Behind The Voice of Isan Slété
by Ginny Landgraf
(From Dirty Linen Magazine #36, 1991)
Saman Hongsa may be known to some of you as the lead male voice on Isan Slétéís album The Flower of Isan [GlobeStyle ORBD 051 (1989), UK]. Or you may have seen him perform in spring 1989 when Isan Slété toured the U.K. under their earlier name of the Pu Thai Group. Heís a mawlam, literally a master of lam, the singing style of his native northeast Thailand ("Isaan"). To call him a singer, even singer-songwriter, would paint an imperfect picture of his accomplishments. Saman is at once a popular entertainer and a conservator of Isaan traditions, an impresario with his own troupe and a sponsor of young talent, and a farmer with a fourth-grade education who is nevertheless a scholar who says one can "never graduate from the school of mawlam." If I turn up at his house I may find him recording up-and-coming singers for radio, loading up equipment for a gig, or scattering grain for the 40-odd chickens, ducks, and guinea fowl that run about. Itís a wonder that Iíve never interrupted him writing poetry, for his creations are legion.
"For light-hearted rambling... the glawn is the best medium," says former Thai prime minister M.R. Seni Pramoj in his Interpretative Translations of Thai Poets, and the verse type is the primary medium for Lao and Isaan lam singing. Lao historical epics and jataka tales (stories of the lives of the Buddha) have been put into the form, and Saman himself has written glawn on countless subjects, even forgetting some:
"Do you still have the one about reforestation?" I asked, thinking it might help in my Peace Corps work.
" ĎPlant Forests Togetherí..." he furrowed his brow "No, I sent that one off already... Iíll have to write another one!" he laughed.
Yet Saman has an astounding repertoire and is apt to pepper his conversation with bits of glawn sung under his breath when reminded of certain events. But when my too-sharp ears caught references to political turmoil in mid-70s Thailand...
"Oh, donít write about that," he steered me away, proud that his glawn had been more direct than the latter-day "protest" songs of arena-rock band Carabao, yet wanting anything appearing in a magazine to be less controversial. "Write about the amnesty for Communist insurgents... when they asked the returning guerrillas why they had left the jungle, some of them said, ĎWhen I heard Ajaan Samanís glawn asking why I was dying from malaria, far from my family, when I could be developing my country, I started to cry...í "
It is a measure of the respect accorded to Saman in the Lao-speaking community of rural Isaan that he is referred to as ajaan, professor, even though he is of humble origin. However, his mastery of different subjects of glawn manifests itself as often as not in a lighthearted way, such as on his dozen or so comedy tapes. Saman and friends banter spontaneously, and the mawlam must sing relevant glawn, whether the conversation turns to history, Thai-Lao wordplay, Buddhism, or bawdy stories. There are splices in these tapes, but the unspliced stretches show a prodigious grasp of the repertoire.
Saman sings with a variety of backings: kaen (16-tube bamboo mouth organ); pin (Isaan mandolin) with kaen, saw (2-stringed fiddle), or even saxophone; rock bands with horns and electronic keyboards; and "university-style" traditional ensembles like Isan Slété, with acoustic pin, kaen, xylophone, and percussion. It is the kaen, however, that is most closely associated with lam. If the mawlamís job is to remember endlessly unfolding glawn, all composed beforehand, the kaen playerís job is to improvise countless patterns using the rules of prescribed kaen modes. All five modes are based on the same pentatonic scale that happens to occur also in Western music (as on the black notes of the piano), but different rules concerning placement of drones and formation of tone clusters divide the modes into three categories: (1) the taang yaao [long way] modes laai yài and laai nói, which sound "minor" to Western ears; (2) the "dissonant" modes bpôh sáai and laai sôi, which have lots of major seconds and tone clusters; and (3) the "assonant" sùtsanaen, which sounds "major" to Western ears yet still doesnít "resolve" as well as the taang yaao modes. These last three modes are classified as taang sân [short way] modes and are roughly interchangeable for accompaniment.
And how does the mawlam sing with this accompaniment? Very fast! Lam strikes most novices as half-sung, half-spoken, because syllables are rattled off at such a rapid rate. Yet there are also long drawn-out "recitative" sections, such as the stereotypical "oh-la-naawwww..." introductory lament.
Saman performs in Thailand in two contexts: mawlam glawn (also known as mawlam kûu, pairs mawlam) and mawlam mùu (group mawlam). A mawlam glawn performance is a stylized courtship between male and female mawlam, trading off glawn and accompanied only by kaen. Each mawlam has his or her own kaen player. The accompaniment is in taang sân for most of the night, then switches to taang yaao for the parting laments. But as if the stage lovers know theyíll meet again, the beat picks up for a lively, humorous conclusion called dtôei, often excerpted from the mawlam glawn format for pop songs.
On January 6, 1990, I saw Saman perform mawlam glawn at the annual fair in his home province of Ubon Ratchathani. How on earth, I wondered, would an acoustic act compete amidst the loud electric bands, amusement park rides, food stalls of every description, randomly placed loudspeakers, exhibits of local handicrafts and agriculture, rank upon rank of vendors from out of town... answer: with difficulty. Samanís amps were turned up as far as they could go, but there was no way he and female mawlam Boonchuang Denduang and their respective kaen players could compete in volume with arena-rock band Gatawn, whose stacked amps and Coke signs, visible over the metal barrier just yards from the mawlam glawn stage, portended disaster as soon as we arrived. Yet the mawlam carried on gamely, even laughing when the female singer from Gatawn broke into, "Oh-la-naawwww..." Come on guys, roots-rock is great, but donít eat away the (dental) roots of the rural poor you claim to represent by promoting Coke!
After Coke went home the show took off, as Saman and Boonchuang traded off sections of "History of Vientiane," an epic known to many villagers of my acquaintance, able at least to start the story of the three yaang trees in the Mekong River where the sand accumulated and eventually became the capital of Laos. I asked Saman about the text:
"It goes back to Old Man Jan," he said [Vientiane = wiang jan, Janís city]. "He was building his city by the Mekong when three nagas [mythical snakes] floated down the river ó mama, papa, and baby naga ó and then mama naga and papa naga discovered baby was missing. They had to go back upstream and find him. He was stuck in a trap and Old Man Jan wouldnít let him go until the nagas dug the foundations of the city..."
Subsequent city-states were Vientiane of the Naga, Vientiane of a Thousand Coconut Palms, and Vientiane of a Million Elephants [ = Lan Sang, the forerunner of present-day Laos], which was eventually sacked by the Thais and whose dynastyís founders were from Phnom Penh, had been monks, and didnít know anything about money or secular learning. Further episodes deal with pre-creation chaos ("Brahma Eats the Earth") and the origin of the human race (a giant vine bore a gourd that opened up to release people of 12 tribes). Samanís magnetic personality holds audiences in thrall, as the whole universe turns on those three yaang trees and that one city.
On January 27, Samanís troupe and I traveled to Ban Nong Hang, Sisaket province, for a mawlam mùu performance. Perhaps "family mawlam" might be a better term, as Samanís brother Sa-nguan (saw), nephew Sa (kaen), songs Hong (leading male), Det-Rit (keyboards), and Wenit (vocals, sound), and wife Sri-Ubon (vocals, humorous roles) are all in the troupe! Samanís eldest son is a mawlam with another troupe, and his elder brother Boonmee used to be a mawlam but gave it up after being elected village headman. Ah, the pressures of high office... The only non-Hongsas among the regular musicians are guitarist Pa, bassist Sawn, and drummer Mao ó Thais are great ones for nicknames!
We pick up leading female Piguntong Po-gaeo and head out to the village. Saman, Sri-Ubon, Sa, and Sa-nguan in the blue truck with "Mawlam Saman Hongsa" emblazoned on the sides and bursting with stage and amps, and the rest of the 60-odd troupe members in a rented bus. The bus has a bit of trouble parking, what with all the entertainment squeezed into the grounds of the village wat [Buddhist temple]: open-air movies, boxing matches, and games of chance. The crew assemble the stage, the leads put on makeup and elaborate studded costumes, and we all eat delicious Isaan food on a mat on the ground. The amps are taller than the truck; this time Saman will not have to shout to be heard.
Before Samanís troupe comes on the village children perform: nursery schoolers dressed as nurses and one-armed soldiers, primary schoolers in traditional clothing dancing to an Indonesian (misidentified as Indian) pop hit, interpolated with the village headman plugging the Red Cross and singing the praises of the Christian Childrenís Fund. Then itís time for the Mandatory Pop Hit Medley: Samanís troupe playing current Thai hits, accompanied by 20-odd dancing girls in studded ballerina tutus. Each girl has six or seven costumes, and there is no dressing room ó between numbers the girls change standing up between the bus and the stage, concealing themselves with the ample cylindrical garment known as the pâasîn that has served Thai women as outdoor shower gear down the ages.
The band gets much tighter on Samanís dtôei hits, including two of the numbers on the Isan Slété album: "Hua Ngawk Yawk Sao" [The Old Man Mocks the Maiden] and "Imae, Imae" [Mommy, Mommy]. Those were pop hits in Thailand with electronic keyboards, guitars, and rhythm section. I confess a preference for the traditional method; a kaen player can improvise innumerable versions of dtôei, but most rhythm sections can think of just one. Itís worth it to finally see Saman singing these songs on stage, once again working the charm that so captivates the audience at a mawlam glawn gig. Sri-Ubon Hongsa, who sings female lead on the Isan Slété album but is "retired" from lead roles in Thailand after marriage as is the custom, comes on for a "fat old lady" part in "Dtèun Maeo" [Arousing the Cat]; Saman unceremoniously drops her for Piguntong. Hmmm... despite the many opportunities for women to talk saucily in lam, it always seems to be the men who win in the end.
Shortly before midnight Saman retires from center stage as Hong takes over the lead role for the main entertainment of the evening, a story written by Saman in glawn form called "Sàak Gràbeua Láang Káen" [Revenge of the Burning Pestle]. Hong summarized the plot:
"Thereís a rich family and a poor family, and theyíre friends. The poor man has to go to Saudi Arabia to work. His wife starts playing around with his rich friend, and then he comes back home and takes revenge with the pestle used to pound the hot pepper sauce.."
The Thai word for pepper is prík; I will say no more.
Musically, "Revenge of the Burning Pestle" uses melancholy, drawn-out taang yaao modes, played entrancingly on kaen and saw by Sa and Sa-nguan Hongsa, for the glawn sections, and full band for the intervening songs. The songs can be anybodyís pop hits, and they donít have to be connected with the plot; I caught Jintaraa Puunlaapís version of the Rocket Sóeng, but as I was dazed from a touch of tropical fever and fell asleep in the truck, I wasnít keeping track.
Six oíclock in the morning and theyíre still playing! And theyíll be doing it again tonight. The villagers invite us to a small pavilion bedecked with traditional Isaan pillows, lotus flowers, candles, and new robes for the monks. After the monks finish chanting we eat breakfast, sitting on the floor, rolling the sticky rice into balls and dipping it into the various dishes... is it a hallucination, or do the village women look more colorful than before? Theyíre all wearing their party/shower/everyday pâasîns ó normally too bright for the wat ó and have draped the towels they sat on all night over their shoulders. Absolutely beautiful. How do they do it?
And Iím still wondering how Saman Hongsaís troupe will make it through another night at Kantharalak, as I sit dazed on the bus home to Dej Udom. - Ginny Landgraf, 1991
Issue #36, February 1991, with the permission of the publishers.