Even the casual visitor to Thailand cannot avoid hearing mor lam, the folk music attributed to Isaan, the country’s large northeastern region. But what one is likely to hear is a very commercialized version of the raw and naive sound that originally endeared this genre to Thailand. One has to search to find and experience the really good stuff.
I first encountered the pre-commercialized version of mor lam (also known as molam, lam, etc) at the Big Tiger café/studio in Lat Phrao, a district of northern Bangkok. The studio is one of two such enterprises, opened irregularly by a part-time DJ who goes by the moniker of Big Tiger.
A small collection of Thais and foreigners congregate in his front garden or in the studio, consisting of two turntables and an amazing collection of vinyl collectibles – both Thai and foreign. But the heart of the enterprise is the hoarding and sale of mor lam records pressed between the late 1950s and the 1970s.
Suchon Boonkong, 46, or Big Tiger, a daytime agronomist, has run side businesses since his graduation from university, mostly at the Chatuchak Market. But since 2016, he has operated out of his hip hideaway. A serious collectibles aficionado, his prize possessions are his vintage mor lam records, many of which he trades and sells to overseas DJs. Most of his clients are in Japan, the US and Singapore.
So what makes these records, which normally sell to overseas buyers in the 50,000-60,000-baht (US$1,650-$2,000) range, but sometimes go for more than 100,000 baht, so attractive?
First and immediately obvious, the records retain that special analog quality of vinyl. Equally impressive is the heavy beat, raw and unpretentious, with an in-your-face sound. One is immediately transported to a countryside public celebration of a monk’s ordination or a wedding party.
Indeed, that is why the records were made. Forty to 50 years ago, most rural Thais couldn’t afford a tape player, much less a record player. So beyond the limited urban market of successful Isaan migrants and jukeboxes, the records were given out to radio stations with the primary goal of giving the mor lam bands the exposure they needed to sign up gigs, as that was where the real money could be found. To the musicians, records sales were of negligible importance, but widespread exposure was key to their survival.
Musically, records from those couple of decades are the most interesting. The groups innocently incorporated new sounds they heard over the radio from the West, such as funk and psychedelic riffs. The result was an honest fusion of the latest pop sounds into a centuries-old tradition. Their music offered up a seductively honest blend of music that makes even jaded Westerners reassess their opinions of Thai music.
To be fair, non-Thais’ lack of respect for the music can be forgiven. Today, what one usually hears is very commercialized versions of the music, cynically formulated by marketing strategies of entertainment corporations. What one normally hears is what would be in American equivalence commercial rock by The Monkees versus the blues sound of Muddy Waters. Once one hears the original sound, one is likely to be dissatisfied with contemporary mor lam. One need not be a purist to be alienated by the crass commercialism that owes more to K-pop than to the Isaan countryside.
So how do most contemporary Thais regard this remarkable music that goes back as far as 18th-century Laos and northern Thailand? Beyond the shallow, electric, bouncy version found in most places today, there is in essence apathy toward traditional mor lam and its mid-20th-century fusions. Traditional mor lam is not considered to be pop music, so it’s not “cool.” Traditional mor lam is crude and sometimes gross in its lyrics.
Furthermore, the sound and lyrics are pure Isaan, a topic that puts many Thais into temporary states of schizophrenia. Isaan and being from Isaan are something to be treasured – but also to be a bit ashamed. The region’s sour and bitter cuisine is considered by many Thais to be their comfort food, but Isaan is often tied to poverty and the shame that a disproportionate number of urban sex workers migrate from that area. So things Isaan are both secretly loved, yet often disrespected.
While one cannot easily hear or experience the more authentic, traditional mor lam sound on YouTube or wherever, one may find in a record shop a compact disc or LP by The Bangkok Paradise Band, a joint Thai-foreigner band that made waves in Europe as well as Bangkok some four years ago, but has since largely disappeared, after the release of two compilations, 21st Century Molam (2014) and in Planet Lam (2016). While the band may be difficult to experience, its two master musicians, Kammao Perdtanon, who has been dubbed the “Jimi Hendrix of the Phin” (Thai lute), and the venerable Sawai on Khaen (East Asian harmonica), may still be found.
In Thai cities, one can hear more authentic sounds played by sidewalk buskers on traditional Thai instruments. The irony is that the core of mor lam music is not made up by the accompanists but by the lead singers who arranged and memorized the lyrics that intricately interplay with the music’s demanding rhythm conventions. Instrumentalists normally jam in support of the lead singers.
Rarely does one hear mor lam singing on urban streets. One still needs to head out to the countryside and join in a village or family celebration. Or possibly attend the annual Jim Thompson Farm party held every December near Nakhon Ratchasima to experience decent groups like Bow Dam Lam Sing or Ratri Srivalai’s band. At such events, one can take in some contemporary renditions of Thai traditional culture.
Meanwhile, back in Bangkok, remnants from that past special mor lam period are being sold off to overseas buyers who can appreciate the domestically unappreciated sounds of Thailand’s earlier rural musicians. It may be unfair for this Westerner to pine about the lack of local regard for a truly remarkable genre of mor lam. But it may also be fair to suggest that one doesn’t know what one has until it’s gone.