Old village show gets a modern lift

In Surin, national artists and local officials are preserving a traditional performance that has been dying out

Jariang Baroen is still a feast for the eyes and ears for the older generation but time and modernity have caught up with it.

Photos by NOPPARAT KINGKAEO

The Cambodian-influenced performing art, native to Surin, is distinct in melody and dance steps. But its audience has thinned over the years.

It is mostly the same audiences who have gone to see the show - by a male-female duo accompanied by a bamboo mouth organ - since they were young.

Jariang Baroen is believed to have been first performed half a century ago, having evolved from Kantopkai, a singing drama performance rooted in Cambodia with Thai flutes as the central wind instrument.

Since most of the Jariang Baroen performers and the audience share the age bracket, it was only a matter time before either of them pulled the plug on the show, setting it on course for extinction.

However, a group of artists in and beyond Surin, which borders Cambodia, is preserving Jariang Baroen the best way they know how - through a cultural festival.

To the artists, preserving the integrity of Jariang Baroen means keeping alive farm culture. The troupe are themselves farmers who take time off after each harvest to perform their art.

National artist Naowarat Pongpaiboon plays a traditional flute.

Like most other forms of rural, live entertainment popular before the advent of television, Jariang Baroen is on the verge of disappearing.

Some patrons say that despite the perception of Jariang Baroen falling behind the times, it has striking features that can capture an audience.

Male and female singers take turns performing with a musical dialogue, going and forth, with some improvisation.

In the past, Jariang Baroen bands went on tour after the rice harvest. They visited villages and performed at night. The following morning, they asked for paddy from villagers in return for their performances.

In the past, the performers donned modest farmer attire, the kind they wore when they were at home.

Later the male singers turned to wearing trousers and the female singers donned skirts.

Singers also dance in five basic movements; forward and backward walking steps, sideway steps, courting steps, finger-snapping to the steps and kicking steps.

Each performance begins with lyrics that pay homage to the teachers, followed by duets and the concluding lyrics.

Duets include eloquent Cambodian words that rhyme with flexible patterns and can reflect beliefs, traditions, values, and social situations.

The popularity of Jariang Baroen has waned over time. Mostly elders hire Jariang Baroen performers these days. Only about 10 bands remain in Surin and performances are hard to find.

Jariang in Cambodian means singing. It refers to the singing of songs that tell stories about the past, culture, traditions, and tales aimed at encouraging listeners to do good.

It is similar to the Mor Lam and Pleng Khorat folk singing of northeastern Thailand. Cambodians also have a similar kind of singing called Oh Kan Ton.

Jariang Baroen is only one of almost a dozen in the Jariang repertoire.

Others in the Jariang family include Jariang Suntruge when a male singer holds a fishing rod and offers a dessert or fruit hooked to the fishing line while singing to court women.

Various musical instruments accompany the performance.

There is also Jariang Kankrobkrai with a solo singer who sings funny songs and also claps or plays a Thai violin.

Another is the Jariang Norakaew with two male and two female singers taking turns to sing and exchange musical dialogue without a musical instrument, while the Jariang Kantruem features four male performers and a flute player, a Thai violinist and two drummers who also sing.

Jariang Kantruem is performed at auspicious occasions like weddings and house warming parties.

Jariang Trua is a solo performance. Its performer relates tales and also plays a Thai violin, or sor. A performance by a soloist who sings tales and plays a four-stringed lute as accompaniment is called Jariang Japoei.

There is also the traditional New Year Jariang called Jariang Trus in which a band sings songs to extend best New Year wishes at homes in exchange for donations.

As Jariang Baroen is becoming a sunset art, a group of respected artists in and outside of Surin is trying to preserve this kind of singing and performance.

In fact its preservation is on the agenda of a network of artists led by national artist Naowarat Pongpaiboon. The network is working to employ indigenous cultures and arts as vehicles to promote provincial development.

The Surin artists formed the group early last year and started projects to preserve the traditional performance through a collaboration with the educational division of the Surin provincial administration organisation.

The artists launched a number of cultural and arts events in Surin in April last year. Since then artists of various genres have been taking turns to perform in front of the public at Surin's Green Market on Saturdays which include Jariang performers.

The weekly event has inspired the group to organise a landmark annual art and culture festival of the lower Northeast where local artists in all fields show off their crafts and performances.

Naowarat, the SEA Write poetry laureate, opened the second annual festival at the Chalerm Phrakiat public park in Surin in December last year.

The noted artist also sang and read poems. Other national artists who joined the event were celebrated singers Surachai Chantimatorn and Chaweewan Damnoen.

Naowarat said Surin is one of several provinces bold enough to use art to keep alive the culture associated with agriculture which is the economic backbone of the province.

He said Surin is most likely to succeed in its cultural preservation project because the provincial administration organisation was cooperative and supportive of the cause.

The other northeastern province taking on a similar project is Nong Bua Lam Phu. Its Khongka circular dance was also performed in the art and culture festival in Surin.

Kittiphat Rungthanakiat, chairman of the Surin provincial administration organisation, said the 2nd Art and Culture Festival of Surin has helped to save the art, culture and wisdom of Surin which otherwise might have faded into oblivion.

He pointed out Surin was rich in arts and culture as many native residents had Cambodian, Lao or Guay ancestry.

The ethnic Guay people, with the largest concentration in Surin, migrated from southern Laos and northern Cambodia. They speak a distinct dialect.

According to Mr Kittiphat, the Surin provincial administration organisation is supporting the preservation of all kinds of local arts, be they visual art, music, literature and performances.

It is organising small artistic activities at its Chiang Pum stage on the second Saturday of every month and big artistic events at the Chalerm Phrakiat public park on the last Saturday of every month.

The Surin PAO is also documenting local wisdom and proverbs and recording them in books and video compact discs for distribution to the public.

A male Jariang Baroen singer in jeans and shirt rather than the traditional costume.

The lead female vocalist in the troupe is considered a master performer.

The khaen bamboo mouth organ is one of the key instruments for Jariang Baroen.

Jariang Baroen performers on stage at a cultural festival in Surin last year.

Distinct dance steps are a feature of Jariang Baroen.

Audiences at Jariang Baroen shows are mostly people from the older generation.

About the author

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Writer: Nopparat Kingkaew
Position: Writer