National Artist Plern Promdan speaks exactly the way he sounds in his music. Known as the king of pleng pood, a particular style of luk thung music that incorporates witty spoken words and/or humorous dialogue into songs, Plern talks as if he is conducting the spoken parts of his pleng pood, the subgenre he co-created and popularised.
With a clear, familiar voice, Plern constantly posts rhetoric questions, theatrically lets out small laughs to punctuate points and plays old school verbal gymnastic to deliver punch lines _ all techniques often used in pleng pood _ literally "speaking song".
Sitting in a hospital canteen after a medical check up and accompanied by his wife of 45 years, Plern, at 73, is a picture of a good health with his light frame, gleaming fair skin and sharp memories that include precise dates and a very structured method of story telling _ once again another mark of his calling card in pleng pood.
As one of the recently-crowned national artists in performing arts (luk thung, or county music) category, Plern has been counting the years for this day to come as his heavyweight peers such as Chai Maungsingha and Waipoj Petchsuphan, to name just a few legendary figures, have already been honoured.
"It's been 15 years since my name was first submitted. Over the years, various people kindly nominated me. Fifteen years. At first I didn't understand what it meant to be a national artist as I just thought I was a mere singer, but people like Waipoj and Chai explained the significance to me," he said.
"It's the highest award and honour that an artist could ever get. I am grateful, and just plain happy."
Born Somsuan Promsawang in Aranyaprathet, now in Sa Kaeo Province, Plern came to Bangkok in 1954 to receive medical treatment for pleural effusion, and became a novice. He was determined to study dhamma texts to the highest level, but a chronic headache put a stop to his pursuit.
"During my novice years, I would hear music everyday as I did my morning routines, and they always stuck in my head. When I returned home to help my parents farm after a doctor told me to stop studying, I joined a rumwong band. Nobody believed I could do it because I was an extremely shy boy. At first, I would hide in the bush and sing along to the music played. But as time went by, I built my confidence to get up on stage, and sing in front of people."
Plern's small rumwong band circulated within nearby districts, and one night his voice caught the ear of border patrol police who suggested that he should enter the Yan Kroh Radio Station Contest in Bangkok. Plern gleaned the details from the officer, and slept on it. One fateful morning, he decided to make a run for Bangkok without getting paid for his performance from the previous night, as he was afraid that he would be stopped from pursuing his dream.
The year was 1961, and as Plern stood in the train station, shaking, he began to question his decision.
"I kept changing my mind. At the last minute, I bought the ticket. The train was about to leave. I told myself that even if I failed, I still had my rice field to come back to," he said.
Plern went back to the same temple where he was once a novice. He entered a few singing competitions organised by temples in the area, but he never won anything. He said it was stage fright and a lack of confidence. But he succeeded in the Yan Kroh Radio Station Contest. There weren't any crowned winners that year, but those who surpassed the rest and caught the attention of Jumras Wipattawat, the leader of the popular Wipattawat Musical Troupe also known as Choom Noom Silapin Troupe, were recruited to join, and Plern was one of the chosen few.
Plern Promdan in a concert in 1988.
Under Jumras' patronage, Plern cut his first record Tung Rang Nang Leum (Empty Field, She Forgets), but it failed to push Plern into the limelight. However, he stayed with the troupe doing whatever Jumras asked him to do
"Kru Jumras always thought of me first because I was very obedient. I always did what I was told. If he told me to house sit, I would never leave the house until he said so. He always pushed me to do different things," he said.
Jumras also forced Plern to start writing songs. He was hesitant at first, but out of respect mixed with fear for Jumras, he started to teach himself how to write songs, and the troupe singers would use them here and there. Jumras also ran a radio show and a radio drama, and he asked Plern to try, but he couldn't quite bring himself to do so.
"Kru fell asleep, and we couldn't wake him up. He must have been sleep talking when he said I had to do it. So I did it. When he woke up, he was shocked that I took his part. He replayed the tape, and liked what I did. From then on, I had a career in radio," he said.
With a salary of 500 baht, Plern read radio spots, played in radio dramas and hosted radio shows for two years before he released another record, self-written Wassana Yajok (Fate Of A Bum) in 1964, which received moderate success. He next wrote Boon Phi Nong Rak (I'm Blessed That She Loves Me) which he said was his breakthrough hit, and the rest like Chom Krung (Sightseeing), Soa Soad (Single Lady), Monrak Banrai(Countryside Magical Love) among many others, closely followed.
Famed action director Chalong Pakdeewichit first cast Plern to appear in Fon Tai (Southern Rain) in 1970, and Fon Nue (Northern Rain) the following year.
"At first it was embarrassing, but I learned how to do it. I think I was all right, but I wasn't a great actor or anything. I was supposed to be in the leading role in his next movie, but it didn't materialise."
The beginning of Plern's pleng pood phase could be traced back to a soundtrack he did for his first movie Samak Duan (Apply Now!) where a bit of spoken word was included into the track, but it was Khao Sod Sod (Hot Hot News) released on Oct 25, 1972, that inserted a new chapter in Thai musical history.
Khao Sod Sod was written by Songkroa Samattapapong who would stay on with Plern until the twilight of his career.
"The record company wouldn't buy it if we said it was written by Songkroa, so we lied, and said I wrote it just to get the record out," said Plern.
After the pleng pood breakthrough, the style became popularised. More pleng pood hits were produced. Plern took part in writing and inserting spoken jokes as well as editing and producing. Initially, others did the spoken word parts. They would talk back and forth in the songs at times while some other times Plern executed the entire songs himself. The format changed over time, depending on Plern's flight of fancy. He adjusted the content and the lyrics as he saw it, and he was mostly responsible for injecting the signature pleng pood sense of humour. Towards the end of pleng pood popularity, Songkroa coerced Plern to do the spoken parts himself.
"People began to ask if my songs would feature pleng pood style, so it became a norm for me. It became my signature. In my opinion, the spoken and dialogue parts bring in more emotion, more channels to express my feelings."
Pleng pood also reflected society and encapsulated the times. From mimicking the notorious 1960s dictator Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat (Khon Fuek Singto), unemployment (Samak Duan), infidelity (Mia Na Na Chart) to the widespread popularity of lotto (Archan Bai Huay), Plern instilled a gentle sense of humour through witticisms and good nature that would cajole the listeners with glee while unknowingly reminding them of the ongoing social issues.
"The later songs weren't as popular as they once were, but that's the nature of time," he said. But when they were popular, they were at the top of the luk thung game, catapulting Plern onto a highly in-demand status, rivalling that of the late legend Surapol Sombatchareon and awe-inspiring Chai Muangsingha.
"Life was very hectic. I worked almost every day. Sometimes, I would play in Chon Buri one night, and the next I would have to be in Chiang Rai, and the next would come back to Chon Buri again. I didn't think it was that far because I was still young. There wasn't really any rivalry among luk thung artists. Sometimes we would cross paths, and we would have dinner together after shows," he said.
Asked if it was true that luk thung back in the days enlisted the same frenzy and devotions as rock stars of today do, Plern was quick to answer.
"Exactly! Surapol had the most adoring fans. I did okay! But back then the fans just wanted to talk to you. They loved our music. It was a very platonic atmosphere between artists and fans. We would get overwhelming amount of fresh flower garlands. They were never aggressive nor possessive."
These days, Plern, who has a grown-up daughter whom he steered away from a musical career, is living a peaceful semi-retired life where he prays four to five times a day. His musical output for the past few years has been biographical music of Lord Buddha, Luang Ta Maha Bua and Luang Pu Mun which he doesn't have any intention of making any money out of.
He only makes musical appearances on invitation, and most of them would be guest spots.
Plern still listens to modern-day luk thung music to catch up with the trends. And he admits that luk thung is not what it once was.
"But really, I'm not at all surprised to see it mutate. Everything has to evolve. It is just like what we did with pleng pood. Good music will stay forever while the lesser ones won't stand the test of time," he said.
"It all comes down to that."
About the author
- Writer: Onsiri Pravattiyagul
Position: Entertainment Editor