By Peera Songkünnatham

1. When UNESCO listed “khaen music of the Lao people” as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

It shouldn’t be that big of a deal when UNESCO holds up something or someone to be of cultural worth, but in Thailand, it is that big of a deal. Every year, Thai schoolchildren are taught that their foremost national poet Sunthorn Phu was so great that UNESCO lists him as an important cultural figure. So, when “khaen music” gets that same recognition, it feels like a crime of negligence not to celebrate it as bureaucratically.

Interestingly, it’s not just “khaen music” that is listed, but specifically “of the Lao people.” There’s a subtle punch there, as many Isaan natives don’t see themselves as belonging to the Lao people. Makes you wonder: Can we celebrate khaen music as part of the Lao people, not on behalf of them?

The Isaan Record’s logo is also a khaen but our cover photo doesn’t include the Lao People’s Democratic Republic on the map, despite the fact that some of our readers hail from Laos.

2. When General Prayuth Chan-ocha told flood victims in Isaan to listen to government announcements instead of “Only Listening to Molam”

Of the 29 Prime Ministers in Siam/Thailand’s history, only two could count themselves as “Isaan people.” Believe it or not, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha is one of them. (The other one is Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, a coup-maker whose rule in the 1950/60s was characterized by the all-encompassing Article 17 and an eternal wait for the Constitution. Sounds familiar!)

In 2015, in front of a Khorat crowd, Prayuth appealed to his “100% Isaan” identity based on the fact that he was born and raised in a Khorat military camp and the fact that his mother is from Chaiyaphum. He knows we eat sticky rice with three fingers.

The khai maeo facebook parody of Prayuth’s advice to flood victims

If that’s the level of Isaan-ness he was proud to showcase, maybe that’s why he thinks Isaan people are too busy listening to molam to heed the government’s flood announcements. Yes, he told Khon Kaen flood victims that they should also listen to him and the Meteorological Department, and not just molam. The remark may have been made in jest, but the injury was done–you don’t insult a whole group of people and then blame it all on the media for “blowing it out of proportion.

3. When a retired teacher released a molam song in English in praise of the late King

Speaking of molam and why it’s not just entertainment opposed to useful information, one of its remarkable characteristics is being a social tool to relay information and tell stories. In this case, it is to tell a story of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who passed in October 2016.

During the mourning period’s peak in October 2017, retired English teacher and veteran molam artist Wasana Thaengthong released a song she wrote for foreigners detailing the late king’s contributions. The video was picked up and broadcasted on Thai primetime television in a morning news segment. The khaen is enchanting, the voice is pleasant, but if you follow the lyrics line by line, it might come off not as intended. The way Wasana refers to the late King as her “dearest great idol royal Dad…” at the end of the song is a true case of awkward translation.

4. When Lamyai Haitongkam, unfazed by slut shaming led by General Prayuth, released music video with a cameo by a prime minister look-alike

Singer Lamyai Haitongkam, famed for her smash hit song Phu-sao kha lo [Outgoing Girl],” became infamous when Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha trashed her for dancing too suggestively and revealing too much of her body. Bowing down to pressure, her producer reassured the public that now Lamyai had taken it down a few notches: by doing her “hip thrusting” move only three times a performance, rather than nine times like she used to!

She even came under fire from some Laotian people when she was featured dancing with tight-fitting clothes on a music video for “Pla ko nyai Viagra [My big fish with Viagra]” shot at Laos’ party-tourism area Vang Vieng.

True to her brand, Lamyai gleefully continued her playful teenage girl look with braces, cleavage, short shorts, and the high energy she brings to all her live performances. In June, Lamyai dropped a new single, “Pu-sao kha fiaw [Snazzy Girl].” Admittedly, the song is not as catchy as her first hit, but it is all made up for by this moment in the music video when a Prayuth impersonator in camo and military beret gives Lamyai a thumbs-up.

5. When Patiwat “Bank” Saraiyaem had his own molam concert over Facebook Live after venue was forced to cancel due to government intimidation

In 2017, we had a molam performance that got aired on primetime television during the time of national mourning, but we also had a molam concert that got cancelled because the government didn’t like the fact that it was a fundraising event for ex-political prisoners to help them re-adjust to society that turned its back on them. What about it made the junta feel so insecure? How can molam be such a contested ground?

Fortunately, the organizing group Fairly Tell Founding still had a last resort: Facebook Live. The concert itself was entertaining. The headliner Patiwat “Bank” Saraiyaem radiated life and joy, as always, not least with his swaying hips. The music also had some innovative elements, as old Isaan songs like “lao phaen” got rearranged in more modern styles. Those who would like a high-quality recording of the concert may wire some money to the organizers to get a DVD with extra content.

Some honorable mentions:

Siripong “Nong Nat” Srisukha, the latest winner of The Voice Kids Thailand, is a 14-year-old Udon Thani native who made the audience shed some tears with his heart-rending performances of folksy songs in the “art for life” genre. More tears were shed after he won the one-million-baht cash prize: he rushed home to meet his mother who was recovering from a car accident, and gave her all the money. Now, his face features on a huge vinyl poster in front of his school in Udon Thani City. Photo: Cover photo for Nat Siripong’s first original single Source: Siripong Srisukha

This reggae-molam performance on X Factor Thailand by Poppy Chonchaya, a 20-year-old Ubon Ratchathani student, blending molam-style storytelling with reggae beats. If the judges’ laughter of surprise when they heard Poppy spitting rhymes in Isaan Lao rubs you the wrong way, you’re not alone in that. I’m happy when mainstream TV showcases Isaan people’s talent, but many times the judges’ reactions make you question “What’s so funny about Isaan people being excellent while using their own native tongue?” 

On the theme of proving your worth as an Isaan person, the clearest instance of that this year was probably when Kong Huayrai, dubbed “King of Isaan Indie,” won the Nataraj Award for his song “Khu Khong for the TV Drama Nakee (Nagi, “Naga Goddess”). After his first hit song, Channel 3 swooped him up to write and perform a song for the Isaan-themed period drama which became a huge sensation and occasioned the explosive popularity of several naga sacred sites in Isaan. It was no surprise at all that Kong won the award, but it did surprise me that Kong’s Facebook status after the ceremony talked about Isaan excellence as if that still needs to be proven.

There are dozens upon dozens of successful indie Isaan artists out there, but Rap Esan manages to stand out. Early in December, the group released their latest single “Pai kadai [Whoever].” It’s not their most popular track, but it is remarkable for its eclectic sound and its strangely pleasant melody filtered through autotune resulting in a dynamic feel.

Isaan’s largest Hippie music festival made a return to the banks of the Ubonrat Dam twice in 2017. In January, the organizers made up for postponing the event the year before, and in November they followed up with the festival’s sixth incarnation. Grown in size after having received much attention on social media, the E-San Music Festival retained its DIY and counterculture spirit. It’s Isaan-ness was not only to be tasted in molam reggae shows but also in mouthwatering pla som and other excellent dishes from local vendors