Once upon a time, on a small alley next to Wat Machimawat on Mak Khaeng Road, a dozen houses could be seen. The houses were the homes of molam artists and dancers. Once scattered throughout Isaan, they had all moved from their hometowns to this alley in the city of Udon Thani. There they all had dreamt that they would become stars. But today, only a few of the original houses remain, sheltering aging molam artists.
“That large space over there used to be where molam artists stayed, their houses,” says Chonticha Dabutr, pointing.
“When I was a kid, I used to go and play there. When the houses began to vanish, I wondered if it was the end of the molam era. What if, one day, molam goes extinct?” she asks. “What would these people do for a living? Will they go back to their hometowns to work as farmers again? How will they earn money to continue their molam career?”
Chonticha is one of the only few people still living in the alley. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Chonticha went unemployed, like many others. Her promoters didn’t have enough money to hire her. Many molam artists started moving out. Some returned to their hometowns, while others decided to switch careers and become farmers.
But the thinning out of molam artist areas like this one in Ubon began long before COVID-19 struck. Society was changing and new conditions forced the molam industry to adapt to new ways of working.
Tewi Butrtua, known by her stage name, “Tewi Fahuan,” is the 75-year-old president of the Molam Artist Association in Udon Thani province. She said that previously working with molam artists required meeting face-to-face to make deals and sign contracts. However, nowadays, deals are made on the phone.
“We don’t have to commute to see each other anymore,” Tewi says. “All you have to do is pick up a phone and chat with your client. You can also send contracts with your phone through online chats.”
An era of change – molam must adapt
The change of times is only one of the factors that has forced molam artists to adapt. Many other reasons leave the molam industry increasingly vulnerable. There were times when the government urged people to refrain from festivities, including molam, especially during an official period of state mourning.
Following the death of King Bhumibol in 2016, many events and festivities had to be immediately canceled or postponed indefinitely. The government asked people to refrain from organizing or attending any kind of celebrations. Musical sounds, singing voices, and poetry suddenly turned into silence. Dazzling costumes suddenly lost their sparkle, although many performances had already been booked.
“Some had already accepted up to 10 to 20 gigs,” Tewi says. “They had even signed contracts and received cash in advance. But in the end, people had to return all the money to the promoters.”
When the government allowed festivities to resume later, molam artists began to get hired again. Still, they earned an income for only a few months. Since many molam artists borrow money from their promoters, some fell into debt and their savings began to dwindle.
“The more gigs molam artists accept, the more they have to pay back to the promoters,” Tewi says. “Some jobs pay 5,000 baht in advance. Some pay 10,000 baht. We have to pay back every single baht.”
As Thailand’s economy started to improve, it got hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Entertainment and other festivities were again canceled and postponed indefinitely. A series of misfortunes keep hitting molam artists, and they seem to be unending.
“All the molam artists living here didn’t own a house – they rented them. They already had their own homes in another city. But they decided to come and form a molam community because there were many events that promoters here were willing to hire them for,” says Tewi.
People here could work with anyone you want. But since there are no commissions, they couldn’t afford the rent. No commission, no shows, no money – it’s as simple as that,” she goes on in recounting the near-collapse of the molam community.
“They had to go their own way and return to their hometowns. From time to time, they would get a gig on a show-by-show basis.”
At the same time, the COVID-19 crisis forced many homeowners to list their houses for sale or lease to survive. Therefore, the molam community, as it is today, is on the verge of extinction.
Molam is down but not out
Even though molam artists suffer a lack of income, Tewi still works to conserve this legendary Isaan art of molam by training younger generations.
“There are still people who come to learn about molam, only that we’re not renting the houses there anymore. Other molam teachers are doing the same. They have their own groups of students. Molam will not go extinct, that’s for sure. But whether the community will survive in this place is another question.”
“Previously, this alley saw many molam artists walking by, just like at a market,” says Tewi, reminiscing. “One room would see about five to ten people living under the same roof. Some people from different cities would come in during the day to take commissions and leave in the evening. There were a lot of them back then. This place used to be a livelihood center in Udon Thani, where molam artists performed next to Wat Machimawas. Some people even called this place ‘Soi Molam’ or ‘Molam artist hangout.’”
Not far from Tewi’s house, there’s a house with a sign in front that reads, “Udon Mitr Niyom.” Another molam artist named Puangphaka Darakorn, 37, and her troupe, live there. With a sigh of resignation, she relates what had happened to her community.
“Our landlords started to make this place into dormitories. Some of [our community] sold their houses,” she says. “When the new owners arrived, they demolished the houses because they wanted to build dormitories instead. This place is close to schools and residential areas. Molam promoters used to walk by to recruit molam artists, but everything has shifted online these days.”
Whether it’s cheap or expensive, we must say yes
Puangphaka says that even though there is an office to welcome clients, social media is becoming a more common venue. Getting hired on social media is a positive sign. However, the changing situation comes with conditions, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Whether it’s a gig that pays a little or a lot, we have to take it because we need the work. If we get work, [it means] our staff gets work, too.”
“All of us in the family have the same job. If we struggle, then we struggle together. If we have jobs, we get to go perform together,” she says.
“Things are looking better now. We get more gigs and earn more income to pay off our debts. Receiving a stipend from the government is not like earning income. We prefer to make our own living because the financial aid the government gives us is never enough to live on.”
Voices of the neighbors
One thing that goes hand in hand with every community is a mom and pop store. The molam community has one, too. Oraya Wateeprathuang, 70, has run her small shop for 55 years, since 1967.
When Oraya opened her store, there were few molam troupes and a lot of promoters. A house of molam artists was leased for 40,000 to 50,000 baht. Today, there’s nothing like that anymore.
“It’s very quiet when molam artists aren’t around,” she says. “I used to be able to sell things and earn up to 1,000 baht a day. But these days, I can only earn a few hundred baht. Some days I don’t earn anything at all. When promoters came around to hire molam artists, they also bought things at my store.”
But things have changed, says Oraya. “The promoters stopped coming around because they use online channels to hire molam artists instead. And that’s how my business ran into hard times.”
“They’ve been gone since COVID-19,” she continues. Molam artists “couldn’t get work because no one hired them. I haven’t seen their faces since.”
Learning about “Soi Molam” before it’s too late
The small street next to Wat Machimawas has evolved over time, representing the life and work trajectories of molam artists, says Assistant Professor Dr. Manusak Ruangdet, a lecturer at Udon Thani Rajabhat University’s Faculty of Fine Arts. He studied molam performance and the social context of “Soi Molam” in his 2009 thesis.
Manusak argues that the molam community next to Wat Machimawas formed after the local government paved a new road next to Wat Machimawat that allowed the movement of people to and fro the area. Soon after, a molam artist named Konthong Kotprathum opened a barbershop called “Konthong Barber” in the area, which later became a popular hangout for people to talk about molam performances. The place grew through word of mouth and eventually, molam artists began to receive commissions there.
Soon after, molam artists started to occupy the rooms in the area. The molam scene saw a rotation of all kinds of performances: from lam klon, lam klon sing, to molam ruang tor klon, and more. Manusak says at one point there were as many as 70 performing arts groups working out of Soi Molam.
There were once vibrant communities of molam artists in a number of Isaan cities. Apart from Udon Thani, Maha Sarakham province also has a molam community near the bus terminal. Manusak argues that these communities are a testament to the rich heritage of “Isaan’s art, entertainment, and way of life.”
These communities “featured several masters and teachers who trained younger generations interested in molam.”
But, Manusak adds, “there are only a few of them there these days.”
The interview with Manusak is ending. It’s taking place in Udon’s Thung Sri Muang, at an annual festival. Before taking the stage, assistant professor-cum-molam artists Manusak says as a parting thought:
“The molam community is disappearing. Only a few of the artists are left. The space here is being gentrified, and only a few traces of history remain.”
Read in Thai version here
Note: This feature is part of the Journalism that Builds Bridges (JBB) project, which is supported by the Embassy of the Netherlands, the Embassy of Finland, the Embassy of New Zealand, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).