Sombat Simla plays the khaen outside of his home in Maha Sarakham. The blind musician is one of the few master players of the khaen left in the Northeast. Photo by Chris Beale.

The Soul of Molam (15) – Masters of the khaen and the future of disappearing molam traditions (full interview)

John Garzoli is one of those rare Westerners who’s immersed himself deeply in the music traditions of Isaan. An Australian with a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology, he has brought his sensibilities as an accomplished musician into his anthropological research of the cultural role of music.

He did his doctoral research in 2011 and 2012 after becoming interested in the ensemble Boonhugsa that was combining Isaan music with jazz. Working with the leader of the band, Warong “Yod” Boonaree, led him to look more deeply at the history of khaen-playing and molam in Isaan.

The group that formed around John’s research carried out interviews with many of the master players of the khaen, trying to capture the essence of this traditional form

They continue to be concerned that traditional practices of Isaan music might disappear because younger generations are losing the connection to authentic, traditional performances of lam klon, which features a male-female singing duo accompanied by a single khaen.

John’s also been looking at the ways that molam and the khaen have evolved in the past few decades, as well as at intercultural musical synthesis “by which khaen and phin, which are part of molam, are integrated into Western musical forms.”

The Isaan Record took an opportunity to sit down with John and discuss in depth his work and what his research says about molam’s past, present, and future.

Ethnomusicologist John Garzoli at the Khon Kaen office of The Isaan Record in February 2020.

The Isaan Record (IR): How did you come to be interested in the musical traditions of Thailand and why does the prospect of their loss worry you, at a time when traditions are being lost around the world? Why Thailand? Why Isaan?

John Garzoli (JG): I lived in Thailand and worked as a professional musician in Thailand from 1996 to 2006. At that time, my life was separate from traditional music, probably separate from Thai society. [I was just] an expat playing in fancy hotels playing western music. But I had some fairly significant personal experience being here; my wife is Thai and I had a close connection and affinity with the country. When I enrolled in my Ph.D., it brought me back in a different way. I wasn’t going to be circulating or socializing in expat communities or playing western music. I was really here to do Ph.D. research, so that brought me into contact with Thai classical music and Thai music.The khaen itself is for me just an inherently fascinating instrument that sounds beautiful. There were interesting questions I had to ask about its construction, what produces sound, and what it would be doing in a jazz ensemble. So I had some questions that related directly to my research which became refined and developed.

**See John playing with Boonhuksa here.**

Then there was an inherent interest in some of the musical instruments and some of the musical practices. For example, I was exploring improvisation: how it’s defined in Isaan music and in Thai classical music, what the practice involves, how it might combine with concepts of improvisation in jazz, for example, how the limits of the khaen as an instrument–which is a diatonic instrument meaning it employs the notes of a 7-note scale but not the chromatic notes in a westen scale, [I wanted to explore] how can it be used in jazz, which is largely chromatic [and] has a more complete set of pitches available to it. So I had some questions that were relevant to my study. I had access to the field through people that I met and then I just entered the world of it and became more deeply connected to it through personal connections and through listening to a lot of it. I expanded my personal understanding of the practice–its cultural context, the threats that it faced, and the outward-looking attitude of the performers who were trying to mix it with western music. These people had an inherently, conservative attitude who just didn’t want to see the tradition die.

So there were lots of entry points and touch points. I would never have gotten my way through this musical world because of my own lack of language skills which meant I was relying upon other people. So what I was being told was always mediated through another source. But I always got several impressions from those people about the role of the khaen, the history of the khean, the significance of the khaen, its relationship to the rest of the musical world informing phin and pong long, and other instruments. So it just appeared as I started to walk up this mountain from the foothills. It was a really deep and rich, engaging musical world that would be interesting to me for a range of reasons.

John Garzoli playing, “The pursuit of imaginary sounds,” with the ensemble, Khrueang Sai Pasom, at Chulalongkorn University on January 24, 2020.

IR: What did you find in your research and who did you interview? How did the tradition of lam klon emerge and why might it be at threat?

JG: From my discussions with performers of the younger generation, I became concerned that the music in its traditional context–by which I mean the intergenerational transmission of playing, learning to play, learning the melodies, and learning the role of the khaen in society–was being undermined as a result of modernization in the Thai rural context. So we thought that it was worth looking to see whether this was a problem that threatened traditional practice . But also we felt that there wasn’t very much archival footage–or any footage–of khaen players and the idiosyncratic style which is probably less the case now as a bit more work has been done on it. But in 2011, there was almost nothing recorded in the universities and much less on YouTube.

So we wanted to do our own research–myself, Yod from Ubon [Warong Boonaree] and a Thai classical musician, Pockpong Khamprasert, who came from a hereditary musical family. We had been advised that there seven or eight mo khaen of an older generation in Ubon who would be prepared to sit down and discuss with us their life in music. So we traveled around different districts within the province and interviewed these khaen players who told us their life stories. We interviewed senior khaen players who were all either rice farmers or involved in some traditional agricultural way of life, rather than professional musicians or academics.

We visited them in their homes and they explained their life story in Isaan music and performed examples of their musical style. The musical styles were all idiosyncratic and slightly unique because they each had their own style that they had developed themselves. But at the same time they were all sort of in a basic Ubon register of playing. And then we found the personal stories of all of them being connected through a single agent in the 70s. They all knew Klom Tatawong who was the most senior khaen player in the area and many of them were playing his instruments, instruments that he had made. Many had taken lessons from him. We found different stories that fit into a narrative of the heart of Ubon’s molam and khaen tradition and each of them in a way concluded with the sense that it was all something of the past. So none of them had any belief khaen-playing had any future. In fact, [they all said] it had already died or was being decimated. They had no students themselves and the young people in their villages had no interest in playing the khaen. They felt that whatever cultural meaning had been invested in it previously had been washed away. It was sad that the things that they cared about deeply probably wouldn’t survive beyond their generation. They each relayed that story in their own words so I don’t think sense that they contrived this idea of their tradition being under threat.I think they had a genuine belief, individually or as a cohort of people of that age, that they were the last of a tradition that they believed stretched back hundreds, maybe thousands, of years.

IR: Who was this central figure in Ubon who emerged from your research?

JG: His name is Klom Tatawaong and he lives in a small village called Nonkalong in Phibun Mangsahan district and had a small, hand-generated rice mill in his own house. It was a very small village and musicians would often go to his house to buy khaen or for lessons. He was a member of the Rangsiman band in Ubon in the 70s. And at least in Ubon, among the molam and khaen players, he was quite revered. I believe he’s just had his 80th birthday recently. Maybe he’s even older than that but he’s still in fairly good health and still fairly active. This particular individual strikes me as being a national treasure.

IR: Do you think that Isaan music has changed a lot in the past 30 years?

JG: Yeah, I think Isaan music has undergone a number of changes in the past 30 years. The introduction of the pong lan ensemble is one change. It is considered by some to be an invented tradition because it’s so recent and some academics question whether it reflects anything about Isaan culture or traditional culture when it’s a sort of a made-up idea. Pong lan includes a suspended xylophone, khaen, phin, and other instruments. But it is an ensemble that’s popular in schools and has become a genre in itself. There’s also been the development of lam sing as a popular music form. Its history is quite interesting because it emerged from lam klon which is a type of vocal repertoire involving a male and female and single khaen which then gradually expanded through lam mu and lam phloen. These other settings that are not just with molam and khaen but have electric instruments and often dances and are big productions. So that’s occurred as well and now there’s a number of ensembles like Paradise Bangkok Molam International Band and Boonhugsa that explicitly mix western music and more contemporary western concepts of dance music with Isaan instruments and Isaan roots and they have high quality, they are the real guys, so it’s not students who are doing something that’s a bit more contrived, it’s musicians with the skills to accompany lam klon playing in another context.

More recently, maybe in the last five years, there’s been another change whereby electronic dance music and even the types of minimalist pop music have involved the khaen. There is an ensemble in France called Limousine and they play a sort of minimalist form of rock music. So it’s like a jazz ensemble or a rock ensemble with elements from Isaan incorporated. And it doesn’t change very much; it’s just very static. And there is electronic dance music that incorporates Isaan vocalization, khaen, and I think maybe phin, in some settings as well.

So there are two ways of understanding these changes. One is internal growth whereby people who are within the tradition adapt their skills playing in an “old” style to new contexts. The other is the relatively superficial appropriation of of Isaan instruments which are incorporated into forms of Western music

IR: Is what you’re talking about a Lao tradition? You’ve mentioned that some of those players you studied are Phu Tai. So does this tradition go beyond just the Lao, or are Phu Thai within the Lao tradition? Are there people in Isaan playing the khaen who are not Lao? For example, Khmer-speaking groups?

JG: I think its Lao origins are well established and there is not really serious doubt that the khaen is a Lao tradition. The vocal narrative and its poetic organisation which are essential to khaen practice in lam klon carry distinctive Lao linguistic markers. These characteristics are not as established in Buriram and Surin, where there is stronger Khmer influence in kantrum which is a musical genre performed in those provinces.

There are other places away from Isaan where it’s practiced, places where there’s been expatriation.The historical practice of forced movement of Lao peoples into certain areas around Bangkok has seen the distribution and establishment of Lao traditions, including khaen playing and Lao classical music which is distinct from Thai classical music. The connection between Isaan and what’s known to be Lao musical practices are clear and we don’t have to guess about that. It’s indisputable I think. Whether practitioners see themselves as Lao, Isaan or Thai is another question that I wouldn’t want to address because I don’t know how strongly indivu=iduals may identify with the sense of Lao nationalism which to me seems, in my experience, to be quite separate from the Isaan question. My sense is that identifying as Isaan doesn’t mean an individual automatically identifies directly with Lao nationalism.

IR: Do you think that in the future, molam or lam klon, is going to disappear from this area?

JG: Lam klon is already largely stripped of its social context due to changes in the organisation of village life. Khaen is taught in universities and appears in competitions which provide some opportunities and incentive to participate in Khaen performance but nothing like what it was before. It’s fundamentally being displaced as an entertainment in public events. So lam klon, which is that basis for khaen playing, is already highly marginalized. But I don’t see the same sorts of risks that I was concerned about a few years ago. I don’t think the khaen will disappear and I don’t think the idea of Isaan music will be diminished because its cultural value is now recognised in universities and media. The khaen has become a popular symbol of Isaan identity and there are political reasons that will ensure its survival. It’s too deeply entrenched in the culture and now it’s very well supported. It will, however, continue to transform as a result of its use in contemporary popular music which places different stylistic requirements on performers who often jettison traditional melodies to fit in. But there is a fear among the traditional performers I spoke with who were concerned that the specific way of performing that comes from accompanying lam klon is being lost through lack of expertise in younger players.

So in the minds of the traditional players, a mo khaen is someone who can accompany molam–the possession of those skills and attributes that is the mark of a proper khaen player. It is not whether they can play a few melodies; it’s whether they can accompany in lam klon. For khaen performers this means understanding essential patterns that are associated with tang san and tang yao which are the primary musical modes. while san and yao mean short and long respectively, these terms don’t accurately describe musical practice. The simplest explanation may be to characterise thang san as the ‘major’ sounding modes and thang yao as the “minor” sounding modes. There are numerous melodic variations of these modes that are regional but in general the performance of these requires a great level of knowledge and skill. This knowledge and this level of specialised skill is not actually required very much in some of the modern music so senior performers are concerned that while universities may train competent and capable khaen players, the regional diversity and richness of the tradition will disappear along with a commitment to older forms of practice.

The performance tradition stems from its cultural context where stylistic diversity has to be manifest in performance because the performance has only one instrument. So to bring variety to the performance they need to have a lot of repertoire and a lot of skill. This is not required so much in contemporary music because the nature of the performance changes and you need to be a highly experienced and accomplished musician. From their experience, what a normal khaen player may not have can extend into the future because these khaen players only have the role as a backup or accompaniment in contemporary world music ensembles.

IR: How does Isaan music, molam, lam klon make you feel?

JG: In my own case, I have an affinity and a particular set of experiences with the music that I can’t detach from any analytical perspective. I have listened to a lot of this music and I enjoy it as a leisure activity and not only as a research project. It makes me feel like I’m back in Isaan and that’s why I think that’s what it does for others and why it’s been incorporated into world music and into other contexts, because the sense of Isaan is so deeply ingrained in it. That’s why it’s in popular music. That’s why it is in those mournful songs of the construction workers in Bangkok having an accident or his girlfriend leaving him or something has happened and the mournful sound of the khaen is locating the sentiment directly back in his place, in Isaan. So when I hear it, it makes me feel good because there is a sense of nostalgia in a sense of its sound being a part of my own kind of personal journey of the last ten or so years. I think there’s just something about the nature of the sound, something about this free reed mouth organ that has an effect on people. It is so delicate. It’s so beautiful.

It’s a gorgeous sound, and I feel that when I listen to the music. And then there are all these layers of other experiences, feelings that come in as a result of learning a little bit more about its context, the threats, what’s been done for its survival. It’s a complex mix of feelings that you probably get from listening to any musical form that’s so completely bundled up with different meanings.

IR: How do you feel as a foreigner when you see children in Isaan playing their own music, their own traditional music?

JG: I don’t want to tell people what they should teach their children but I’d hope that people in this area have enough of a sense of pride in their own musical traditions that students don’t feel that it’s an alien practice. You’d like to think that it’s just a normal thing that they’d do.

This is related to the question of it not being transmitted intergenerationally in the villages anymore because it now somehow vacates the social context. So I understand why a child would feel no particular relationship with the instrument. So you would’ve hoped that in this sense of reaffirming Isaan identity that the younger generations would feel more strongly connected to these sorts of practices, that it would seem like taking khaen lessons would be seen as a completely normal thing to do, rather than ballet or violin lessons. We are not there yet and there are social reasons why we may never get there, given the privilege and status of these other European traditions. But it would be really good if at least local practice was thought to be normal and not to be thought of as exotic, old fashioned, or antiquated, but just a part of normal life.

IR: What would you like to see in the future of Isaan music?

JG: Personally, I’d like to see the music and its diversity prosper as widely as possible. I understand this will take institutional support. I encourage the universities, and to the extent that I have any influence, to support them in talking about the khaen, teaching the khaen, and preserving the knowledge system that underpins the khaen. The intergenerational transmission is probably lost. I don’t know if it will ever come back.

The khaen has much more prominence in social life in Isaan, so much so that it just seems like it’s not something exceptional that Isaan people do but something that’s just entrenched in social life in Isaan. But it is an exceptional musical system and a beautiful poetic system that accompanies the lam klon that should not be lost. It is a particular form of poetry that is highly unique and highly specialized and requires an enormous amount of skill. It’s quite separate though not completely separate from khaen playing because the khaen is trying to match it. I would like to see these supported. At least at Khon Kaen University, where I’m at now, gives proper support for this. Maybe it sounds as if I’m being a bit too negative by being concerned about the traditional, intergenerational transmission being lost, but on balance it’s much, much better than maybe I would’ve thought about it ten or 15 years ago.

To expand on what’s occurring within the and putting them together. The way this has been described by some musicians is that it’s a form of western music with exotic Thai condiments sprinkled on the top so it’s completely detached from any cultural context, as if the instruments have made their way across this permeable cultural barrier but they don’t have any kind of cultural meaning that is related to its origins.

Some of the more modern forms originating in Isaan still express a form of Isaan aesthetic and structural identity or ideals because they stem from the Isaan imagination and reality of Isaan cultural life. So Isaan people have, I guess, maybe attempted to bring the khaen into a more relevant Isaan context rather than just picking up the khaen and putting it on top of some Western instruments.

IR: Is Isaan music being taken seriously in music classes of ethnomusicology?

JG: Ethnomusicology has a history of not making value judgments about the complexity of the notes. So yes, it is taken seriously for ethnomusicologists like me because of the cultural work it involves. So the reference point is not what an analytical musicologist might think about the complexity of the notes and their relationships. Cultural anthropologists and ethnomusicologists don’t really care, in a sense, about what it sounds like but rather what cultural work the music is doing and how music can be a portal into the rest of culture.

IR: Are there a lot of Isaan scholars or Thai scholars trying to understand Isaan music?

JG: In some ways, yes, but most are not ethnomusicologists by how the tradition is defined; mostly they are performers. In fact there is no way to be a music scholar without being a performer in Thailand. It’s necessary to have a vocational aspect to study within the university and the education system. So if you find yourself studying Isaan music and khaen on a serious level, then you’re going to be a music student or music scholar. And they usually already have an investment in the tradition because they’re players. So they do take the topic very seriously.

There is a question about how or whether there are some differences in how they approach the study of khaen because the anthropological and sociological concepts that Western scholars like me might bring in are not really part of the music training for a Thai musician. So they’ll approach questions about the khaen differently. They’d start with different priorities about what to ask in the first place. But yes, it’s taken quite seriously and they are really trying to understand the concerns that I might have as well, such as: Is the tradition under threat? How diverse are the practices? Who are the main performers and what are the most salient musicological questions about the context, such as how many different types of melodies there are and what are its particularly melodic and rhythmic characteristics.

John Garzoli jamming at the The Isaan Record office. Before studying Ethnomusicology, he worked as a professional musician in Thailand from 1996 to 2006.

IR: You said earlier that when you were doing your research in 2011/12 that there wasn’t much intent or interest in trying to record or archive this transition. But later on has there been more?

JG: Our original question was how much recorded music videos can we find in university collections and we found there wasn’t much. I’m pretty sure that may have changed now because before they hadn’t been using YouTube. I think it’s a separate question as to where the universities themselves are promoting the study of traditional music as opposed to whether it ends up in a video on YouTube or not. The first Ph.D. candidate–I believe it was in “Khaen Studies–at Mahidol University in 2010.

Now there is Pongsapon Upan (On) at Khon Kaen University who’s now becoming world famous for his performances and he’s heavily supported even by diplomats who have accompanied him around the world and are funding his trips. So there’s a sense that there’s something at stake here. I think Isaan identity can be reflected in a really positive light without making anything up. So you can find young performers of the khaen like On who performs with real molam, who’s deeply connected to the tradition and who’s a highly skilled musician. He’s shown that from a musical and cultural perspective, there’s something interesting to say and also something worth preserving and pursuing in order to ensure that it doesn’t fade away.

IR: In the past ten years has there been more interest or awareness about Isaan identity? If so, where has it been coming from?

JG: I believe that there is a sense of regional pride. I think there are probably a number of factors playing into this. At Khon Kaen University, they do emphasize particularly the Khon Kaen tradition of music through bands. It’s become embedded and they have created a network and an institution around it . So as the institutions become stronger and they focus on the things that are considered Isaan culture, there is a certain robustness in how seriously they’re treating Isaan culture. The College of Local Administration has done work with cultural and language preservation. There is also an acknowledgement that Isaan culture has been repressed politically in the past and there’s been some pushback against that. There is a general sense that Isaan identity and culture is distinct from Central Thai or Bangkok identity and culture and that there’s significant political stakes involved in that through the color of people’s shirts. And there are political reasons why Isaan identity might now have become more important. There are opportunities through Facebook and other things to express that importance which weren’t available a few years ago, so community groups can gather in places like social media to strengthen their claims about recognition of their identity or their language. I think these various phenomena are just the result of some political oppression locally and then the opportunities the technological means to push back against that. There are probably a range of other factors feeding into this.

But it seems to be that there has been a significant elevation in the status of what it is to be an Isaan person in the last 10 or 15 years in Thailand and that’s not just driven by taxi drivers in Bangkok listening to Luk Thung and eating somtam. I think it’s probably the result of the strengthening sense of what it means to be Isaan in Isaan.

**See John playing earlier this year at Chulalongkorn University here.**

IR: You said that the intergenerational transmission, in the minds of your informants, was dying in 2011/12. Would you be more optimistic now?

JG: I think that once intergenerational transmission is lost as a result of changes in social practice and how societies are organized in rural environments, it’s really hard to recapture that. So, no, I don’t think that if I were to go back and ask those musicians that they would be any more optimistic about the likelihood of reviving the traditional way that the khaen had been taught.

What’s been more encouraging, I think, is the fact that the khaen is now in schools and universities. The consequences of having this upsurge in regional identity means that the traditional practices can be supported in institutions. That means that students can take lessons at school or at the university, or in other places. So it has gone from being something that was studied at the margins and generally falling off the edge of what society thinks is important, to being placed in institutions where this subject now gains another sort of prestige. So once it’s been institutionally validated, parents are happy to see their kids perform and kids are happy to learn it and the tradition itself will prosper a lot while the traditional pedagogical model itself has changed, maybe irreversibly.

My only concern–and I’m not sure how serious this is–is that not all of the diversity of the rural practices can be captured in the universities. So Khon Kaen University has a strong music program but it’s going to teach khaen playing, for example, in the local style of this part of the region. The absence of a music program doing something similar in Kalasin, Roi Et, or Ubon means that the particular idiosyncrasies of those traditions are not supported in the same by the institutions. So there is always a bit of a risk that the loss of traditions means the loss of diversity and the institutionalization of something like the khaen means the concentration of the playing styles of certain individuals from certain geographical regions. This is great as far as it goes, but what gets lost is the regional variety and individual style of masters who are not involved in formal education. I really hope that the recent popularity of the khaen due to its inclusion in popular music does not come at the cost of the traditional musical practice which is the source of khaen playing.

John Garzoli received his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from Monash University where he is an Adjunct Research Fellow. He is a recipient of many awards and fellowships, including the “2011 Prime Minister’s Asia Endeavour Award” and the “2106 Endeavour Post-doctoral Research Fellowship.” He has been a visiting international scholar at Khon Kaen University many times and was a 2019 “Artist in Residence” in the Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts at Chulalongkorn University, focusing on the use of guitar in traditional Thai music.

His research involves Isaan music, traditional and contemporary Thai music, pedagogy, intercultural musical synthesis, performance practice, aesthetics, and jazz. He has published widely, including in Musicology Australia and The International Journal of Community Music.