Farewell to a maestro
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Farewell to a maestro

Thongsai Thap Thanon was an exceptional phin player and a pioneer in the Isan music scene

Farewell to a maestro

The world of molam has been in mourning since news emerged that Thailand's greatest phin player Thongsai Thap Thanon passed away on March 20 at his home in Warin Chamrap district, Ubon Ratchathani, at the age of 77. The phin is a two- or three-stringed Isan Lao lute that is part of the trinity of molam instruments, along with the iconic khaen (free reed bamboo mouth organ) and the sor (fiddle).

Ajarn Thongsai was a key member of one of the region's most influential bands, Phet Phin Thong band, which, under the leadership of Noppadon Duangporn (1941-2019) developed Isan music, especially luk thung Isan country music.

Thongsai and Noppadon used a guitar pick-up to electrify what up until then had been a purely acoustic instrument. Thongsai created his own instrument using two bicycle brake wires, thereby enabling the instrument to accompany singing or strike out as a lead instrument.

Born on Nov 14, 1947, in Ban Nong Kin Phen in Ubon Ratchathani into a molam family, his father Pin Thap Thanon was a student of the legendary molam Thongkham Pengdee and well known in the region. Thongsai, who began his studies aged four, was encouraged to work hard. He was conscripted into the army in 1968, joining the Artillery Battalion Band where he performed international music. This experience helped him develop the phin sound and incorporate elements from outside molam music.

Noppadon set up the Petch Phin Thong Band in 1970, and Thongsai joined using the nickname Thongsai Hua Nak, which was derived from the famous naga head of the instrument. Just a year later, Thongsai led a molam troupe to perform in front of a Buddha statue at Ubonrat Dam and later presented a golden phin to HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej at a graduation ceremony at Khon Kaen University, who said that the instrument was the crown jewel of Isan's musical instruments. And so the band changed its name from Isan Luk Thung Phin Prasit Band to Phet Phin Thong.

Thongsai Thap Thanon. (Photo: Jason Lamai)

Thongsai's influence cannot be underestimated. His work with Phet Phin Thong and his own compositions left an indelible mark on the recording industry, but he was also a tireless educator who taught many phin players. Paradise Bangkok's Chris Menist noted on my Facebook page that Phet Phin Thong was a model for their band in the early days, and of course Khammao, Paradise Bangkok's phin player, studied with Thongsai.

Arthit Khamhongsa, a lecturer in traditional music at Mahasarakham University and leader of the All-Thidsa Molam Band, said that when he was a child, he would listen to Thongsai's cassettes.

"At that time," he said, "we could only study Thai classical music at school, and there were no phin lessons, so I would listen to Ajarn Thongsai's cassettes and play along. I really liked his sound because his technique was different, he made his own road, his own way. In the summer, I would go and seek him out."

Arthit said that not everyone appreciates that Thongsai was a prolific composer or that his work with Phet Phin Thong was crucial for the development of luk thung Isan. He regularly took his phin students to visit Thongsai to get tips on how to get a good sound; he was also willing to share his knowledge and skills with students of molam music. Thongsai also made his own phins, so students could learn how to place an electric pick-up or how to create the artistic neck of the instrument.

Phins belonging to Thongsai. (Photo: Jason Lamai)

The rise in popularity of the phin over the past 30 years was partly due to this energetic maestro -- without him there would have been no international release by Khun Narin's Electric Phin Band a few years back. I have recently seen and heard some very good foreign electric phin players, some of whom made the pilgrimage to pay homage to the master.

Thongsai won many awards in his long career, such as Outstanding Artist (Isan music) by the Office of the National Culture Commission in 2000. As there is no National Artist category for phin or khaen players, Thongsai never received the kind official support he deserved, although he did receive an Outstanding Artist award in the field of performing arts (Isan music) from the Office of the National Culture Commission in 2000.

Thongsai has appeared in many documentaries and news reports. You can see some of these and lots of live clips on YouTube. RIP maestro Thongsai Thap Thanon.

John Clewley can be contacted at clewley.john@gmail.com.

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