From the field to the protest
James Leonard Mitchell's new book provides a brilliant history of luk thung, Thailand's most distinctive and popular music
The Thai music known as luk thung (son of the field) is difficult to define because it borrows from everywhere and evolves over time. To the ear, however, it is unmistakable. That's a result of its two dominant rhythms, one from Thai folk music, the other from Latin America and an undercurrent of melancholy from the genre's archetypal song about the country boy far from home thinking of the village and the girl back there. Ethnomusicologist James Mitchell defines it simply as "Thailand's most popular music".
This is far and away the best book in English on luk thung. The opening two chapters trace the evolution of the genre. In the 1930s and 1940s, new music styles were created by merging Thai classical music with Western styles as an expression of Thailand's modernity. These crooning genres were then enlivened by adding Latin American tempos, especially the cha cha and the ramwong dance. In the 1950s and 60s, bands adopted the rock combo format of guitar, organ and drums, with instruments often retuned to Thai scales. Individual performers then added local instruments, especially the khaen and various Thai folk music styles including counterpoint singing. A final touch was troops of backup dancers in ostrich-feather costumes inspired by the Moulin Rouge. Thus an authentic, distinctive and original Thai style was built out of bits from everywhere.
Mitchell traces this story by detailing the contributions and innovations of an extraordinary range of writers and performers. The genre had its first boom in the 1960s when rural migrants began to pour into the cities and this music became a way to share their loneliness, disorientation and resentment. From this point onward, the genre had a political role as an assertion of identity against the mainstream culture of a hierarchical society.
Soraphet Pinyo had brief stardom as a luk thung singer in the 1980s and then a longer career as a writer and producer. After Mitchell interviews him on the intricacies of the industry, the two of them fall into the teacher-pupil relationship which is part of Thailand's music culture. Soraphet asks Mitchell to teach him English. Mitchell translates an album of Soraphet's songs into English, bravely approximating the intricate rhymes, though the English version is never produced.
Luk thung enjoys a second boom in the 1990s, sparked by the nation's prosperity, some official recognition and investment from big companies like Grammy. In this phase, Mitchell argues, luk thung becomes more closely identified with the northeast region and its Lao-origin people. The music gets a big input of northeastern styles, especially molam. And luk thung becomes an expression of the northeast's self-assertion in national culture and in the emerging mass politics. The music becomes more commercial, often sexier and sometimes crass. But Mitchell shows how the top singers cultivate a personal relationship with their fan base, keeping the music close to the ground.
In the street politics of the past decade, music has had a massive role. Both yellow and red sides have used music to entertain, communicate and excite. The music of the yellow side has been higher in quality, but has favoured styles that appeal to the elite minority, especially the fading "songs for life" genre. Yellow attempts to co-opt luk thung, Mitchell argues, have been clumsy, betraying their alienation from the mass base. By contrast, luk thung is the natural voice of the red side. Its anti-establishment themes needed very little tweaking to serve a political purpose. Mitchell sums up, quoting a famous luk thung song from 1953: "Today, the confrontation between the 'farmers smelling of buffalo' and the 'people of heaven' has become the key political issue in Thailand."
Through luk thung and allied styles, Mitchell concludes: "Isan musical culture has achieved a position of prominence in Thailand that is approaching dominance." Once a cry against marginalisation, this music is now an increasingly confident contribution to "Thainess".
Intent on highlighting the association of luk thung with the northeast, Mitchell hurries past the contribution of the central region rather quickly. Sayan Sanya merits only half a paragraph. But still this book is a superb contribution to the thin literature in English on Thai music. It is beautifully written and great fun to read. Peter Garrity has contributed some fine photos of performances. As a bonus, the footnotes are packed with references to songs on YouTube. Enjoy.
Luk Thung: The Culture And Politics Of Thailand's Most Popular Music
James Leonard MitchellChiang Mai: Silkworm Books