Morlam Show Notes
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                     Thepporn Petchubol                                                Banyen Ragkaen
                                                                                  
Here's a sizzling quote fresh-in from Bangkok, in reference to our Morlam show:  "It make me exciting!"
- a senior-level Soi Cowboy businesswoman

These are the notes to the individual video CD pieces on our show's which have run in venues in San Jose and St. Louis, in  2003.  Please visit our morlam page for information regarding the culture and musical characteristics of the song form.  For more information on Jintara Poonlarb, visit our Jintara page.  If you're ready to buy morlam VCDs, click on Morlam Music: A Quick Buyer’s Guide to Starting a Basic Collection for our recommendations.  For more on Thai culture, visit www.thaioasis.com

To my knowledge, this is the first time a formal program on morlam music has been delivered in the western world. I, who understand little Thai and no Lao, have made an attempt to describe the music, the people who sing it, some social-cultural background, and what some of the words mean. While this site focuses on morlam, there are other forms of Thai country music that are also popular, most notably Lukthung and String.  Many morlam singers also sing lukthung, which differs in several ways from morlam. My translators have been speakers of central Thai and Lao. If I make any factual errors or omissions, I am happy to stand corrected, and welcome all responses. My social commentary is, of course, colored by the fact that I am a westerner.

- Geoff Alexander
 director, Academic Film Archive of North America

Notes to the individual songs

In addition to fifteen morlam songs from the Isaan world, we will include four "laolam" pieces, and two examples of "saravan", from Cambodia. The program will run in the order indicated below.

From Lao:

1.  Monthong Sihavong, from her "Skylight" VCD: (cue at :30, total time is 4:47). Monthong is an exceptional singer, backed by a spectacular band, and great dancers. We are presenting two of her songs on the program, and could have easily selected from any of the other songs on the VCD. Her group consists of khaen, circular panpipe, sor (a bowed vertically-held stringed instrument), keyboards, guitar, bass, western drums and hand drum. She has six dancers all of whom dance in identical traditional Lao dress. This first song is filmed in a spectacular natural rock setting, probably at the National Ethnic Cultural Park, 20 miles south of Vientiane along the Mekong. It consists of a slow vocal intro of 45 seconds, then breaks into the up tempo section. Monthong’s unorthodox stage positioning, in the middle of the two elliptical half-circles of her band and dancers, is an interesting exercise for the camera personnel, who seem to be in constant motion themselves.

Synopsis of lyrics:  The more you love, the more it hurts.  You believe the man and give him everything, now he's with someone else.    I give too much.

2. Somneuk Noi: (4:41) While walking through Vientiane’s Morning Market, I became transfixed by a khaen-based song coming from a small stall on the perimeter. Proprietor Lakkeo Sirimanothai produces his own VCDs with local artists. In the case of the singer who caught my attention (Somnuk Daen Ng Hung), the video was shot directly in front of the stall, each frame including market comings and goings. Somnuk’s expressive voice and engaging camera presence are anathema to a moto driver, who nudges the singer forward, while exiting the market, oblivious to the camera. To show the good manner, Somnuk ends his song in a wai.

Synopsis of lyrics:  I'm poor, and in love with a girl, but her parents want to to marry someone with money.  In the next life, I wish I'm rich, so I can love her.  To the end of this life, I wish her well, I beg her to have good luck, and wish her well.

3.  Monthong Sihavong (see notes to #1): (4:11) In addition to the fine singing of Monthong, this song is additionally interesting because of the two young children who accompany her and her troupe of six traditional dancers. This video underscores the importance of bringing performers onto stage at an early age (we suspect they’re her own children). This song begins with a slow section of one minute, and is filmed outside a country temple. For the first three minutes, the band and dancers are not seen in the same frame. Eventually, Monthong and the dancers descend the stairs, to join the band playing below. This song contains a bass line that is prevalent in lamlao/morlam, reading | --- ‘|4|4|1|. (OK, this is my own text-based musical notation, trying to describe rhythms without adding a staff graphic to befuddle your system. Each ‘4’ represents 16th notes, and the ‘1’ is a quarter note that’s held slightly over the bar line.)

Synopsis of lyrics:  My boyfriend left me, but I want him to come back and I will forgive everything.  I haven't heard from him in a long time, and think he's in love with another girl in the city, while I'm a farm girl.  

4.  Chantho Sopha, from his VCD "Mr. Beetle Eggplant": (4:13) Chantho has been blessed with a great voice, and cursed with a total lack of camera sense. In many of his VCDs, his obvious discomfort and wooden posturing indicate his apparent distaste for the whole video process. When he includes people in his VCDs, they let him down miserably as well (in one, he holds a timid girl’s hand, and she pulls it back from him, obviously hoping her mother doesn’t discover she’s made a video… we suspect she won the right to appear with Chantho in a contest of some sort). Chantho also needs a stage manager: during the slow, serious vocal introduction to this song, which was filmed during two live evening performances, his dancers, immediately behind him, laugh and joke among themselves, scratch mosquito bites, and pull on their underwear. Chantho, who has outstanding vocal range, and a wonderful sense of phrasing, is here seen sporting a huge collection of paper leis; as the slow intro finishes, we find him on a new stage during the uptempo portion of the song, where we find another surprise, the giant primitive multi-colored lightbulb boxes, which are the most significant non-human elements gracing this outdoor stage. While many would call this video amateurish, we, on the other hand, find it authentic and charming.

Synopsis of lyrics:  I'm in love with a pretty woman, but I can't afford her.  There are days I can't even afford food.  If I die without her, I'll have to accept it.

From Thailand:

5.  Thepporn Petchubol: "Kon Kue Gun". (4:07) Tep is an upcountry authentic, and much of his music is somewhat limited, melodically, to suit with his narrow vocal range. This is a fine example of pure rural morlam, and the entire VCD from which this song comes has an aura of the pagan ritual of harvest and rejuvenation, with plenty of sexual overtones, drinking and gambling. The first song on the VCD is a play on the Thai word "nom", which means both "breast" and "milk", and the camera continually returns to a mother nursing her baby, while an animated Tep good-naturedly leers at his female dance partner, while discussing the value of ‘nom". "Kon Kue Gun", the piece we have chosen to present in this program, features a somewhat older Tep, who’s sporting a fedora hat with a sheriff’s badge. Rather than moving with the music, he usually adopts "poo yai baan" (headman) position, and sings while sitting on a haystack. The khaen player is younger, wears sunglasses, and is flirts with the lead dancer, who is closer to Tep’s age.    The delivery of the message is sexual, underscored by the camera's emphasis on the bikini-clad hips and breasts of the curvy (by Thai standards) dancers, and the khaen player's pulsating hips.  Instruments are khaen, phin, bass, and drums.

Synopsis of lyrics:  The topic of the song is an admonition to local political officials to steer clear of graft, and instead, concentrate on helping the people and villages who elected them.  The reality of Isaan economic life is all-too-often a grim one, and the region is rife with stories about elected officials cheating poor farmers out of their land, and selling it to wealthy concerns, lining their own pockets in the process, or pocketing a percentage of the government money designated for social improvements.  Tep insists that politicians strive toward honesty.

6.  Banyen Ragkaen: "Tung Taa Koi" (3:20). The rise of morlam in popularity coincided with Banyen Rakgan’s appearance on Thai national television in the 1980s. Preceding later stars Siriporn and Jintara, she generally appears in traditional clothes, and was one of the pioneers in using combo-organ keyboards to give country morlam an urban flavor. This is a typical Banyen piece, with two morlam "rap" breaks.

Synopsis of lyrics:  She is waiting for her boyfriend, who left her, to return.

7.  Siriporn Ampaipong: "Pur Mai Pae Bau Dai" (3:53). Siriporn, the seventh of ten children, was born into a farming family in the province of Udon Thani on December 7, 1963. Her father formed a morlam troupe, featuring his family, and Siriporn has been performing lukthung and morlam ever since. Her stock in trade today is the love ballad, which frankly, is not our favorite form of Thai music. She’s not as good on hard-charging morlam hits as Jintara, whose razor-sharp delivery punctuates the rhythms with the same intensity as the keyboards. In this song, however, we think there’s some value in the story that’s told, plus it does introduce you to one of morlam’s most prolific singers. The story portrayed is among the most common in Bangkok, and could be told by any one of a half a million or so immigrants. Here, a girl leaves her Isaan village because of the poverty, exemplified by the empty fish bones on her plate. Arriving in BKK, she does what most unskilled immigrant girls do, working hard construction as a laborer. She then becomes a fish vendor on the streets, then a bathroom cleaner, then does janitorial work in a girlbar. When the manager touches her, she hits him and is fired. Out of work, she finds a rich lady’s purse, but refuses the offered reward. Instead she takes the woman’s name card.  On visiting her, she is offered and accepts a new job in a sewing factory, clean and with better pay (Western so-called social theorists take note). Finally, she goes to ATM to get baht, then returns to visit her mother in the village, bringing needed money, and tales of a financially more lucrative, if not necessarily more fulfilling, life. If the real story could be told in Siriporn’s mainstream videos, the girl would also have become a bar girl, met a farang (foreigner), acquired money by international mail to pay for a new water buffalo and granny’s operation, and gone to Germany. Most farang, unfortunately, don’t usually attempt to understand the pre-bargirl part of the story, their tragedy more than the girl’s.

Synopsis of lyrics:  A country girl who goes to the city always works hard, and has to resist falling into temptaion.  Finally hard work pays off.


8.  Jintara Poonlarb: "Tang Mo Jin Ta Ra" (3:38) The title of this song is "Watermelon Jintara". Here, the singer arrives on watermelon truck, driven by a man who appears to be her father. The arrival of the truck startles the village, as Jintara sings through a bullhorn, and dances on the ancient bridge, accompanied by town girls. Jintara’s character flirts with a man in the village who’s mostly seen repairing his moto in a roadside shop. She shies away she discovers he has a child.  

Synopsis of lyrics:  This song, a play on words, refers to "watermelon jintara", a species of the fruit.  She describes a taste of watermelon: "one is not enough, so one must take two...  hurry up and take me".

Jintara is morlam’s reigning star, a world-class singer of exceptional vocal dynamics, phrasing, range, and pitch.  See our Jintara page for biographical data, discography information, and performances/logistics.  

We present several songs from Jintara, including the stunning ‘Jintara Taam Kao’, an exhortation to her audience. 


9.  Jintara Poonlarb: "Nam Tar Yard Kang Par Tard Mar Doon" (3:40) Flashing lights of the carnival midway highlight games of chance as the combo-organ emulates the calliope, accompanied by the khaen. Choruses are punctuated by "morlam rap", much more melodic than the American variety. Dancers and fire-eaters accompany Jintara "on stage". 

10.  Jintara Poonlarb: "Gord Morn Khang" (Yellow Pillow) (3:24) In an extremely engaging visual film, Jintara shifts between varying psychedelic shifting backgrounds, a cartooney series of painted exterior and interiors, and a Mondrian-like checked background. She seems more infatuated with the big, cylindrical yellow pillow than she does with her love interest.

Synopsis of lyrics:  My boyfriend went away, but when I hold my pillow, I think of him.  One day, I want him to come back and marry me.  I daydream, but at the end of the day, it's just a pillow.

11.  Jintara Poonlarb: "Ka Wa Narm Ta Rin" (3:40) Jintara performs this song against an exploding, prismatic, psychedelic background, accompanied by a morlam band which adds horns to keyboard, bass and drums. In addition to her vocals, this song is notable for including both elements of the moto culture, as well as the well-known revenge factor extant in many Thai relationships. Here, a girl sees her boyfriend giving a ride to another girl on the back of his new Kawasaki. She cries, pines, and plots. Eventually, he returns with a broken arm, and she twists it not-so-playfully as she leads him back into her exceptionally beautiful country house. The humor of this last sequence seems to be appreciated or not along gender lines.

Synopsis of lyrics:  A couple has been dating for less than a year, but he wants to go out with someone else and have fun.  She's mad and  waiting, but he can't hear her.


12.  Rock Slaang: "Yahk Mee Mia" (I Want to Have a Wife) (3:58) Rock Slaang is at the forefront of the "morlam sing" movement, a variation of morlam influenced by rock & roll and motorcycles ("sing" refers to a fats motorcycle rider). Atypical Rock Slaang tune may include straight-ahead rockers (featuring tenor sax, and a guitarist heavily influenced by Santata), rock ballads, and morlam. Rock Slaang’s videos are engaging, and usually contain an element of humor to go along with superior musicianship and vocals. Here, we find a tormented young man drinking and vomiting, continually being rejected by girls offended by his bad manner and malodorous ways. He emphasizes the bad manner by drinking and falling down while praying at a streetside shrine.. Finally, a streetside restaurant operator jokingly gives him a rope to hang himself (not surprisingly, he fails at even that).

Synopsis of lyrics:  The young man wants a wife, and prays for one, so they can be together everywhere.  It's a shame not to have a wife.  Seeing others who have a wife and children makes him jealous.  He wants a wife, because a man without a wife is shameful.

13.  Rock Slaang: "Motocy Hang" (Broken Motorcycle). (4:09) Motocy Hang captures the quintessential elements of morlam: rural setting, a love triangle, and conflict exemplified by western influences, wealth, and the desire for social advancement. Here, the rapid-fire 16th notes of the khaen form the rhythmic theme taken up by guitar, bass and keyboards, and the band is staged in front of a tin-roof country building. The action portrays a typical story that could be played out in any number of Isaan towns, and is a tale with no villains. A teacher and his girlfriend are riding on his tired moto, when it breaks down in the road. Disgusted, the girlfriend angrily throws a flower on the ground, and yells at her boyfriend, displaying "marayat-mai-dee" (the bad manner). A young policeman with a pick up truck comes to the rescue, putting the moto (and the boyfriend), in the truck bed, while the girlfriend sits up front, next to him. The girl, in making a choice between the two men, realizes that her value will diminish with age. The teacher and the policeman have made career decisions that will lead them down different paths: the former has little money, but occupies a social position that will enhance with age, while the policeman has instant prestige. There are subtle messages throughout the video, including the girl’s laughter when she accidentally stalls the policeman’s truck while attempting to learn to drive it, a contrast with her disdain when the teacher’s moto stalls.

Synopsis of lyrics:  The girl wants to go with another man because he has a better job.  No woman wants a poor guy.


14.  Rock Slaang: "Ngan Bun" (Temple Fair) (3:56) Small country fairs are often associated with temples, and held on their grounds.  Here, a man throws a party, the guests bring booze or an envelope, and he wais (bows, with his hands held together) when taking the envelope, which contains money. Because he's "poo-yai", and throwing the party, it's the bad manner to ask for money, but he expresses relief every time he gets an envelope, surrepticiously lancing at the money.  Several of the guests, incidentally, are the individuals seen in song #12.  Lots of Mekong (Thai whiskey) is drunk, but the well-loved Mekong label never shows. This a great example of a party song, with much drinking, carousing, dancing, and overall sanuk (fun).

Synopsis of lyrics:  Celebrations are a Thai tradition, and often last all day and all night.  Drink, have fun, and get drunk.  This celebration doesn't happen often.


15.  Sao Somparn: "Pah Poor" (3:32) "Lukthung" is yet another flavor of Thai contemporary music, appealing to many of the people who also enjoy morlam. Lukthung is sung in Thai, and features typically larger stage-shows than morlam performances. Lukthung singer Sao Somparn here showcases her revue of hotpants-clad disco dancers, gracing a stage replete with giant stone heads and jungle fronds. ‘Pah Poor’, hit for Sao, is a blend of morlam and lukthung.

Synopsis of lyrics:  My husband doesn't know how to make a wife happy.  He doesn't know how to talk to me, and there are plenty of other good men out there.  I'ms thinking of leaving... should I leave my husband? 


Two Cambodian songs
: in addition to the Thai and Lao VCDs on the program, we’re including two Khmer "saravanes", songs and dances which appear throughout Cambodia. The saravane video is somewhat in the spirit of Indian "Bollywood" films, lighthearted interplays between men and women, focusing more on dancing and singing than on a story line. It’s apparent from both of these pieces that of all the parts of the body, the hands are of the utmost importance, therefore the song serves as much as a dance primer as a vehicle for singing. The fact that the interpersonal relationships portray couples in the process of their initial meeting, in the company of approving girlfriends, underscores the innocence of these saravanes. In contrast to Thai VCDs, Khmer pieces often substitute professional actors, models, and dancers for the singers heard on the video.

16.  Hem Sy Vorn (Him Sivon, Ham Sy Vorn) & Lor Sarith (Lao Sareth): "Saravane". (cue at:3:33, song runs to 7:45). Hem Sy Vorn is the queen of Khmer popular music, accomplished in both the "ramwong" and saravane" song forms. In Khmer videos, actors often take the place of singers, which may be the case here (two people have told me conflicting stories about the identity of the people appearing in this video). In any case, Hem’s voice is wonderful, and the tro (two-stringed bowed Khmer instrument) is outstanding. Here, Hem & Lor (we think) dance with four others in historical ruins, and on a riverbank, where Lor playfully attempts to throw Hem off a cliff. This carefree song is indicative of better times, in a land still torn apart by the vestiges of the terrible war in the mid-1970s. There is a beautiful tro break in the middle of the song, accompanied by sax, bass, and drums.

Synopsis of lyrics:  forthcoming

17.  Lor Sarith: "Saravane" (3:21) Lor Sarith, who died in a crash, April 23, 1999, has a mournful tone to his voice, seemingly out of character with the comedic, flirtatious acted sequences. He was an outstanding vocalist, and this is a fine example. Here, he (or an actor), attempts to get an attractive girl and her three companions to "saravane" with him. Unlike Thai videos, Khmer songs generally include non-professional dancers, which is what we think is the case with the three girls accompanying the lead female dancer. With sax, keyboard, bass, and drums.

Synopsis of lyrics: forthcoming

The final three songs on the program are from Thailand…

                                    
                      Mike Pirimporn                                      Jintara Poonlarb       
 
18.  Mike Pirimporn: "Taang Bieng Yah Sieng Dern" (4:41) Beginning with an impressive khaen and vocal introduction, the song moves uptempo as gangsters appear in a poor village, offering a bonus of 80,000 baht ($2,000) to young men and women willing to travel to another country for better-paying jobs. By comparison, the family income from a season’s harvest may be only 280 baht, or $5. Young people sell everything they own, including buffaloes, to gather the 80,000. In a poignant scene, one gangster is shown bribing the headman of the village, who will then look the other way while the people who elected him are cheated. Upon arriving in their new land, the immigrants are hurriedly whisked away, threatened by an automatic pistol as they speed away in an enclosed van. In many cases, this is the last time that individuals such as these will see Thailand. As indentured servants, their fate is sealed.   They are chartered to work off the $2000 purchase price, and food and lodging are added to the bill, making it virtually impossible to pay off. In this video, apparently the authorities intervene, and they are deported, shamefully returning to the village. As Pirimporn is one of the biggest morlam artists, the song will probably have more impact in the villages than countless newspaper stories could.

Synopsis of lyrics:  It's the life of poor people to take risks even though it's not the right decision, but that's how to make a living.  They pay the agency, but there's no guarantee.  At the end, everything is gone, and there is nothing.

Pirimporn, primarily a singer of lukthung, rather than morlam,  was born in Isaan country on July 8, 1970. Dreaming of being a singer, he went to Bangkok at an early age, where he worked in construction, in restaurants, and selling food on the street. In addition to being one of his country’s most popular singers, he owns a restaurant in Bangkok, where he employs members of his extended family.

19.  Jintara Poonlarb: "Arlai World Trade" (Mourning World Trade) (3:16). Bare-midriffed disco dancers gyrate against still pictures of the attack on the World Trade Center.   This is not a ballad, but rather a rocking morlam tour-de-force, propelled by a hard-charging line-up of combo-organ, bass, and drums, and Jintara’s sharply-honed vocals, much of it sung against a backdrop of a surging American flag. Choruses are delineated by a Latin reverse clavé rhythm.  This fast-paced rocker is decidedly un dirge-like, underscoring the fact that Thai sensibility is often not in keeping with that of the West.  It was written by Thepporn Petchubol, whose "Kon Kue Gun" is shown earlier in this program.

Synopsis of lyrics:  The World Trade Center is buring and my new husband is missing.  I am shocked at seeing his last name on the list of the dead; it was not his choice to go, he was assigned there.  We just got married, and then he died.


20.  Jintara Poonlarb: "Jintara Taam Kao" (An invocation to her fans) (4:40). After a 30 second khaen intro, she appears, a white ghost in front of a black background, the wind blowing. In contrast to virtually every song Jintara has ever performed, there is no lavish production in this, a simple plea, or lament, accompanied solely by khaen. In several of her songs, she emphasizes her roots in a small Isaan village close to the city of Roi-Et. Here, she presents possibly her most moving piece. This moving song, written by her manager, JangGo, convincingly places Jintara among the greatest world singers of her era:

Don’t forget me. When I hear thunder, I wonder if anyone is thinking of me, if any of my friends are missing me. To everyone out there, I want to say hi to everybody, to elders, siblings, aunts, uncles… has everyone forgotten about me? Does anyone remember the girl who was laming (singing) with the phin (stringed instrument)? Everybody was saying I was a good singer, where have you all been? Why is everyone leaving me lonely, empty? In the past, those people used to be around me, but now, nobody is within reach. I’m afraid the wild wind has blown the good memory away, and I’m afraid they’re looking to somebody else, leaving me sad, without value. I beg you not to forget me, I want to be like when we first met. I always love my fans around the world. Even though years have gone by, I’m still me. All my heart, mind, soul will always be here for you, for the rest of my life. I’m the girl of the phin, who won’t forget you. No matter what happens, I want you to be with me, always waiting for your support, and your love.

 

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