12 June 2011

Traditional Music of Southern Laos

Between the time when French musicologist Jacques Brunet recorded the music of Southern Laos in the early 1970s and the re-issue of these recordings on CD in 1992, Laos (by that time having become the People's Democratic Republic of Laos) had experienced war trauma, the flight of great numbers of people, isolation, and the beginning of healing. During the Vietnam war the United States dropped unimaginable quantities of bombs throughout the south (along the so-called 'Ho Chi Minh Trail') and in much of the northeast. In some provinces, virtually every town and sizable village were destroyed. Economic and social development were also stopped or rolled back. Provinces which once had running water and electricity, at least in the main town, ceased to have either. Where tourists formerly visited (e.g., Vat Phu near Champassak), there were only abandoned restaurants and a little-used hotel. In 1991 modern tourist hotels remained under construction just as they had been when workers walked off the job in 1975. Travel within Laos by both Lao and non-Lao was strictly regulated by the government; consequently, few were able to visit formerly familiar sites such as Luang Phabang, Vat Phu, or the Bolovens Plateau. Therefore, this set of recordings has a strange air of nostalgia, especially since it had been re-issued with the same notes used in the original Phillips recording of 1973.

Unfortunately, offering criticism of Jacques Brunet's mainland southeast Asian musical recordings has all the challenge of shooting fish in a barrel. As Jarernchai Chonpairot and I pointed out in a 1979 review ('Review-Essay: The Problems of Lao Discography.' Asian Music 11/1 (1979): 132-34), there were numerous problems with regard to both selections and annotations. These have not changed; indeed, considering the time gap, they are now greater. Southern Laos, which includes much of the lowland area of Laos (the terrain in which the mainstream Lao live) runs along the Maekong River just across from Thailand. To the east, however, is the Annam Cordillera, a chain of mountains which is both home to numerous non-Lao upland groups and the former site of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. A collection of music surveying this region should include several of the lowland Lao regional genres of lam (repartee) singing accompanied by khene and other instruments; it should also include music of representative upland groups. In this the collection falls short.

Of the eight selections, five represent the lam/khene tradition of the lowland Lao, two the survival of the court music tradition of the former kingdom of Champassak, and one the upland tradition. Among the first group, three are instrumental and two are vocal. All three of the Lao non-classical instrumental sections (1, 5, and 8) are played on the khene, a free-reed aerophone with fourteen or sixteen bamboo tubes arranged in raft form in a wooden windchest and sealed with a black insect product called khisut. Since khene players normally improvise within one or five (or sometimes six) modes called (in northeast Thailand) lai, it is odd to hear more than one player perform at a time, as we do in the opening selection, 'Pheng phi fa (this is evidently a fixed melody). Brunet remarks that 'The title of this piece, like many others, cannot be translated ..., [it is now only a string of] words ... handed down traditionally, the meaning of which is now forgotten.' To the contrary, pheng means 'piece' (of music) and phi fa is the animistic 'sky spirit.' In a ceremony, a medium singing to the accompaniment of a khene attracts the phi fa to inhabit her/his body and answer questions, usually as to why someone has become ill. The present performance, in which small cymbals called sing are also used, is the ceremony's accompaniment without a singer/medium.

Selection 5, played by the late master khene player, Thao Phet Sananikhone, is a medley of three pieces whose order Brunet has confused and whose titles are left unexplained. The first selection is his 'ma it thiet lo hat' (a small female dog walks along the beach), and improvisation which alternates between the two modes that both have a D2 as the 'tonic' pitch: lai noi (d fga c) and lai soi (de gab). The second piece should properly be called 'sut sa naen,' not 'sut sa men'; it uses pitches ga cde. The third piece, 'tit sut noi,' refers to closing a certain pipe, which is the drone common to both lai soi and lai noi (d), with khisut. The pitch system used here assigns pitch A to the lowest pipe, making the tuning system A, B, c, d, e, f, g/g, a, b, c', d', e', f', g', a' (See Terry E. Miller, Traditional Music of the Lao: Kaen Playing and Mawlum Singing in Northeast Thailand, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985). The third khene selection (8), 'lot fay tay lang [the train runs along the track], is puzzling; while this kind of piece used to be common in northeast Thailand where there are two rail lines (terminating at Ubon and Nong Khai), to my knowledge there has never been a railroad in Laos. Unless the player had travelled to Thailand (or had come from there), it seems unlikely that he could have imitated something he had never heard. Nonetheless, the performance is effective, with the addition of a convincing whistle.

Two selections claim to represent the vocal styles of southern Laos; however, only one does, in fact, do so. Although item 2, 'Lam sithandone,' should be the local style of Pakse and Champassak, the singers perform part of a lam klon cycle from northeast Thailand; they sing lam nyao, the second of three parts, and lam toey, the final one. Furthermore, the male singer has a memory lapse during the performance. The khene player, evidently not familiar with these singers, tried to lead them in both toey pamah and toey hua non tan, sub-types of toey; unfortunately, however, the singers did not know the songs and oculd not continue. The second selection, 'Lam of Savannaket' (7), is, in fact, genuine lam khon savan from Savannakhet. It is sung by one of the greatest singers of Laos, Bunthong Insixiengmai, but without his usual female partner, Somwang, who is mentioned in his poetry (Bunthong has lived in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, USA, since at least 1979). The khene player does not seem to be totally comfortable with the accompaniment; he may, in fact, have come from the other side of the Maekong.

The two 'classical' examples on this compact disc are both played by amateur musicians who live in village near the former Kingdom of Champassak. this small court, one of three such entities in Laos (the others being Luang Phabang and Vientiane), once controlled most of southern Laos and part of what is now Cambodia. this fomer kingdom of Champassak was under Siamese control in the nineteen century, before the French came to dominate Laos. The pinphat selection (3) reflects influence from Siamese court music in that the composition came from Bangkok. Some Cambodian influence is seen as well, however, since the ensemble's last teacher had come from Phnom Penh around 1960.

The following observations, made by a learned Thai classical musician/teacher Panya Roongruang, formerly of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, and who is currently a doctoral student in ethnomusicology at Kent State University, indicate how far this performance has deviated from its original source. According to Panya Roongruang (personal communication, 1993), while the performers seem skilled, they do not play the melody in the usual instrumental idioms (thang), which normally create heterophony or polyphonic stratification; instead, they play more or less in unison. the cymbal (sing) player has the pattern reversed, ending on a 'sing' rather than 'sap.' The musicians seem to have forgotten a good percentage of the piece; they have mixed sections and patched together a version of 'pheng kom' that is far removed from the Siamese/Thai one. The second piece, 'Pheng soysonthat' (6), is played by a wedding ensemble which, according to the notes, consists of two khene, so-duong (two-stringed cylindrical fiddle), and so-u. All play in unison and repeat the melody without variation. The drum pattern is nathap lao, but in Thai practice it would have been nathap brop kai song chan. These examples represent what certain surviving classical musicians play today, and, while their continued existence (I recorded the phinphat in 1991) testifies to their seriousness, they must technically be accepted in the context of an isolated Lao town and not compared to the great ensembles of Bangkok.

An annual buffalo sacrifice takes place at the ruined Khmer temple, Vat Phu, which is located eight kilometer south of Champassak, near the western bank of the Maekong. While this may be of importance to the lowland Lao, the music is evidently provided by the lao thung (upland Lao, formerly called kha, a pejorative label) from Salavan province in the interior. Lao thung is a collective term for people, 'who live on the slopes' (and not the highest mountains, such as the Hmong). In this case, it probably refers to either the Loven or Tauoi, both of which are Mon-Khmer groups (See Frank M. Lebar et al., Ethnic Groups of Mainland Southeast Asia, New Haven: Human Relations Area Files Press, 1964, pp. 143, 151). Their instruments are distinctly upland (drums and gongs), and the language of the singing is evidently upland Khmer.

In conclusion, I expect that having this album available is better than not having it at all; however, to reissue it without correcting the annotations seems a waste. The music of the little-known country of Laos remains shrouded in mystery; this is partly due to the lack of materials and partly to documents such as this which misrepresent and distort the traditions.

[This essay was written by Terry E. Miller and originally published in Ethnomusicology, Volume 39, Number 1, Winter 1995, pp. 162-65. It has been slightly edited for inclusion on TV Multiversity. Further information about the recordings discussed in the this essay can be found here and here, and there are numerous videos featuring the instruments mentioned in this essay, especially the khene, currently available on YouTube.]

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