Noppadon Duangporn holds an old photo at his studio in Ubon Ratchathani in 2016. Photo by Chris Beale

By Fabian Drahmoune

Ten years ago, Chris Beale picked up a curious old vinyl record from his local record store in San Francisco.

“There was no English on it and no clues at all. But it had a cool cover so I bought it,” he recalls. “The first time I listened to it, I was intrigued and really liked the sound of it.”

He had no idea his life would soon become tied to the music’s roots in Northeast Thailand and, years later, take him on an unlikely photographic journey.

“This is molam,” a woman from Khon Kaen he’d met in San Francisco explained to him when he played the record on one of their first dates. The two of them became a couple and later got married.

Chris was running a landscaping business in the Bay Area that supported his passion for gritty, black and white photography on 35mm film.

In 2011, he took a trip to Myanmar’s Rakhine state and started a long-term photo project documenting the plight of the Rohingya people. He spent six years photographing the lives of the ethnic group in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Southern Thailand, and the US. His work has been shown in several exhibitions.

After having covered the atrocities carried out against the Rohingya for years, he was looking for a different topic to pour his creative energy into. On a stopover in Bangkok in 2016, he remembered the old vinyl that introduced him to the sound of molam. He mentioned to his wife, who had stayed in the US, that he wanted to photograph some Isaan musicians.

Less than 24 hours later, Chris was sitting in a car with his father-in-law and an interpreter on the way to Ubon Ratchathani after his wife told him: “You are going to meet Noppadon Duangporn!”

“My father-in-law didn’t know Noppadon personally. I think it was just some Facebook business,” Chris says, laughing. “And it just happened. He set it up in less than a day for me.”

Noppadon Duangporn was not just any Isaan musician. He was the leader of the influential Petch Phin Thong Band, a molam troupe from Ubon Ratchathani that fused the genre with luk thung, central Thai country music, and other styles in the 1970s. His independent record label pushed local artists from Isaan and played a major role in popularizing music from the region.

Noppadon Duangporn at his home in Ubon Ratchathani in 2016. The influential molam artist, record label owner, comedian, and actor died last year at the age of 77. Photo by Chris Beale

Before Chris visited Noppadon at his house that day, a friend in Bangkok warned him that the artist usually “didn’t like meeting strangers.” And indeed, at first Noppadon didn’t seem to be in the mood for an interview.

“He would just hold a monologue for 30 minutes and pretend I wasn’t there,” Chris recalls.

But it wasn’t long before the legendary molam artist warmed up to the American photographer. The next day they took a road trip together to the Lao border in Chong Mek where Noppadon bought cheap cigarettes and whiskey. Then he invited Chris to stay at his house.

“Noppadon was the most fun and a real character,” Chris says. “I would be taking photos of him and then he would also start taking photos of me! And he was singing all the time, even when he was just talking to you. He was always very animated.”

From then on, Nappodon vouched for Chris and put him in touch with other famous molam artists of the older generation.

Chris interviewed and photographed Thongsai Thapthanon, another member of the Petch Phin Thong Band. He is counted as one of the country’s best players of the phin, a type of lute popular in Isaan and Laos.

In the 70s, Thongsai picked up influences from international artists like Mexican-American guitarist Santana and gave molam a funkier sound. He was the first to play an electrified two-string phin –traditionally it is three-stringed– by using two telephone wires which he tuned differently.

The 72-year-old has been teaching generations of phin-players and he continues to perform his own music as well as composing songs for other artists.

Noppadon Duangporn and Thongsai Thapthanon performing with Petch Phin Thong Band at a private party in Phetchabun province in 2016. Photo by Chris Beale

Noppadon’s recommendation also paved the way for Chris to meet the famous molam singer Angkanang Kunchai in her hometown of Amnat Charoen.

She grew up as Thongnang Kunchai in a poor family with six siblings in a remote rural area along the border with Laos. As a young girl she often sang along with the molam songs on the radio while helping her family in the rice fields. Later she became the protege of renowned molam singer, Chaweewan Dumnern.

She rose to fame as the lead singer of the Ubon Pattana Band when she was only 16 years old. Her hit, “Isaan Lam Phloen,” released in 1972, would become one of molam’s most enduring classics.

Since the peak of her commercial success in the mid-70s, Angkanang’s career has been given a second life in recent years through collaborations and international interest in molam music.

In 2017, Angkanang featured in a song with rapper DaboyWay of popular hip hop crew Thaitanium. The 65-year-old singer has also been performing concerts in different countries and participating in cultural exchanges with Japan.

Angkanang Kunchai in her hometown of Amnat Charoen. Her 1972 hit “Isaan Lam Phloen” is a classic of the genre that has been covered many times. Photo by Chris Beale

Chris also interviewed and photographed Sombat Simla, the blind khaen player who has gained minor cult figure status in Thailand with his virtuosic performances.

“Sombat is a real khaen master and he can make it sound like anything,” Chris says. “He goes, ‘Look. I make the khaen sound like a guitar, and now like a train.’ He loves the khaen so much.”

Born in 1963 in Maha Sarakham, Sombat lost his eyesight, his parents told him, when a midwife carelessly dropped some herbal medicine into his eyes.

Growing up blind, he learned his first tricks on the khaen from his father who was a skilled khaen player. He later went on to study with different mentors. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest khaen players alive.

Interviewing Sombat was a very entertaining experience, Chris says, and notes that Sombat’s other passion, after the khaen, is apparently sugary soft drinks. “I have never seen anyone enjoying coca cola as much as him,” Chris laughs.

“He is just amazing!” Chris says. “He’d be playing the khaen with one hand, putting the other one in his pocket, spinning around, and then pretending to comb his hair.”

In 2012, Sombat was recognized as an outstanding cultural performer when he received the Isaan Heritage Award from Khon Kaen University. Noppadon Duangporn, Thongsai Thapthanon and Angkanang Kunchai all received the award in the same year.

Sombat Simla shows his skills on the khaen in front of his home in Maha Sarakham. The blind musician of legendary fame has been called the “God of Khaen.” Photo by Chris Beale

Khaen-maker Boonta Saisiri learned the craft from his father when he was only a teenager. His instruments are known to be some of finest available in Thailand. Chris photographed him at his home in Roi Et: “Trying to photograph this dude was like trying to photograph a fish swimming in a lake. He moves with the speed and agility of an 18 year old even though he’s in his 70s.” Photo by Chris Beale

Rice farmers Hon (left) and Teau play the phin and khaen in Maha Sarakham’s Kae Dam district. Finding regular people who play molam was much harder than Chris expected at first. Photo by Chris Beale

While Chris feels humbled to have had the chance to photograph these famous molam artists, it wasn’t his plan to focus on celebrities.

“My goal was not to just document all these famous people,” he says. “I had this fantasy that we could just drive around the countryside and meet some regular farmers playing but it turned out not to be that easy.”

Last year, when Noppadon died at the age of 77, it dawned on Chris that his photo project, first born out of curiosity, was actually becoming far more than that.

“And then Noppadon died and I realized I really gotta keep going with this,” Chris says. “This is exactly why I am taking these photos, because some of these people might not be with us for much longer.”

Apart from creating a photographic record, Chris also hopes his work might spark interest about the molam tradition in younger Isaan people. “It’s part of Isaan culture that a lot of younger people are not into. Maybe my work can get them interested.”

Chris Beale at Y.M.D. Artspace in Khon Kaen last month where he showed his body of work titled, “To the Root.” The exhibition is on display until April 30.

Portraying the old masters of molam in Isaan inspired Chris to expand the scope of the project. He has been looking at the molam scene across the Mekong River and how molam in Laos might be different from its Isaan counterpart.

“There are definitely connections between the Isaan and Lao molam scenes,” Chris says. “I went to a merit-making ceremony in Pakse [in southern Laos] with a molam concert and the troupe was actually from Ubon Ratchathani.”

He also plans to dig deeper and portray not only individual molam artists but their lives and the cultural context of the genre.

“I want to try to move beyond only photographing people playing music,” Chris says. “I want to document their lives, the culture–and not just the music.”