The idyllic rural setting of Jim Thompson's Farm in Pak Thong Chai in the northeastern province of Nakhon Ratchasima was the venue for a battle of the bands on Dec 23. The Sud Sanan Dan Isan contest featured 12 molam teams from secondary schools and colleges across Isan, all vying for glory.
The competition was organised to encourage teenagers to take up a traditional style of molam called molam glawn, a poetic or repartee interpretation of lam which, according to Chutima Dumsuwan, PR and brand manager at Jim Thompson, has been getting increasingly hard to find in recent years.
"We [at Jim Thompson's Farm] received an Isan Heritage Preservation Award earlier in 2012 from Khon Kaen University and we saw some wonderful lam performances from Chaweewan Damnoen and Aungkanang Kunchai at the awards ceremony. It gave us the idea of creating a contest to encourage young people to take up this kind of music," she explained.
Jim Thompson staffers enlisted the help of a judging panel of molam experts, including national artist Dr Chaweewan Damnoen, Banyen Rakkaen (the "queen of molam"), Asst Prof Jareonchai Chonpairot, Pornsawan Prondonkor and Pramuan Pimsen. The knock-out rounds began earlier in 2012.
The competition was divided into secondary-school and college categories and each band had to have singers, a phin (Isan lute) player, woad (pan pipe) player, khaen (bamboo mouth organ) player and traditional dancers (each ensemble boasted three female dancers, who performed like a small chorus line). Each of the 12 finalists were asked to perform three important forms _ lam tang sun, lam tang yao and lam toei _ for 15 minutes. The performers also had to deck themselves out in local Isan textiles and some of their costumes were most beautifully designed indeed.
We didn't arrive in time to see the secondary-school finalists, but we did get there for the start of the college part of the show. Under the shade of a colourful tent and against a backdrop of forest-covered hills and fields full of sunflowers, all the bands took to the stage and performed with great skill and lots of gusto. Some of the players were exceptional (one secondary-school khaen player, Jakrit Kongsee, was truly outstanding; as were several of the singers).
After the performances, Chaweewan Damnoen performed a lam glawn of great beauty. I had worked with her and Asst Prof Jareonchai on a Japan Foundation-sponsored molam tour of Japan back in the 1990s and it was good to hear her in such magnificent form. Her performance was followed by a short show by Banyen Rakkaen, who also gave us a glimpse of her talents as a lam glawn singer, something she doesn't usually do in her big molam shows.
After the shows, the judges announced the winners. The team from Khokkon Vatiyamkom, a school in Nong Khai, won the secondary-school award and an opportunity to play at the Jim Thompson Restaurant in Singapore, while the college award went to the ensemble from Maha Sarakham University. Dr Chaweewan addressed all the participants, telling them: "Your folk traditions aren't far away, they are with each and every one of you, the traditions are with you when you go on stage, don't forget them."
Khun Chutima, from Jim Thompson's Farm, said she wasn't sure whether the contest will become an annual event; a lot will depend on the feedback, she said. The farm is also planning to create a museum of Isan music on site, which would be a boon for lovers of lam glawn she added.
Asst Prof Jareonchai made the point that it is important to understand that many young people prefer the faster-paced lam styles like lam sing and luk thung Isan. He said that while only the most senior and best known lam glawn artists can find regular work, he was encouraged to see some of the new generation taking to the music with such pride and passion and noted that he was more than happy to pass on his skills to young musicians.
Let's hope that some of the participants in this year's contest develop careers as masters of lam glawn.
When I came to Thailand in the early 1980s, my bags were packed with cassettes of reggae music. I had been teaching at Brixton College and was also living in Brixton, an area in South London which has many Caribbean immigrants and lots of reggae music. Some of my students introduced me to the "sound systems" of South London like Saxon Studio International (my students had their own junior Saxon sound system), which produced singers like Maxi Priest and key early rappers ("toasters" was the term used then) specialising in the "fast chat" style like the late Smiley Culture and Tippa Irie; I remember Tippa's big 80s hit Complain Neighbour from that time, along with Smiley Culture's Cockney Translation.
Nobody was interested in reggae in Thailand back in the 80s; it took a long time for people to catch on. Nowadays, young Thais listen to local ska bands and reggae outfits like T-Bone play at international festivals. Isan dancehall DJs like Maft Sai have also done a lot to bring reggae beats to local clubbers with their "Isan Dancehall" nights, the latest of which, on Dec 21, featured not only Tippa Irie but also singer Hollie Cook and dubmaster Prince Fatty. It was great to hear a "London stylee" gig with Irie's rapid-fire, witty fast chat and Cook's singing, backed to the dub grooves of Prince Fatty and it took me back to "blues parties" and sound systems I enjoyed in Brixton many years ago. It was a great night and a great way to end the year.
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- Writer: John Clewley