Photo by Mike Eckel

SPECIAL SERIES: The Soul of Molam – Inside Isaan’s resilient folk music culture

By Fabian Drahmoune

Molam music has a spellbinding power. For generations, it has shaped the cultural soul of the Lao-speaking people on both banks of the Mekong River and their communities around the world. A musical jack of all trades, it has been the soundtrack for popular festivals, weddings, funerals, and even anti-communist propaganda and political campaigns. Often declared a dying breed, it continues to reinvent itself in new modern forms while serving as a source of cultural agency for the young generation.

Given the long and fascinating history of molam music and its role as a marker of cultural identity for the region, The Isaan Record is publishing a bilingual series of articles, interviews, op-eds, videos and photo essays entitled, “The Soul of Molam.”

We bring you a collection of stories that offers a look into the surprisingly resilient culture of molam and the lives of the people who are keeping it alive: Molam artists, dancers, costume creators, instrument makers, ethnomusicologists, exhibition curators, and of course, the fans in the audience.

PART I – Isaan’s folk music from state censorship to rising global fame

Molam or lam, the traditional musical performance of Isaan, has been a cultural force for hundreds of years. In rituals and ceremonies, in times of joy and celebration, hardship and uncertainty, molam has been an important outlet for Isaan people to express their emotions, tell their histories, make sense of the world, and assert their identity.

The genre’s roots are believed to stem from traditional palm-leaf script reading, folk storytelling and the sermon-chanting of Buddhist monks in the villages of the Lao on both sides of the Mekong.

Too popular for Siam’s rulers

The sound of molam proved popular beyond Lao villages for the first time around the early 19th century. The Siamese state resettled Lao-speaking people as war captives and forced laborers to the Bangkok area. Their entertaining molam performances soon attracted large crowds in the capital.

King Mongkut (Rama IV) was more than displeased that his Thai subjects were taking joy in the music of a culturally and politically “inferior” ethnic group. He complained that the Thais should not adopt foreign customs, and argued that this new popular genre was the cause of natural disasters.

In 1857, the King ordered by royal decree to ban all lao khaen or molam performances and threatened offenders with a fine.

But outside of Bangkok, in the rice-farming villages of Siam’s Lao dependencies, the molam tradition continued to thrive. Molam singers were usually hired to perform after the rice harvest for entertainment and in annual festivals with shows often lasting all night.

The artists, who went through years of training, were admired not only for their performance skills but also for their knowledge of worldly and spiritual matters.

The term molam has come to refer to both the musical tradition and the singer; mo translates to “a skilled person” and lam means the stylized singing to the sound of the khaen, a free-reed mouth organ made of bamboo.

Preparing for takeoff

In its most basic form, a traditional molam act only needs a singer and the player of the khaen, who provides the polyphonic base for the vocals. More modern acts include a phin, a pear-shaped lute with two or three strings, drums, and a bass.

According to ethnomusicologist Terry E. Miller, Isaan molam today features at least seven different genres: 

  • lam phuen, or storytelling molam
  • lam klon/lon, or poetry/repartee lam
  • lam phaya yoi, or courting poetry lam
  • lam sing, a modern version of lam klon
  • lam mu, or theatrical collective singing lam
  • lam phloen, theatrical lam with dancers
  • nang pramo thai, or shadow puppet theater lam.

With the rise of recording studios in the 1950s, molam music was catapulted out of the villages onto big stages across Isaan. Molam artists became stars, recorded hit albums, and went on concert tours. Local radio stations in Isaan devoted most of their airtime to famous molam artists. But as anthropologist Pattana Kitiarsa noted, despite their success, many of these singers kept their residences in the countryside.

In the 1960s and 70s, molam artists picked up new influences from the American GIs stationed at several military bases around Isaan. They absorbed popular music like psychedelic, rock, soul, and funk and incorporated these new styles into their songs.

At the same time, a rising number of Isaan people left their homes to seek work in the capital as Thailand prepared for its economic boom. The lyrics of molam songs started to reflect the experiences of Isaan migrant workers: dreams of a better life, homesickness, and ethnic discrimination.

Meanwhile, pro-democracy politicians from the Northeast like Khaisaeng Suksai from Nakhon Phanom used molam verses and melodies in parliament to describe the hardship and social injustice that Isaan people suffered.

Molam’s reinvention

In the 1980s, new forms of entertainment like television and pop music drew young Isaan audiences away from traditional molam. Troupes across the region realized the demand for a new modernized version of the genre: lam sing–a flashy, fast-beat version of molam often paired with wild dance moves–was the new rage.

As lam sing rose to become the most popular molam style in the 1990s, some senior molam singers criticized it as too vulgar and sexualized. Others argued that without innovation and adjustments to market demands, the genre would die a slow death.

Largely inaccessible to central Thai speakers, molam remained less popular in Bangkok and other regions of the country. The Thai state and the urban middle class long shunned molam songs as phleng ban nok, or music for country bumpkins.

But in the general drift of the Thai state to be more inclusive, Thailand’s National Commission on Culture came to officially recognize molam as a category of folk performing arts. A number of famous molam performers were named as “national artists.”

In the late 2000s, molam went through another major shift when it started to attract international attention. Bangkok-based record labels began putting out compilations with classic molam songs that were soon picked up by DJs in Thailand and around the world.

In recent years, a growing number of independent bands and artists have fused molam with modern styles creating a new fresh sound while making sure that the molam tradition is well-alive and as resilient as ever.

Some traditional forms of molam may have gone into decline. But its distinct sound has made its way into new forms and in many ways it has come to thrive. It’s no surprise, then, that in 2017, UNESCO recognized the khaen music of the Lao people as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity.

This article draws heavily from the invaluable research of the late Pattana Kitiarsa, an Isaan-born anthropologist.