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Isan Music

28 March 2019

And now for something completely different……………if you come to Thailand either on a holiday or to live for a longer period and come across some Thai nightlife or a street party you will bound to hear some Isan music being played. I thought it might be of interest to some to provide a bit of background and some examples of the sort of music styles you will hear if you do get involved in the ‘real’ Thailand.

Background

Thai music is one of those areas that splits the expat population. I am sure there are many who dislike all Thai music styles or cherry pick by being OK with some offerings but not others. No different from back ‘home’ where music is such a personal taste and some love country & western and others not so much (me). I enjoy some Isan music and think some is a real pain. So, in my unprofessional role as a Isan musicologist 🙂 let me tell you about the four distinct styles of music I pick up being played in the events I go to in Isan, depending on the situation involved.

(1) Younger Thais are pretty switched onto western music and you will find many of them listen to a mix of Thai and American pop music. Peng spends quite a bit of time on her treadmill as part of her rehabilitation program after major surgery on her legs in 2017, and she will have western hits playing, to which she knows most of the words although often in a Tinglish way, which can be pretty funny. Mind you, I am at a loss for what the words in many songs are so I am not criticising. At other times she will be pure Thai in her listening habits. Of course Western pop or older ‘memories’ music is played in the farang bar areas across the country, or so I have been told 🙂 Your professional farang bar-hugger won’t be too much into Isan music and probably has this on his long list of things to hate about Thailand.

I suspect that this rig wasn’t playing Isan traditional! More for Peng and her friends.

(2) The many weddings and funerals I have attended have only played traditional Isan music. Slightly more upbeat at the weddings, as you’d hope, and more Luk Thung (see below) for the funerals. To my ears Luk Thung is like the versions of our country music that come with a story – the dog has died, the wife has left, the crops are rotting in the fields etc etc. Maybe that’s not what is being sung in Luk Thung, but it certainly sounds like a lot of bad news happening 🙂 Funnily, early on most mornings moo bans across Thailand make announcements over loudspeakers (oh joy). Usually they start this process with a theme song. For a long time our village had one that told the story of a faithful wife waiting at home for her husband to return from seeing his mistress. A very inspirational way to start the day 🙂 I am going to make your day and show the video that goes with that song below. You get the idea of the story even though if you don’t understand the words: 

I recent wedding we attended. Isan music 100%

(3) Street parties also play mostly Isan music but more Mor Lum (see below). It’s heavy on the beat, more cheerful and often a bit racey in the topics. These are modern “top 40′ type songs and you will hear some of the standard favourites at pretty well every street party or dance event you go to. If the crowd is mostly teenagers then a sort of techno mishmash of sounds is played, which makes me realise that I am growing older!

High volume, heavy bass and an essential element to any street party. 7,000 baht plus to hire.

(4) Finally there is lam, which is instrumental only usually with a single guitar and lots of drums. I have included a video below of Gaun dancing to a lam band in Si Bun Ruang earlier this month.

There are other styles outside the mainstream and if you want more information about them Wikipedia has a decent write-up HERE. I have also included this blog post HERE, has some useful links that take you to more sites for Isan music. Below are a couple of definitions for styles I have mentioned before:

Luk Thung

Luk Thung, or Thai country music, developed in the mid-20th century to reflect daily trials and tribulations of rural Thais. Pongsri Woranut and Suraphol Sombatcharoen were the genre’s first big stars, incorporating influences from Asia. Many of the most popular artists have come from the central city of Suphanburi, including megastar Pumpuang Duangjan, who pioneered electronic Luk Thung. The late 90’s saw a commercial resurgence of Luk Thung, and the modern electrified, pop-influenced version of the genre remains the country’s most popular music form.

Mor Lam

Mor Lam is the dominant folk music of Thailand’s north-eastern Isan region, which has a mainly Lao population. It has much in common with Luk Thung, such as its focus on the life of the rural poor. It is characterised by rapid-fire, rhythmic vocals and a funk feel to the percussion. The lead singer, also called a Mor Lam, is most often accompanied by the khaen, also known as khene (a bamboo flute – Tony).

There are about fifteen regional variations of Mor Lam, plus modern versions such as mor Lam Sing. Some conservatives have criticised these as the commercialisation of traditional cultures.

These groups can be hired for your next party at home. Usually a male and female singer, and either two or four dancing girls plus a live band. 20,000 baht up.

The Music

I have selected some of the YouTube Isan videos I have found and included them in a playlist that you can access HERE.

It is a bit of a mix of styles but I will go back and rearrange them soon and update this post. Some are a single song only while others are a longer mixture, good for your next Isan party. BTW, I find that it is best to avoid the actual videos themselves as they are usually pretty awful. The modern ones only seem to have the one movie clip director who had a single idea of the main singer in weird clothes and matching dancers who are a hit and miss as to where they can dance or are just family members.

My personal favourite is a traditional Isan song, which talks about the rains coming and the availability of frogs in the paddies, but leaving aside the romantic nature of the words, this song is the one Gaun danced for me in Isan style in the very, very early days and I have loved it and her ever since.  There are a few songs like this one that if I ever had to leave Thailand would immediately bring me back to so many good times shared with some of the people that mean the most to me.

And here is Gaun dancing to this song at our home in Si Bun Ruang. A very simple (for her not me) step one, two, three, four, but as with much Thai dancing it is the flowing hand movements that make the simplicity so graceful.

I hope you enjoyed this post. Please leave a comment. It makes my day.

Update 27 May 2019:

If you are local or having been visiting Isan during the rocket festival Bun Bang Fai period May/June then you will have heard the first song in this YouTube mix for sure.