Lao traditional music

An overview

Speaking about the music of Loas one will always be fast to compare it with the music of Thailand and Cambodia.

Not only the several similarities in the names of  the instruments, even in historical facts we find basic influencies and analoge developments.  

Regarding the fact that the country Laos was "build" by dividing northern Siam from Laos, drawing a border line along the Mekong in the 18th century by the French colonists, we face two seperate developments on each side of the Mekong if we focus on "Lao music", where the musical development in mountainous Laos followed the isolated gegographical and political developments.

In Laos, three kinds of population are considered, namely the "Lao lum" (lowland Lao), the "Lao theung" (Tai and Mon-Khmer people) and the "Lao sung" (upland Lao, mainly Khmu, Hmong and Yao people).  The traditional music of the latter, which still shows impacts on the actual Lao music as many performers come frome the mountain areas, still remains unresearched, which was even forced by the fact that Laos was closed from foreign studies from 1975 to 1990.

This is why the music of the mainland Lao and of the Thai and Khmer influenced traditions is in the focus of this article.

To categorize the actual Lao music, it seems helpful to distinguish between the nonclassical folk traditions (which are presented through the ensembles and Instruments used within, the classical music and its basic ensembles and the huge vocal traditions.
Each of this traditions is influenced by regional playing styles, which can be seperated in three different aeras:

Luang Prabang in the north, Vientiane in the center and Champassak in the south.
In the remote area of Luang Prabang the classical Lao court music development to high estate and vanished again. Unfortunately, most of the instruments are actually just catching dust in the royal museum, but showpieces like bronze drums of the DongSon age show the influence of ethnic minorities which were often required from the mountainous areas to perform the instruments.

In Vientiane, the actual regional styles show a lot of Thai influencies. The governmental school "Natasin" which was closed 1975 was reopened 1990 and educates and provides some ensembles for festivals, marriages and other purposes.

The southern region of Champassak is not only influenced by Khmer traditions, here we face a typical mixture of Khmer, Thai and indigenous Lao traditions. Poeple perform mostly Thai style music on Thai instruments but call the ensemble with the Khmer term "Pin Peat".
Still, the result of this irritation and mixture remains a non comparable indigenous Lao tradition which is unique.

Based on the main instrument Khene of the Lao, we find a diatonic scale A-B-c-d-e-f-g as the main core for the different five scales called "lai". All melodies are seperated through a consideration equally to western major ("san") and minor ("yao"). If we take a look at two of these scales, "po sai" (left, belonging to "san") and "soi / noi" (right, belonging to both), we see that these and the other scales rise from the same tonal material in a modal way:   

SAN: "sutsanaen" (on G) - "po sai" (on C) - "soi" (on D)
YAO: "yai" ("great", on A, performed on higher pitch) - "noi" ("small", on D, performed on lower pitch)

What seems to be modal music is represented in the term "lai" which replaces the Thai "thang" and means the style, matter, techinque and occasion to use a scale. This is different from the modal music one can find in Vietnam or Burma.
Classic music

The Lao term "peng lao deum" (traditional lao pieces") tries to seperate the court music (mainly of Luang Prabang) from the nonclassical folk traditions, but the historical traces do indicate an indigenous classical tradition which is mainly influenced by the ancient Khmer traditions and upland people from the area. King Fa Ngum (14th century) was raised and educated in Angkor Wat, so the Khmer traditions were the first center for the court music, which changed in 1828 when the Siamese sacked Vientiane and slowly infiltrated the musical traditions of the court as well. Today, the court music has vanished. It was considered as "elitist, burgeoise" and forbidden by the communist government, and the last performers in Tennesee, USA tried to rebuild the court music in diaspora but failed due to a lack of members.

The classical ensemble and its instruments still get used in many Lao traditions today, basically for the "lam" traditions and the only "theatre" like traditions "li-ke" (or "lam poem", from 1940)  which immigrated from northern Siam, gets performed with acting, story telling in "lam" singing styles and a Khene motuhorgan , thus remaining the only theatre tradition in Laos today.

Vocal traditions
The vocal styles are in the center of most performed music in Laos today. The two terms "lam" and "khap" refer to these singing traditions:

"Lam" stands for vocal traditions of the North, mostly dealing with 7 syllabies per line, while "khap" stands for the singing style in the south with 4 to 5 syllabies per line. Different to northern Thailand, each "khap" and "lam" only knows one melodical pattern per genre (three in Thailand). This is one of many indicators for a different development of "Lao music", so we should always keep in mind that the "Lao" music we find in Thailand mostly refers to the mainly Thai influenced music of the Lao people living within the borders of Thailand.

All professional performers are called "mo" or "mor", this way a vocalist is a "mo lam" or "mo khap". She/he performs seated, with a Khene player in the back, performing dance movements very slow only from the waist up ("fon dance"). Vocalists are respected for their special knowledge about the musical traditions, but this means no monetary improvement or a popstar like status like singers in Thailand know.

From the breakup in 1975, radio stations from Thailand were stronger than the local stations, so even the pop music market was overflown with Thai influencies. As many Lao people flew into the regions of northern Thailand (mainly around Chiang Mai), the "Lao" music from Thailand is still claimed by all Lao poeple to be their "own", but differs slightly from the local pop music and vocal traditions.

Many performers also flew to Europe and USA but never managed to reinstall a renessaince of their traditions in diaspora.

Today, most of the musical instruments are manufactured in Thailand, and poverty prevents most of the Lao people to earn, learn and practise a traditional instrument or to decide to choose a musical career.

The singing traditions are found in several occasions, of which the religious and liturgical aspects slightly overweight:

In southern Laos we find the healing rituals "lam phi" or "lam soen", including a mostly female singer evocating ghosts and a Khene player. This rituals, as well as other rituals like the rocket firing festival "pong fai" (where a vocalist gets supported by the "kong yao" drums) and the buffalo sacrifices (including gong ensembles and ensembles of the court music) also mix their melodies with melodies of entertainment purposes (like the rare "lam som" from Pakse).

Even more, the "lam" and "khap" traditions could be reflected as differing genres with different local, regional and thematical aspects, which we will see on the next page.

Khap traditions
Unlike the southern traditions, the northern "khap" singing differs from those in the fact that the singer only performes in one style with not so many descending melodies, which are basic for the southern style.

Here we find two genres that avoid the Khene mouthorgan, the "khap thai dam" (which is mostly performed in USA today, replacing the Khene with a "pi" flute that is tuned different from the "yao" scales of the vocalist, both perform along with no rhythmical correspondance) and the "khap thum" (which is basicaly the main relic of the former court music, including instruments of the "Maholi" and "Pi Phat" ensembles and engage the audience to clapping and tonic responses, ending on a coda called "luk mot" like it can be found in classical Thai court music).

Other "khap" traditions reflect the styles of the ethnic influence by the performer, like in the "khap phuan" (of the Phuan people, Khen plays "yai" or "noi" scales , female vocalists perform solo in double tempo), the "khap sam neua" (of the "real" Thai people living at the Vietnamese border who speak a different language, where the 10-14 pipe Khene follows the singer without drones in "yao" scales) and the "khap ngeum" (around Vientiane, where the vocalist performs without rythm freely and uses long pauses in which the Khene plays on in "noi" scales, also including interaction with the audience).

Lam traditions
All "lam" traditions from southern Laos focus on the Khene mouthorgan, which might be one reason why the descending melody lines dominate the music. The only two traditions without descending melodies are the "lam sithadone" (comparable to the "lam klum" in Thailand and using only "san" melodies) and the rare "lam som" (from Pakse region, using cadences on A and D).

Again, names indicate a geographical style, like with the famous "lam salavane" (from Salavane where many Mon-Khmer live, accompanied by a small ensemble consisting of a Khene, fiddle, a lute and percussion instruments) or the "lam tang vay" (named after the "rattan chair" village, using a likewise ensemble and easily remarked by their basic melody aa-gg-f_-d_).

Other names indicate an ethnic origin, like the "lam phu thai" (genre of the upland Thai people, prefering "noi" scales) or the "lam ban xok" (which is a version of the Thai "lam phanya loi" from the other side of the Mekong, featuring a vocalist with cymbals, a Khene and percussion instruments). The latter maybe somehow related to the "lam khon savan" (a famous duet between instrumentalist and singer from Savannaketh province) and the only slightly different "lam mahaxay" (Mahaxay is a town near the Vietnamese border).
Unfortunately this website is not able to present a catalogue of the wide variety of the singing styles indicated above. (written by INGO STOEVESANDT)

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