“Mostly our songs are about love, melancholy and grief, but they are not sentimental. They are too realistic for that. Luk thung is a not a music for escapism.” (Surachai Sombatcharoen, as quoted in Cornwel-Smith & Goss (2013), p. 285)
5. “Isan Dancehall: Special Mix Vol. 3” selected by Maft Sai (Zudrangma Records, n.d.). No track listing for this mix CD but it is “far out/far east sound system culture: tough basslines and heavy percussion from Kingston to Khon Kaen – the sound of the world-wide dancehall”. In this case this is exactly what you get, one continuous mix of groove-laden world tunes that traverse the continents on a musical odyssey of quality. There’s even an elephant on there somewhere! Great stuff!
4. “Thai Funk Zudrangma Volume 1 and 2” (Zudrangma Records, n.d.). These two CDs are compilations of old-school Thai rock, funk, disco, soul and general weirdness, with modern instruments and arrangements driving forth alongside Thai-style percussion and vocals. When I lived in Hong Kong it was common to hear Western pop classics recalibrated in the local market to become Canto-pop, and that approach is very much in evidence here, with tracks like Panadda Chayapark’s take on Boney M’s “Rus Pu Tin”, the Oriental Funk’s dance epic “Loy KraTong Disco”, which is exactly what it says it is, or the heavily James Brown inspired Kee Mao (“Drunk!”) by Soonthorn Sujaridchan. Both CDs are thus a tuk-tuk load of fun on several levels: firstly as kick-ass compilations of seriously groovy music, and secondly as ‘spot-the-influence’ sound-collisions between East and West. Highly enjoyable!
3. “Luk Thung!: The Roots of Thai Funk” (Zudrangma Records, n.d.). This luk thung sampler is a seriously excellent snapshot of classic tracks from the scene. Ploen Phromdaen kicks things off in style with the phleng put speaking song Koy Yung Mai Por (“I still don’t have enough”). From then on it’s a voyage through swooping horn sections, epic strings, percussive beats, and of course, vertigo-inducing vocals that span octave ranges unknown to most singers. Standout tracks include 70s Isan star Saksiam Petchomphu belting out Jeb Jeb Sab Sab Sab (“Hurt hurt, sting sting”), Thepporn Petchubon’s Lao dialect Jon Thai Nor (“So Poor”), Rungfah Puping’s Puyai Lee Santana “Chief Lee Santana” featuring classic interplay between her voice and minimalist phin solo-work, the foot-stomping 12 bar blues meets luk thung of Noppadol Duangporn’s Yaak (“Want”), and ex-monk Dao Bandon’s intriguingly named number Mae Jom Kalon (“Slippery Women”). Get it now!
2. “The Sound of Siam Volume 2: Molam and luk thung from north-east Thailand 1970-1982” (Soundway Records, 2014). The follow-up to Soundway’s Sound of Siam Volume 1, this CD makes an excellent companion to Zudrungma’s Luk Thung! CD reviewed above, despite some doubling up (Thepporn Petchubon’s Pa Gun Koh/Tor (“Let’s Get On”) appears on both for example). However, unlike the funk and shuffle of that CD’s tracks, this is a more traditional affair, a cultural journey through 12 classic years of Isan music. Angkanang Khunchai begins proceedings in suitably epic molam fashion with her take on a singer’s life in Kid Hod Chu, setting the tone admirably for the groove-fest to come. My favorite tracks include ground-breaking solo-weaving between the khaen and electric phin on the Petch Phin Thong Band’s Bump Lam Plearn, the moog-inspired strangeness of Lam Plearn Toe Lhong Tong by Onuma Singsiri(spot the riff!), and the totally spaced out dueling sor and keyboards on the Petch Asia Band’s instrumental track Lam Plearn Tua Yaang. Extensive liner notes and copious details on the tracks and artists themselves all add up to a production that is a must-buy for anyone with interest in Isan, its culture and music. You can get it here!
1. Rasmee “Isan Soul EP” (2016). Rasmee is Rasmee Wayrana on vocals and Satukan Tiya Tira on guitar, and Isan Soul is their first released recording. Rasmee has been singing since the age of five and her powerful voice is by turns awe-inspiring and delicate, while Satukan’s soulful guitar is the perfect accompaniment. While the CD is undeniably molam in flavor, its contemporary stylings give it a feel that is intoxicatingly unique. From the suitably epic Cambodian song Praka Prui (“Withered Flower”), through the rhythmic acoustic funk of Muang Choot Dam (“Black Uniformed City”) to the arresting yet languid melancholia of Lam-Duan, this is a passionate and spectacularly accomplished release. My personal favorite is Nou E-na, a vocal improvisation in Khmer and Lao that sounds like nothing in this world. If you were making a futuristic neo-noir cyber-Isan movie then this would be the soundtrack. You can buy a copy direct from Rasmee here, and be sure to check out their website. More please!
Despite living in Laos for a year, and also travelling extensively in Isan, I’d never really given much thought to the music of the region and beyond. It was just always there, a constant background presence highlighting the otherness of wherever you were in the area. Two memorable events do stand out though. Firstly, getting off a bus in Ubon Ratchathani in 1998 and being hit with a sonic blast of molam wall of sound from a nearby talat that I literally stopped dead in my tracks. Even by Lao standards, this was something I had never heard before. Secondly, Lao friends took my wife and I to a late night molam bar in Luang Phabang back in 1997, where the unknown singer poured such emotion into her delivery of rural tales of woe that all of us were moved to tears. I hadn’t actively thought about either of those moments until now, and for that I have to thank these amazing and musically important CDs. Go to Zudrangma Records and buy them all now!
Bonus: Book Mini-Review!
Luk Thung: The culture and politics of Thailand’s most popular music by James Leonard Mitchell.
This is a recently published and very detailed look at the world of luk thung by ethnomusicologist James Mitchell. In particular, this book highlights the history and influences of luk thung, and traces its role in the current interesting times that we are experiencing nation-wide. It’s an invaluable reference work if you are in any way interested about luk thung, and it is both readable and informative. Interestingly, there’s no mention of the current revivalist luk thung/molam scene (see the above CDs for examples of this); instead, this book is more of a purist’s look at classic luk thung and its role in modern Thai culture. Chris Baker has written a far more detailed review here, and there’s a good interview with James Mitchell here. I bought my copy at Kinokuniya Paragon (or you can buy direct from the publisher here), but check yours carefully because my cover is upside down to the rest of the book. Nevertheless, this is a highly recommended text!
“Through luk thung, Isan people have been able to contribute to Thai culture, and, in doing so, they have made strides toward taking control of their political destiny.” (Mitchell (2015), p. 178)
Cornwel-Smith, P., and Goss, J. (2013). Very Thai: Everyday popular culture (second edition). Bangkok: River Books.
Mitchell, J. L. (2015). Luk Thung: The culture and politics of Thailand’s most popular music. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.