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The following post about music in Isaan was written by Linda Danielson, a musician, avid music lover, volunteer and close friend of Mundo Exchange: 

I’m in Thailand for the first time as a Mundo Exchange and Laekplian Lokgatat volunteer, a traveller, a musician, an Irish fiddler to be exact, with a nodding 
acquaintance with South-East Asian music. Since I’ve been here I’ve spent quite a bit of time on the internet trying to deepen that acquaintance, sorting out what I think I know, and focusing on the music of Isan.

This North-Eastern third of Thailand is generally said to be economically the poorest part of the country. But it is rich in the cultural influences of Laos and Cambodia as well as central Thailand. Its cultural distinctiveness involves language, food traditions, and music in particular.

I’ll lay out some of the basics of the music as I understand them. Any local people who happen to read this, or those who have knowledge or experience of the music, please feel free to correct and expand it. Here we go.

When you listen to modern popular Thai music, you hear a lot of Euro-American influence. Besides that there are excellent Thai jazz bands, bluegrass bands, rock bands, symphony orchestras, etc. Even local folk traditions may blend, say, the sound of an electronic keyboard and electric bass with the sharp plucked sound of the krachappi, a North-Eastern traditional turtle-shaped lute made of teak or jackfruit wood.

Thai people love music of all sorts, but the music of their own region seems closest to people’s hearts. Here in Isan there are particular instruments, some of which have come to North-Eastern Thailand by way of Laos, like many of its people. Especially important is the khaen, the bamboo mouth organ that came here by way of Laos. And there is a singular singing style. In English it is spelled in various ways. All represent English speakers’ efforts to represent the sound of the Isan word: molam, mawlum, mor lam, and even more.

man plays khaen instrument

The khaen is probably the instrument most highly associated with the Isan part of Thailand. It is a bamboo free-reed mouth organ. It has a double row of pipes of graduated lengths, all fitted into a small wooden barrel-shaped wind chest. The reeds are inside the pipes. The player blows and draws (exhales and inhales) air in through the wind chest. The sound is somewhat like a harmonica or an accordion with a steady drone under the melody notes, which are sounded when the player uses fingers to close small holes in the pipes. Khaens vary from six to perhaps fourteen pipes, and may be from about eighteen inches to as much as four feet long. Another bamboo pipe is the wode, a panpipe set up with the graduated lengths of bamboo arranged in a circle around a hub.

Among plucked string instruments, in addition to the krachappi there is the smaller phin, another fretted lute, with two or three metal strings. The headstock, quite a lovely shape, reminds me of the roof finials on Thai temples.

The various kinds of saws have two strings tensioned by tuning pegs and a thread loop tied over the strings, partway down the stick. They are bowed, more or less upright on the knee, with the bow hair running between the two strings, like the Chinese erhu. This means that the player must draw the bow against the underside of the higher-pitched string, and press it against the upper side of the low-pitched string. The soundboxes of the saw peep and the saw krapawng are made from metal cans. A saw u, with a coconut shell body, can be seen at the Beung Kan Cultural Center. Probably the most well-known saw in Isan is the saw kantrum, with a wooden body and a snakeskin head.

Three sizes of saw kantrum are the main melodic instruments of the kantrum ensemble. This ensemble consists primarily of string instruments, singers and percussion, in particular the glong kantrum, a large, long-bodied single headed drum played with the hands. With roots in the Khmer culture of the Cambodian border, this style of traditional ensemble is well-known throughout Isan for fast, rhythmic dance music. The kantrum ensemble sometimes serves to accompany the pi-salai, an oboe-like double reed instrument. Along the way, the kantrum ensemble has absorbed some electronic instruments such as keyboard and guitar.

Traditional mor lam singing, accompanied primarily by the khaen, can be traced back to Laos. It is one of several traditional styles that migrated into Thailand from various regions to the north, but mor lam is the style that has become the ancestor of contemporary Isan country music. The term means “expert singer.” The style first spread as Siam extended its influence over Laos, and people were forcibly relocated from Laos into the area that became Isan. The music has taken in elements from China, India, Mon-Khmer, and Malaya. Animism, Buddhism, ritual courtship, storytelling, and male-female competitive singing were important elements of the tradition. After the middle of the Nineteenth Century, mor lam seems to have been largely localized to Isan.

The mor lam singing we find on contemporary CDs and videos certainly descended from this older tradition. Its popularity has again spread beyond Isan, as more and more people leave Isan in search of work and take their music with them. Contemporary mor lam is still the music of rural people, and it often expresses awareness of social issues, the difficulty of rural life, and feelings about exploitive working conditions that Isan people find in large cities outside the region. Animist stories and alluring the opposite sex remain important themes. These days the contemporary sound of electric guitar, keyboard, drum kit and bass will be the more usual backup, and the rapid-fire rhythmic vocals of mor lam may, within one song, alternate with sections of luk tung, a country music style generally popular across Thailand since the 1950′s. The two traditions share much in their rural origins, their awareness of the exploitation of rural people, and the sexual conquest. But mor lam still has a unique sound and energy.

f you’re here in Beung Kan, the internet is also a great resource for finding out about the sounds of Isan and having a look at its traditional instruments. Start with YouTube. A suprising amount is available if you search Thai music Isan or North-East. You’ll find everything from thirty seconds of an old man playing the phin in front of his house to the most polished, professional, pop-oriented production for the music video audience. Keep digging, try other search terms. YouTube is wide and deep. Search the names of traditional instruments. Notice the names of currently popular singers who are identified with mor lam.

A surprisingly useful resource is Google images if you want to see what the instruments look like. Again, search the names of the instruments as well as of the region, and be aware that in English there are multiple spellings for many of the names. Google images often can lead you to useful informational text as well as pictures.

Wikipedia is also useful, and much of it is well-sourced and annotated. It’s good for background information, but keep following the search terms to more and more detail, like names of the instruments.

Beyond that, keep listening-what’s on the sound system of a local restaurant, are there street performers in the market, what sounds do you hear in the accompaniment when a local artist is selling his own recordings?

A few days ago I had one of those experiences that as a musician and a curious traveller, I treasure. I was at the Lao-Thai market here in Beung Kan, on a Tuesday morning. I heard an amplified voice with an accompaniment that seemed to involve the sounds of electronic keyboard and, I thought, probably one of the traditional lutes. Following the sound, I found a blind street singer, with a microphone, speaker, pre-recorded accompaniment, and a cup for contributions. He was being carefully guided by a young woman. The technology of modern culture was meeting a past at least as ancient as the Greek poet Homer, another blind performer. I thought of Turlough O’Carolan, the travelling blind harper of Seventeenth Century Ireland. I thought of Reverend Blind Gary Davis in the streets of the American South. They are all bearers of folk tradition, an unbroken line of musicians making a living under difficult circumstances. A few minutes later in my walk about the market I spoke to a local recording artist, Keeyut, who owns a bar and restaurant here in Beung Kan. His style is gentle and lyrical, but his themes are often pure Isan. These are the faces of Isan music.

If you have more information on music of Thailand or know where we can learn more please contact us via the comments section below – we would love to know more of this unique, and wonderful, music.


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