The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Reviews

Various Artists
The Sound Of Siam Volume 2: Molam & Luk Thung Isan From North-East Thailand 1970-1982 Tristan Bath , June 26th, 2014 09:56

As decisive a summation as the first volume of Soundway's Sound Of Siam series seemed to be, this second volume offers essential deeper insight into what, with hindsight, seems to have been Southeast Asia's most fervent and original music-making nation during the 20th century. Having gauged reactions to volume one, The Sound Of Siam Volume 2: Molam & Luk Thung Isan From North-East Thailand 1970-1982 hones in and focuses almost exclusively on molam and luk thung music originating from the Isan region in Northeast Thailand. That region shares extensive borders with both Laos and Cambodia, and is resultantly one of the country's most culturally diverse regions. Most in the region speak the Isan language (which is in fact a Laotian dialect), with large numbers speaking Khmer dialects from Cambodia, and almost everybody able to speak standard Thai too. Isan's molam style - consisting of what is essentially melodically freeform poetry (often compared to contemporary American rap) performed over repetitive droning backdrops - derives from Laos, while luk thung (literally, "children of the countryside") is a less traditional, and specifically more Thai (albeit staunchly rural) style, often seen as playing a similar role to that of good ol' country music in the States.

The specific importance that Isan music at this time has to Thai popular music as a whole derives from the diasporic spread of Isan people across the country looking for work between rice harvests, and the inevitable ensuing opportunities and markets for Isan musicians opening up elsewhere in Western Thailand and Bangkok. In the typically informative liner notes by Soundway compilers Chris Menist and Maft Sai, this set aims to "provide a snapshot of how, in the 1970s, the genre evolved and developed from essentially an acoustic tradition with specific geographic roots, to one that started to incorporate other instruments and influences", yet most vitally we can also discern something of Isan music's relative independence from the more direct Western influences. The first Sound Of Siam still succumbed somewhat to the idea that the Western musical influences entering the region at the time (i.e. rock & roll broadcasting over the airwaves from GIs in war torn Vietnam, and henceforth spreading) were of the utmost importance to the music's development, and that is in the crossover between East and West that the magic happened.

Other compilations, such as Sublime Frequencies' Shadow Music Of Thailand or Saigon Rock & Soul attest similarly to the allure of Asians playing ostensibly Western pop music, and while both the unique power of that surf guitar twang via The Ventures and Shadows that inspired the music on Shadow Music Of Thailand, and the funky JB beats at the heart of Saigon Rock & Soul certainly don't seemed to have passed by the music of the Isan region entirely, Thailand's music-making "children of the countryside" seem to have been less totally westernised. The ouroboros tick-tock beat, and hypnotic drones of the khaen (a reed mouth organ resembling a miniature church organ) heard on volume one prevail even more strongly here, and you'd be harder pressed to simply tack this music on as an obscure branch of the global pop music tree with rock & roll in the centre.

That having been said, a few of the tracks on offer do fall into similarly groovy sixties territory as on Volume 1. 'Jeb Jing Jeb Jai' performed by Saksiam Petchchompu & Pornsurapon Petchseethong and produced by recurring character Theppabutr Satirodchompu (who seems to have been almost solely responsible for popularising modern music trends in the Isan region) grooves along a busy drum beat with an almost San Franciscan organ line, but nothing comes as close to the near-outright funk of Onuma Singsiri's cuts on the first Sound Of Siam.

Singsiri performs again for us on volume 2, opening her track with a recontextualised woozy reading of the Stone's 'Jumping Jack Flash' riff. That's where the familiar niceties end though, and the rest of 'Lam Plearn Toe Lhong Tong' plays out as an archetypal molam groove, laced with Singsiri's typically freeform, almost atonal, delivery - something which comes across as frankly extra-terrestrial to Western ears. As indecipherable as the intonations of Isan singers are to an English-speaker though, the feeling of intense lament and sheer passion in the virtuosic delivery remains intact. These Thai voices seem to slip and slide between more notes per second, and occasionally soar even higher, than should be humanly possible.

Throughout the compilation, the molam beat's hypnotic metronomic quality is brought to the forefront. The drone of the khaen drives it further home too, lending tracks like the Petch Phin Thong Band's 'Bump Lam Plearn' or Angkanang Kunchai's 'Teoy Salap Pamaa' almost dizzying mesmerism. Perhaps the most dazzling track on the set is 'Eua Aree See Sor', performed by sor virtuoso, Thonghuad Faited. The sor is a one-or-two stringed, violin-like instrument, but in Thonghuad's hand's it takes on almost celtic quality, flurrying a perfectly executed theme across a molam beat that repeats solidly to the point of almost morphing from a 4/4 romp into 1/1 chant.

Later in the album, two highlights see the molam style morph into soulful slow jams, replete with almost Fela-esque horn figures, and electric organ drones and upright piano stabs in place of the normally omnipresent and earthly khaen. Both 'Lam Plearn Kiew Bao' - sung by Chanpen Sirithep and again produced by the aforementioned Theppabutr - and Thepporn Petchubon's 'Fang Jai Viangjan' seamlessly interleave horns and electrified instrumentation with the rigid molam style. The effect amplifies the minor-key mournful nature of the songs (both singers are bemoaning the loss or lack of a beloved) with the very soul/funk addition of space - the lessening importance of single-chord drones is perhaps the most instantly recognisable trait imported from the west. The contrastingly traditional 'Lam Plearn Gok Kaa Kao' sung by Yenjt Porntawi (also on Sound Of Siam Vol. 1) that follows 'Fang Jai Viangjan' - the khaen strides along on one single chord throughout, and the clockwork rhythm includes the constant ring of a gong - bring something of how alien the guitars, organs and horns of those previous tracks may have seemed into sharp focus. If the aim of Sound Of Siam Vol. 2 was to demonstrate "how the genre evolved", then it's clearly a resounding success, painting a vivid picture of an all too brief time when Isan musicians were working with the benefits of additional modern instrumentation and technology, but minus much of the Western cultural domination that would soon follow, and subsequently shift the balance within the music.

Despite sending armies of Instagramming backpackers over there, what we are to consider the "true" Thailand remains something of a mystery. It's confusingly become synonymous with both "idyllic playground" and "hotbed of sin". The steady realisation in the West that Buddhism (and by extension "Far Eastern philosophy" and culture as a whole) is perhaps not the pacifist, morally sound, non-religion we perhaps considered it to be - along with growing first-hand experience with the region - makes endeavours like the Sound Of Siam series utterly vital. Both volumes look beyond the temples, noodles and refractions of Western culture, and present just a little something of that true and utterly unique Thailand - at least as it was. Unlike those precious holiday snaps, here the Thai people and Isan culture are centre stage, with Western fingerprints nowhere to be seen.

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.