinchai (track 17).The mixture can be less frenetic, but equally appealing. Just listen to Man Motorgai (the Motorbike Man’ track 1), who exploits his macho image with a permanently broken nose, covered by a plaster. The title of the album from which this track is taken can be roughly translated into ‘the bridge of my nose is broken, so why do you love me?” Humour and the ability to make light of your predicament, has it’s place in Thai roots music too.

The cross exchange of styles works equally the other way. Mike Piromporn (track 4) is one of lukthung’s biggest stars, his albums purportedly selling over one million copies. Born in Isaan in 1970, Piromporn went to Bangkok when he was young, working in construction, restaurants, and a talaat yen (night market) before realizing his dream of becoming a singer. The track on this album, owes probably as much to the influence of morlam than the lukthung style he has come to represent, with the addition of a funky saxophone.

The story of lukthung, (meaning ‘child of the fields’) in some ways mirrors that of morlam. From the 1950s,and throughout the 60s, influences as diverse as latin rhythms and cowboy yodelling had started to infiltrate what was an existing folk music, lukthung, and it’s sentimental relation lukkrung, a genre still popular today with the older rich classes in Bangkok. In the late 1970s, a revolution occurred when composer and teacher of lukthung, Wichien Khacharoen took a young female singer called Pompuang Duangchan under his wing. Wichien modernized the music with pop and rock rhythms and melodies. The lyrics shifted from stories of departing lovers from the countryside to sexually seductive themes. With the rural to urban migration of the young workforce during the 1980s, lukthung’s audience was experiencing a modern lifestyle. Many of the songs reflected these lives in transition; longing for home, while enjoying the excitement of new found freedoms. Probably though, the main reason for the re-emergence of lukthung was the captivating voice of Pompuang Duangchan herself.

It takes a special voice and talent to fully exploit the depth of feeling in a lukthung song. Notes are held, wavered and ornamentation added to drain every last drop of emotion. Duangchan died in 1992, aged only 31, and was granted a royal cremation at her home village’s temple, Wat Thapkradan. Presided over by Princess Sirindhon, over 150,000 of her fans participated in the largest public mourning of a commoner in Thailand’s contemporary history.

Some predicted the demise of lukthung, but the legacy of Duangchan has inspired a new generation of lukthung singers. The annual temple fair from Wat Thapkradan, (temple fairs are great way to experience live lukthung and morlam) is televised live on national TV and attracts current top lukthung singers as well as staging a lukthung singing contest to the backing of Duangchan’s songs. The husky voiced Siriporn Aumpiapong (track 5),is one singer following in the legacy of Duangchan, known particularly for her ballads. Born into
a farming family in Udon Thani province in1963, her father formed a family morlam troupe, and Siriporn has been performing lukthung and morlam ever since. Namoiy Thammalangka (track 2) and the young stars Jieb Benjaporn (track 11) and Paijit Aksornnarong (track 18) are three other current outstanding singers.

Sales of most lukthung CDs and cassettes however, pale in comparison to the Thai/Chinese female pop duo China Dolls (track 9), whose albums sell over one and a half million copies. Their catchy, vivacious, hook a minute tunes look set to conquer Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia too. The almost identical Hwa Hwa and Bell got together in 1999, singing songs for the Chinese New Year, mixing Thai and Mandarin pop. ‘Oh Oh Oh’ sung in Thai, was one of the Bangkok pop duo’s biggest hits in 2001, and is taken from their second album.

To an unsuspecting listener, computer generated studio doctored idol pop, might sound less human than the incredible Thai Elephant Orchestra (track 5). From the Thai Elephant Conservation Center near Lampang, the elephants were taught to play specially designed musical instruments by composer Dave Soldier and the center co-founder ‘professor elephant’ Richard Lair. The instruments were designed to certain criteria, among them obviously large enough to be played by an elephant’s trunk, but also to withstand the jungle humidity and to have a Thai sound. They built huge slit drums, large marimba type instruments much like Thai renats, a stringed instrument that sounds like an electric bass, and a gong made from a saw blade. They bought harmonicas, finger cymbals and a khaen from Isaan, and a bass drum. After learning the instruments, the elephants improvise and play their own music, without overdubs or editing and the track you hear is exactly as the elephants performed it. The results are amazing, not just for the obvious musicality but also for its beauty. The orchestra now performs daily concerts near Lampang. Obvious logistics mean they won’t be embarking on a world tour soon, (that would be some rider) that is, unless they get their own jumbo jet!

The first orchestral music by non-humans, certainly adds to the already dazzling array of music in Thailand. One of the few countries in south east Asia where contemporary regional roots music and homegrown styles reflect deep feelings and traditions to still maintain a place in the mainstream of society.

Go to the Rough Guide to Thailand CD