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Various Artists
Luk Thung: Classic and Obscure 78s from the Thai Countryside
Dust to Digital

It took decades of social and political morphing for the music on this collection, all originally released in the 1950s and 60s on 78 RPM records, to happen. Yet, once it did, it became enormously popular. It gave voice to a marginalized rural population (luk thung means children of the fields), as it incorporated influence from the Lao speaking North East Isan province. Furthermore, while it still contained western pop influences leftover from the days of Minister of Propaganda Major General Luang Wichitwathakans insistence on adopting music and dress styles of the west in the late 30s, it had also taken on aspects of an appreciation for rural folk dance, known as ramwong, which gained popularity after Word War 2. It was the Isan influence, coupled with ramwong that led to luk thung, a pop style that infused local, rural rhythms with early 40s-era western-instrument dominated pop. As a result, hand percussion smacks out stiff-but-hypnotic grooves over pianos, accordions and saxophones, giving singers an opportunity to seemingly freestyle streams of lyrics dealing with nature, religion, as well as monetary and sexual desires. The results are hypnotic, and record collector and project curator David Murray (also responsible for this labels sprawling 4 disc set Longing for the Past) has selected 14 of the genres finest tracks from his own collection.

This album, the CD version of a what had been a 2011 vinyl-only release, features tracks from more famous singers such as Suraphon Sombatcharoen, who did much to make the music popular, Waiphot Phetsuphan and Namphueng Boribun alongside little known performers Mitt Mueangmaen and Roengchai Mueangsamut. Musically, this could not be any farther away stylistically from the early rock and roll and vapid pop that swept the US in particular at the same time. Instead, it sounds to western ears like music from a fictitious, smoke and lust filled cabaret, with its minor-key stealth, mid to slow tempo persistence, and sultry use of horns and piano. The singing, especially mysterious to those of us who have no idea what the lyrics are, weaves over and through the clashing percussion, providing counterpoint to the pianos subtle but constant melody. It seems as if these people were suggesting secrets of the universe too dangerous for our ears to understand.

Perhaps thats part of the fun, imagining a time in the west where this musical might have suddenly taken over the airwaves just long enough to confound us all, and perhaps slow us down as we basked in a different kind of possibility, something that might have made a few of us contemplate our need for world dominance at least a little bit. - Bruce Miller

Further reading:
Longing for the Past
Saman Hangsa: Behind The Voice of Isan Slété
Khamvong Insixiengmai Ensemble

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