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South East Asia
Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, includes Burma (Mynamar)


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  • Music of Laos
  • Pham Duc Thanh, Vietnam *
  • These regional sections are merely a guide, are usually somewhat out-of-date, and are not the only content on the site. You will find much more by searching the site:

    Nouthong Phimvilayphone
    Visions of the Orient: Music from Laos
    Amiata Records (www.amiatamedia.com)

    Listen! If the term minimalism has retained any descriptive value then much of this music qualifies. Built on the seemingly endless repetition of ever-changing miniature patterns, these performances range from gentle, pulsing trance music to the sonic equivalent of a train wreck about to happen. The album assembles twelve remarkable examples of Laotian ritual music that manage somehow to be familiar and unfamiliar, ancient and modern, at one and the same time.

    The most striking instrument heard on this album is the khaen, a mouth organ made of tuned metal reeds set within identically tuned bamboo pipes to produce melodies and harmonic drones that often resemble the sounds of accordions, harmonicas or harmoniums.

    Visions of the Orient gives us an opportunity to hear the khaen in a variety of settings. Solo, duo and trio performances are interspersed with tracks featuring vocals, khui and khachaphi (southeast Asian lutes), flute, drum and hand cymbals. - Ron Alden

    Pat Waing: The Magic Drum Circle of Burma
    featuring Kyaw Kya Naing
    Shanachie (www.shanachie.com)

    Rick Heizman has captured the sounds of a very unique percussion instrument rarely heard on record. The pat waing is a set of 21 tuned drums played by Burmese virtuoso percussionist Kyaw Kyaw Naing. Naing leads small ensembles of Burmese musicians with the pat waing. Together they play magical and enchanting music with a delicate touch and astonishing rhythmic accuracy. All the pieces performed are either traditional or improvised and are played on drum, gong, xylophone, and reed instruments native to Burma with one exception. Adapted to Burmese playing style, the piano makes a delightful appearance in "Powerful King of Thunder and Lightning" blending quite well with the pat waing. The pat waing and piano trade off staccato patterns like an unexpected crash of lightning and the chauk lon bat, a set of tuned low drums, sounds like the low rumbling of distant thunder reflecting the song's title. The performances really capture the playful and inventive nature of this Burmese music. - Trevor Healy

    U Yee Nwe
    Sandaya: The Spellbinding Piano of Burma

    This is a truly strange one, featuring a weird style of piano playing that seems to be shamelessly naive on one hand and almost avant garde on the other. The pianist mixes Mozart with Burmese tradition, Burmese pop with Chinese classical and the totality of this thing can either be heard as brilliant openness or just a mess. Many of these pieces include chauk lon bak and pat waing (various sets of tuned drums) and some wonderful singing. Possibly because they lean to the more traditional side of things they tend to be less aggressive and sweeter to the ear. This is a record that lies in the middle of some impossible intersection of The Incredible String Band and Harry Partch. - CF

    White Elephants and Golden Ducks

    Here is a thoughtful, sometimes clever look at the modern, living traditions of Burma. Burma, now called Myanmar, is a country bordering India, China, Laos and Thailand. It has been a country of great myth in the west, with cities like Mandalay and Rangoon being the scene for many movies and novels seeking "exotic" locale, and also used as a pawn in many an international political scheme. But like most places that are just dots on the map to most of us, this is a unique and vital culture, one that has been only lightly explored in this century.

    What this recording presents is an interesting and contemporary look at the musical nation. The performers here are neither classical court musicians, westernized pop artists or folk revivalists and preservationists. Rather, what we get here is a collection of music by a music scene that has assimilated and co-opted influences and instruments from its neighbors and invaders and made them their own. Two tracks point out this amazing ability to conquer the cultural invasion. "Mya Man Giri" is sung by a duo of male and female vocalists, accompanied by small hand cymbals and an electric piano. The effect of the local music on the piano playing is quite stunning, leaving an impression of ancient melodies, but at the same time giving an almost avant garde approach. "Sabe" brings together bamboo flute, tuned drums and siwa with violin and slide guitar. It's a remarkable tune, gentle and yet challenging the ear, hinting at Indonesian string music, Thai folk and even a touch of what could be called blues.

    Throughout the record are further proofs of the vitality of the Burmese musical landscape, a reminder that no folk tradition should go untouched and preserved, but nurtured, revitalized and given lots of room for growth. - CF

    The Music Of Cambodia
    Celestial Harmonies

    These three CDs take a close look at three distinct parts of the musical culture: "9 Gong Gamelan," "Royal Court Music," and to my mind the most potent of the three, "Solo Instrumental Music." I still never cease to be amazed at how every culture has independently developed a music that has a close kinship to the American folk blues. The simplicity of the instruments (all lutes of various sorts, from the one stringed kse diev that uses the players chest as a resonator to more elaborate multi-stringed, distant cousins of the oud and guitar) makes it populist. The skill of the performers makes it art. The stories they tell, like so much of the blues, are direct, potent and often cautionary, like Prach Chhuon's warning to men to "understand women. Don't be angry with them, or you are too stupid." This just touches on the music on this one CD that also displays the same depth and brilliance on fiddles, flutes and other voices.

    The Music Of Vietnam
    Celestial Harmonies

    This offers a wide expanse of musical terrain, from the highly formalized imperial court music through professional folk revival, although the grittier folk element is somewhat lacking. It is perhaps the formality of most of this music that is so striking. Even a percussion piece led by Pham Van Ty exhibits a Buddhist restraint unlike most of the world's "drum solos." - CF

    Music from Vietnam (Caprice/Swden) offers "new traditional music." The three groups and one soloist who made this record cover just about every instrument known to the area, zithers, fiddles, flutes, drums. Kim Sinhg is the standout here, playing a wildly modified Spanish guitar and the two stringed lute called dan nguyet (moon lute). We're talking Mekong Delta blues, here, as gritty as Robert Johnson. Hat Quan Ho is a trio of singers, and their a cappella songs of love are sweet and enthralling. The orchestral Phong Lan (the orchid) offer the high drama of the set in a number of large instrumental suites for strings, flutes and percussion. The notes on both these sets are engrossing and complete.

    Khamvong Insixiengmai Ensemble
    Bamboo Voices: Folk Music From Laos
    Latitudes/Music Of The World (www.musicoftheworld.com)

    The opening track here is a solo for a bamboo "harmonica" called the khene. It swings along on a traditional melody, but I swear I can almost hear strains of "Arkansas Traveler" hidden under the melody and riding on the rhythm. So it goes as the world starts to listen to itself, and finds we're as much alike as we are different.

    Khamvong Insixiengmai is a US based singer from Laos, skilled in the styles of music from his home and the Lao regions of northeastern Thailand. The ensemble includes female vocalist Thongxhio Mansione and master khene player Kamsueng Syhanone, and occasionally they add lute and percussion. The music presented is very traditional, but that is not to say it is "stuck in time." The music of this region lives on improvisation, particularly the lyrical content provided by the singer, and these songs have a spark of life, a newness that keeps them moving into the future. It also has that certain something that jazz musicians often refer to as "swing," that anticipation of the beat that is especially noticeable in the khene playing. It's a wonderful reminder of how much humans are alike in their perceptions and emotions, at least on an artistic level. - CF

    Totally impossible to get casette tapes, bought on the streets of Thailand in 1988 and 1989, but notable recordings and folks should know such music exists in the world!

    Glawng Seuk Disco (Disco Long Drums) - This is a recording of a show band from Issan, full of drums, keen (a wind instrument made of bamboo with a sound somewhere between a concertina and a chicken chasing a bulldozer!) and what sounds like the Herb Albert horn section. Alternating between a trad-sounding melody and a backbeat with a thumping brass line from "Tijuana Taxi," this is so tongue-in-cheek it's painful ... A more musically satisfying note is struck by Haman Hongsa and his troupe, playing traditional Thai instruments like the keen, the pin and the long drums. While this is folk music, it rocks so hard it's sometimes impossible to believe these are acoustic instruments. I am told that the main thrust of the vocals is a deluge of puns, something the Thais are very fond of, and that the language, with its all important tonal inflections, is conducive to. I don't get the jokes, but their high spirits convey the feeling. . . While the tapes I have are all from the record shops of Bangkok, I hear that Globestyle has recently recorded the Hongsa group, Issan Slete, in London, so a record should be forthcoming. And hopefully an American company won't wait years to put it out in the states! ... Last is the latest from Surachai Jantimatawn. It's titled Footnotes From China and includes songs like "Tien An Men," "Build A Forest" and an instrumental, "Tanks Rush To Open Fire." Founding member of the Thai band Caravan, Surachai's music was born in the wake of the October, 1973, student uprising. The music is a folk-rock blend of Asian and American pop idioms, sometimes bordering on the imitative, but at its best it is powerful and plaintive, something inherent in the soul of the language. "Little bird, you fly away. The path of victory is not yet clear. Little bird, you fly away, you daring spirit. Face the dictator, and fight for freedom. . . " (from "Tien An Men").

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