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    Jintara Poonlarb                                             Monthong Sihavong

Note on Thai script: for pronunciation purposes, I have included several words in Thai script.  If it appears on your browser as garbled text, the latest version of Microsoft Internet Explorer (5.x) has built-in support for display of the Thai font.  To view the Thai font with MSIE 5.x, simply select "encoding: Thai" from the "view" drop-down menu.

หมอลำ Morlam: the Music of Isaan...  Documenting a musical form in VCD.

- written by Geoff Alexander, director, Academic Film Archive of North America

This program  represents the first time a comprehensive program of Morlam music from Thailand has been introduced to Western audiences in the Western hemisphere. The music, we feel, is important, and a significant contributor to the continuity of Isaan culture in Thailand.  These introductory notes provide a background to the music, its relationship to Isaan culture, the importance of documenting the music, and the challenges in documentation, from a Western perspective.   The notes to each morlam piece on the program are available on this site, as is a biographical sketch of Jintara Poonlarb, morlam's reigning star.

On a number of levels, we think this is the most important show we’ve done, in our six plus years of programming. The music is important, although unknown for the most part outside of Thailand and Lao. It’s visually exciting, and its hard-charging rhythms and dynamic vocalizations are often spectacular. As archivists of film 16mm genres that are fast disappearing, we are committed to bringing attention to other forms of visual media (such as these VCDs) that we feel may be in future danger, as tastes change, and as Western culture continues inexorably to proliferate globally.

Like all great folk musics, the listener doesn’t have to understand the lyrics to recognize the beauty and power of morlam music, but morlam isn't easy to find, in conventional record stores.  Even in Thailand, you’ll have to get pretty far off the main tourist track to experience the music, whether in bars, record stores, or concerts.

This program took an estimated 100 hours to develop, and many more beyond that as we tracked down the music from country markets to bars in the back alleys of Bangkok. It’s our great pleasure to present the music to you.

The music
Morlam as spelled in Thai:   หมอลำ 

Morlam music is also referred to as "mor-lam", "moh-lam", "moh-lum", and similar spellings, as the English transliteration from Thai and Lao is inexact.  Originating in the Isaan (อีสาน) country of northeastern Thailand, its primary instruments originally were the khaen, a multi-reed, multi-pipe mouth organ, and the phin, a stringed instrument similar to the western guitar. These were often accompanied by the sor, a bowed string instrument, a hand drum, and a circular panpipe called the wood. Today, these instruments are augmented and/or replaced by electronic keyboards, electric bass, and a western-style drum-set. The keyboard is set up to emulate the sound of the 1960’s Farfisa combo organ. The name 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 speaking central Thai, the primary dialect in Bangkok, the north, and south, even though the written script is the same. The Isaan dialect spoken in northeastern Thailand and Lao are essentially the same language, and in fact, "morlam" exists in Laos as well, under the name "lamlao". Although much morlam is sung in Thai, a significant amount is sung in Isaan (Lao).

Morlam music, at its best, is fast-paced, being driven by a continual flurry of 16th notes from the khaen, booming bass, surging organ swells, and drums relying heavily on backbeat. Morlam singers are accompanied by dancers, who might either be dressed in traditional Thai costume, mod disco garb, or a stylized combination of both. 

There are four main components to the Morlam song vocal styles, :  1)  "Talk", in which a singer recites non-sung words, generally to slow musical accompaniment; 2) "Gern", an introductory slow sung section that lasts approximately sixty seconds, most often accompanied by khaen; "Lam", a rap-like chorus, which differs from western rap in being melody-based, and generally only one chorus long; "Pleng", which is the non-lam part of the song, and also means "song" in Thai.  Often, the words "o-la-nor" ("o fate") occur as a beginning to the "gern" section. A common and significant vocal inflection often ends a chorus, consisting of several repeated, non-word vocal inflections, sounding like "o-ey, o-ey, o-ey", which is transliterated under many different types of spelling onscreen.  

Elementary morlam bassline

Identifying morlam

One of the challenges I've encountered in the research is finding anyone who can articulate, in musical terms, the difference between morlam and  Lukthung (ลูกทุ่ง), another form of Thai popular music.   After listening to hundreds of songs, I've come up with the above scribble, which identifies the fundamental morlam bassline, heard, with minor ornamental variations, in virtually every morlam song.  In fact, such basslines also occur in Isaan country music.  Country music begins with khaen, phin, and sometimes wood and sor.  Bands will tend to add electric bass, then drums, and finally, replace khaen with synthesizer, and phin with guitar.  In viewing morlam VCDs, listen for the bassline, and look for the presence of a khaen, which often is unheard in the recording, but the presence of which adds a proper Isaan visual cue.  In addition, the presence of a "lam" or "gern" section is another key indicator of a morlam song.  Some musicians expand on morlam themes by adding hard rock instrumentation, in another form of Thai popular music called morlam sing (หมอลำซิ่ง)

Here are some general observations on the morlam music and its audio and visual presentation:

  1. There is a difference between rural and urban morlam. Urban morlam has higher production values, with sophisticated edits and and juxtapositions of acted sequences and studio shots with the musicians. The syntho-organ is the prime instrument, as embodied in the music of Jintara.  Rural morlam, as a rule, has two cameras at the most, no actors, and is khaen-based, as in the music of Tep Porn.
  2. Dancing is a critical element, with choreographed hand and body movements in urban morlam, to a more earthy and sexual flavor, in rural morlam. "Egg-shaped" rotating hand movements are made by the lead female singer, often accompanied by dancers emulating similar movements.
  3. Singers often appear in several different changes of clothes, from traditional to modern, during a song. Commonly, the featured singer will appear in modern clothing, while her dancers are in traditional clothes.  In many cases, however, the dancers are scantily-clad, and appear incongruent to the music in many western eyes.  In fact, Southeast Asian dancers in dress similar to those appearing in morlam VCDs can be seen in sculptures and reliefs centuries old.

           Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 12th c. ACE                    My Son, Viet Nam, 11th c. ACE
           - photo by Geoff Alexander                               - photo by Geoff Alexander

  4. There is an emphasis on stories of life. Common ones are sadness at leaving the village, the complications of urban life, in contrast to village (and the sudden availability of expensive goods, such as cars and new Kawasaki or Yamaha motorbikes). Occasionally, singers will sing about their rise to fame from the villages to the stage (e.g. those of Jintara & Pornchitha). Some songs describe newsworthy international events, (such as Jintara’s ‘Arlai World Trade’),  and there are drinking songs, as well.
  5. English transliterations of titles are poor, e.g. substituting "gla-gla"(fearless) for "glua-glua" (afraid) on one VCD of which we are aware. All English titles given on VCD screens should be checked against a Thai dictionary (while the words are generally Isaan, the titles are typically in Central Thai). Thai and Isaan are tonal languages, and transliteration into English is an inexact science.
  6. In songs with acted sequences, black and white flashbacks are common elements, with the action shifting to color to depict current happenings.
  7. VCDs do not appear to list the date in which they were created, or initially distributed. It’s common for a VCD to include songs that were made several years apart, so my guess is dates are not included to extend the marketable life of any given song.


The Isaan culture

As much as it is a music, morlam is also a social force unifying the Isaan people of northeast Thailand, many of whom find their way to Bangkok to find fortune, far from the villages, many of which are wrought with poverty, hunger, and meager economic opportunity. Isaan workers, most of whom have at best a sixth-grade education, become Bangkok’s construction laborers, street vendors, cleaners, and bar girls. They are ostracized from mainstream Bangkok society by their education, language, and skin color, which is darker than that of Sino-Thais. To a large extent, the lyrics of morlam songs tell their own story, making references to village life, village people they miss, lost loves, and exploitation by elements of city culture. Morlam music can be found in numerous karaoke bars in Bangkok where, for a few baht, Isaan people can play a video CD of a favorite morlam performer. The video CD, based on the MPEG1 format, is the preferred choice for hundreds of thousands of morlam fans, many of whom cannot afford televisions, as it allows them to experience their favorite stars on stage, in a venue close to work or home.

My first indicator of the power of this music to unite Isaan people came on an evening when a buddy and I, accompanied by two Thai friends, stopped at a beer bar on Sukhumvit Soi 4 for a late night drink. In a beer bar, the objective is for the female employees to chat with foreign (farang) guys, have a drink or two, then accompany them to a short-time hotel. In this particular bar, all the girls were Isaan. We noticed that Rock Slaang’s "Motocy Hang", a favorite of ours (and on our program tonight, incidentally), was an available tune on the video karaoke machine. We inserted a few baht, chose some morlam numbers, and all of a sudden, it was as though someone threw a switch, as the girls began dancing at the bar, on the floor, and in the arms of their farang customers. The place had gone wild. This wasn’t good enough for one farang, who put some baht in the machine, and chose Elton John and the Eagles. The club became a morgue. Except, of course, for the farang who was bopping along with his tunes, oblivious to the obvious. Our Isaan friends weren't going to let this go unchallenged. When the insipid Western pop was finished, she noticed the faring making his way to the karaoke machine again. Deftly, she cut him off, threw in a week’s worth of baht, and bought an hour’s worth or morlam. The girls went back to partying, life and light again returned to the land of smiles. But not for long. When we returned the next week, there wasn’t a single morlam tune left on the karaoke machine. The owner, obviously not Isaan, had observed the girls having way too much fun, dancing when they should have been grabbing customers' bar fines. He threw out their music, and once again, Eastern culture had taken a back seat to the West.

If you tell your Thai friends about this show, they’ll either be mortified (if they’re not Isaan), or overjoyed. Non-Isaan people can be embarrassed that morlam is being promoted as representative of Thai culture, in much the same way that lots of white people in the U.S. would have felt about early 1900s New Orleans jazz, which was heard primarily in bordellos. Lao people, on the other hand, generally love the music, which they’ll often claim as their own, due to the Lao language sung in the VCDs. There is some very good "lamlao" on VCD as well, and we’ve included it in the program for contrast.

The Isaan culture has been discussed in anthropological and social treatises, but perhaps a more accessible introduction is through the writings of Isaan novelist Pira Sudham, whose books ‘Monsoon County’, ‘People of Esarn’ (an alternate spelling of "Isaan") and ‘The Force of Karma’ are written in the original English .


The importance of documenting the music

We are focusing on these morlam video CDs (VCDs) as an example of a music that should be documented, archived, and saved. In social context, these songs are similar to the "race-records" of 1920s-1940s African-Americans in the U.S., to whom music was as much a unifying cultural and communication element, as it was an art form. Already, we are noticing that many morlam VCDs are getting harder to find. As the music evolves and changes, many of these pieces, which document singers, songs, and stories, may soon be perceived as being "old", with little future value commercially. If so, as digital storage technologies change with the times, many of these pieces may become lost. It is estimated by many experts that digital storage hardware has a usable life of roughly eight years, at which time the data must be transferred to the new format. Already, we have noticed color and resolution degradation in early morlam videos, which were originally made on VHS, then transferred to VCD. We have found many of these morlam pieces to be exceptional in music and visual content. As they document and serve an economic lower class, we are concerned that, as tastes change, there will be little financial impetus for music companies now making morlam VCDs, to ensure their survival.

The dearth of general information and scholarship in English

Very little has been written in the West about this music, and it’s nearly impossible to find documentation written in English in Thailand as well. While occasionally big morlam stars like Jintara will tour western countries, they appear in Thai-only venues, and get little, if any, western press.  Although this was the first English essay on morlam to reach the internet (2001), more are sure to come.

Film notes to the Morlam VCD show we took to several venues in the U.S. in 2003.


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