Thaiisaan Sound

By Pisitakun Kuantalaeng, 2020
One evening in grandpa Nhu and grandma Aon’s garden, Nhu turned on the AM radio, which played a mor lam song titled »Ku-Lharb-Daeng« by Somjit Borthong before going out to work night shift as a guard at the airport. Aon was inside singing a lullaby in the Mon language.

People in the neighborhood often brought their children to be cared for by Nhu and Aon; I was one of the kids they cradled on weekdays. However, my favourite time was on weekends, when my father came back to my hometown of Wang Noi, Ayutthaya. He always played country music by Dao Bandon, Waiphot Phetsuphan, Pornsak Songsaeng, Banyen Rakgan, and so on. Every time I hear these kinds of songs, I reminisce about the trip back home with my father, the roadside fields, and red rear lights glowing at night.

»Ku-Lharb-Daeng« by Somijit Borthong.

Song in the Mon language.

Even though I have been familiar with mor lam (also written mo lam, molam), Mon, and Thai country musics from an early age, I only later realized that mor lam uses long, drawn-out notes, like country sung in a slow tempo, and that both mor lam and country were quite different from mainstream pop music such as Somchai Kemglad’s Hua-Joke album (1993) which featured an exceedingly exciting and seemingly quarrelsome rhythm. It was just a little earlier, around the time that music icon Pornsak Songsaeng’s 1986 album Sao-Chan-Kung-Kobe became famous, that mor lam, country, and popular »string music« were all rapidly evolving.

Mor lam is derived from two words; »mor« meaning »an expert,« and »lam« meaning »various narrations with beautiful melodies.« In other words, mor lam signifies a person who has expertise in narrating stories using melodies. Other than that, each story is sung in the Lao language – currently called the Isaan language by the Thai state – and often portrays Isaan ways of life as well as socio-political issues in different periods of time. The tendency of mor lam to evoke politics can be traced to the Chao Anuvong era (1826-1828), when the Lao King Chao Anuvong rebelled against Siamese suzerainty and aimed to restore his territory to its former size during the reign of King Rama 3 of Siam – currently the Kingdom of Thailand. The Lao rebellion was lost, leading to a period of forced migration into and Thaification of the Isaan region. Later on the song »Lao Pan,« described war prisoners’ diverse miseries in Siam, and how they were forced to work in the capital city. Mor lam music was used as means to communicate about and go against the state power during this period, thus becoming popular both inside and outside the royal palace. During the reigns of Kings Rama 4 and Rama 5, when Pi-Bun or Phu-Mi-Bun rebellions had to be controlled, the ruling Kings sought to control local populations with measures such as the prohibition of mor lam and of the kaen (a Thai-Isaan bamboo harmonica), because the kings were afraid that people from the Isaan area would continue to revolt. At the end of King Rama 6’s reign, mor lam music began to resurface and play an important role in daily life and politics once again.

The song, »Lao Pan.«

While the Isaan region has mor lam, the rest of Thailand has its own kind of non-urban music, named luk-thung. And when talking about luk-thung, it’s inevitable to mention luk-krung. »Luk-krung« literally means »music for city people,« as its soft and slow melodies convey the way of life of people in the city. Luk-krung arose during the reign of King Rama 6, and became more popular after 1932, when the Siamese Revolution (the transition from an absolute monarchy into a constitutional monarchy launched by the Khana Ratsadon) took place. At that time, luk-krung music was very popular as city people began to look abroad and integrate more international influences into Siam. Luk-krung often includes Western wind and string instruments. The large and well-known luk-krung band named Suntaraporn was formed in 1939.

Later, luk-krung was played in clubs and bars, making it popular among urban people. The music represents city people, in contrast to luk-thung, which presents images of people in the countryside and their ways of life. Luk-thung music kicked off after the Second World War, and its golden age was around 1963-1970, which overlapped with the Cold War. It’s been developed from Thai traditional chant, folk drama, and antiphonal singing called lamtat, and mixed with modern music. Its main figures were musicians such as Suraphol Sombatcharoen, Kan Kaewsuphan, Chai Muengsingh, and Pongsri Woranuch. As of 1973, luk-thung began to decline in popularity, while modern Thai folk music and »music-for-life,« a type of music that speaks about hope, love, and daily struggles, rose to prominence, in large part due to their use within the student uprisings of October 14, 1973 and October 6, 1976.

Mor lam Sunthrapirom from 1965

Khan-Thong, one of the first recorded mor lam artists.

Tong-Kam-Peng-Di, another one of the earliest recorded mor lam artists.

In parallel to the evolution of luk-krung and luk-thung, the mor lam music industry continued to adapt. Before 1932, mor lam would be played very formally and by seated musicians, but after 1932, artists started performing standing up, forming bands, and generally broadening their range of self-expression.. After the Second World War, the famous mor lam band named Suntaraphirom was founded. Around 1947, mor lam found its way into music studios, and records of mor lam began to be pressed. The first recorded artists were Khan-Thong, Tong-Kam-Peng-Di, and Chaweewan Dumnern. At the time, mor lam bands were purely comprised of master performers, known as Mor-Lam (master singers) and Mor-Kaen (master instrumentalists). During the Cold War era, mor lam began to be used as a tool by both the Thai government and the opposition. Because mor lam music was the main way that the people of Isaan could present their ideas and culture to the rest of Thailand, the government used mor lam to spread propaganda back to Isaan. For instance, a 1963 advertisement named »Pattanakorn« (»Development«) was used to communicate state policies, propaganda on rural development, and anti-communist messages, and create solidarity between the central Thai government and the Isaan people at a time when most of Thailand’s neighboring countries had already changed to Communism.

The advertisement »Pattanakorn« was one of many created by the Thai government specifically to build solidarity with the Isaan people. It used mor lam as part of its propaganda.

In 2017, an interesting exhibition project under the name »Molam Mobile Bus Project« was initiated by the Jim Thompson Art Center and operated by the researcher Arthit Mulsarn, who conducted studies on mor lam during the Cold War era. Because mor lam music is usually played at merit-making ceremonies in villages, municipalities, and sub-districts, this mobile project travels around different regions of Isaan and presents the history of mor lam. It is organized as a mobile exhibition to narrate and display information about mor lam music during the Cold War. The bus is accompanied by a truck arranged as a mobile stage, on which local artists are invited to sing mor lam songs. The vehicles travel together to different places in Isaan to join in festivals of merit such as temple fairs, housewarming ceremonies, ordination, or Kathin ceremonies.

What is interesting about the mobile exhibition is its aim to bring to light stories of the Cold War era, which the government has tried to erase from Thai history. During this era, people in Isaan villages, especially men, had to flee into the forest because they were accused of being communists. Many mor lam songs that were created and sung during this period were also erased due to their anti-government content. These histories were deliberately erased by the government. The Molam Mobile Bus Project thus presents a new way of looking at mor lam music in terms of politics under the Thai state. Vehicle parades are also part of the Isaan way of life, and mor lam music continues to be played on trucks or buses and in traditional ceremonies today.

The song »Zerng-Isaan« (modern Thai folk music).

During student and people uprisings of October 14, 1973 and October 6, 1976, mor lam music was constantly used by students and mixed with »music-for-life«, as heard, for example, in the song »Zerng-Isaan.« Student protesters in Bangkok were specifically targeted by the government, to set an example for the rest of the country. They were accused of possessing weapons and of being communists, and then massacred on these charges directly on campus. They were slaughtered in cold blood. Many students had to flee to the forest for safety, at the very same time that villagers were fleeing to the forests too. 

Tensions gradually decreased around the end of the Cold War in 1988. People started to come back out of the forest. It was during this period that Isaan and »music-for-life« musics emerged; some songs were recorded however those that were too sensitive or politically charged, and thus dangerous to transmit, were not able to be. Throughout the Cold War, mor lam and luk-thung musics continued to evolve. Mor lam was modernized. In the past, only one or two instruments had been used, but in modern times mor lam started being played by bands and with Western musical instruments. At some point, mor lam and luk-thung musics began to be blended together – some parts of a song could be sung in mor lam, and others in luk-thung style. The worlds of mor lam and luk-thung fused together and transformed into various new works, such as the song »Isaan-Lam-Plearn« by Surin Paksiri (1973), which blends both styles seamlessly.

»Isaan-Lam-Plearn« by Surin Paksiri is an example of the fusion of mor lam and luk-thung musics.

Interview with Surin Paksiri.

Despite this blending, mor lam has continued to evolve on its own to suit the tastes of the current era, as can be seen through an alternative genre called mor-lam-cing (where »cing« is abbreviated from »racing« and represents something fast, cool, modern) which is characterised by a faster tempo and more crisp and incisive lyrics. This evolution reflects a generational shift and a consequent change in mor lam music’s customer-base. In the past, older generations held most of the money, however, after young people increasingly flocked to the city to study and work they became an important customer group with more spending power. Mor lam needed to evolve in an age comprised mainly of luk-thung and »string« musics. Consequently, bands such as Soontorn Chairoongrueng and artists such as Ratree Srivilai (the queen of mor-lam-cing) tried to mix folk narrations with the rhythm of Western musical instruments, and used more concise words and content. There are many Isaan artists who sing both mor lam and luk-thung songs, such as Dao Bandon, Waiphot Phetsuphan, Pornsak Songsaeng, and Banyen Rakgan, whom I’ve mentioned earlier. When I was born, mor lam and luk-thung musics were intermixed and difficult to separate. Because both genres were always open to new social currents, they have interestingly adapted as times changed.

Soontorn Chairoongrueng mixed folk narrations with Western musical instruments.

The concert »Song-Kon-Song-Kom« was a battle between pop star Thongchai McIntyre and Pornsak Songsaeng, which brought their very different audiences together in an interesting contrast.

Going back to the year 1986, when Pornsak Songsaeng’s Sao-Chan-Kung-Kobe album became famous, we see another period of flourishing for mor lam and luk-thung musics; urban audiences were introduced to the songs and artists working in the genres, as well as to the full spectrum of performance within these artforms. On May 1st, 1987, a concert titled »Song-Kon-Song-Kom« was held as a battle between the most famous pop singer at that time, Thongchai McIntyre, and Pornsak Songsaeng. It was a very interesting concert because the fans of both artists were quite different. Pornsak once made a joke: »My music fans are quite nationalistic and honest. When they come to the front of the stage, they just dance together and have fun.« Obviously, they are different from Thongchai’s music fans in Bangkok, who were mostly city people and fond of soft melodies, moderate dancing to pop music styles. The concert thus became the first step to modern mor lam. After that, many artists sang both mor lam and luk-thung songs, such as Tai Orathai, Jintara Poonlarp, Honey Sri-Isan, and Noknoi Uraiporn.

The famous band Siang-Isan (Yes) singing »Lam-Lueng-Tor-Klon.«

»Phu-Bao-Gin-Maew« by Yai-Jin is but one example of modern mor lam, which depicts modern Isaan life in a proudly humorous way.

When talking about modern mor lam music, it’s impossible not to talk about the Siang-Isan band, founded in 1981 by the artist Noknoi Uraiporn, who continues to lead it to the present day. The band’s shows combine a variety of entertainment such as mor lam singing, Lam-Lueng-Tor-Klon, and comedy performances. Siang-Isan are known as the largest mor lam group in Isaan that most completely features the various facets of the mor lam artform. It includes many renowned artists such as Poyfai Malaiporn, Maithai Huajaisin, and Yai-Jin. From 1999-2006, music from Isaan was released without interruption. Many mor lam songs talked about the local way of life. The merriness of the Isaan people and their culture allows us to hear various stories and enjoy them with great fun. It was quite different from mor lam’s past, where songs talked about life, rice fields, and life’s difficulties. Modern mor lam songs tend to talk about teenage life, noticeably focusing on fun and with lyrics full of double-meanings or sarcastic teasing, poking fun at, or criticizing modern life and society. For example, the song »Phu-Bao-Gin-Maew« by Yai-Jin tells the story of a group of teenagers who like to drink rice whisky after work. Once they get drunk, they crave something savory to eat and go catch cats in the temple, as heard in the lyrics: »Hey beautiful girl, it’d be amazing if I could eat roasted cats any night.« Another example is the song »Dao-Mahalai« by Saomat Megadance, which talks about Isaan girls sent to study in Bangkok. They return home totally pretentious, seemingly no-longer able to accept being a person from Isaan, just like that. »Kha-Def-Heavy« by Yai-Jin, which is one of my favorite songs, describes Isaan teenagers’ way of life, their passion for heavy metal, anything modern, and dancing right up in front of the stage: »Don’t you think wearing skinny pants looks awesome, girl. A man must act cool, go to every party, dance in front of the stage till trampled… dance in front of the stage till crushed by feet.« I really love today’s Isaan music with its mixture of string music and luk-thung/mor lam, and how these genres can hardly be separated anymore. This kind of hybridity has also led to the creation of a contemporary Isaan sound called »Isaan Indie.«

»Dao-Mahalai« by Saomat Megadance tells the story of a young Isaan student that returns after studies in Bangkok, full of pretension towards her home and culture. The contrast between life in Isaan and the capital city are humorously explored.

»Kha-Def-Heavy« by Yai-Jin is an ode to Isaan teenagers and their love for parties and all things new and modern.

To understand Isaan musics today, we have to look at both the mainstream music industry as well as independent music concurrently. Around the end of the 1990s when mainstream pop reached a saturation point in Thailand, a new radio station for independent music named 104.5 Fat Radio was created. It revived alternative rock, which had become stagnant after first having shaken the industry earlier in the 90s. The return of non-mainstream music created a teenage movement of »indie kids« that liked listening to indie music. What is interesting in this period is the independence of teenagers and their attempts to find their own space among various genres of music. A small music label called Small Room was founded in 1999, which allowed unknown and well-known artists alike to make songs independently without affiliation or the pressure of confirming to pop standards. The label jointly released a series of albums called Small Room 001-009, where each album is a compilation of different artists. The songs that came out in those albums gradually became popular, and though the music genres therein had not really been listened to by many people before, they later became mainstream.

A general picture of the Thai indie industry could be viewed through the making of zines (handmade magazines), the radio station Fat Radio, Small Room, and early social networking sites Myspace and hi5. Once social networks began to enter our lives, they allowed us to open up and get to know the world faster. We were thrilled by songs from different countries, with aesthetics and sounds that we had never seen nor heard before and that extend well beyond our own physical territory. In 2007, Zudrangma Records was established by Nattapon Siangsukon or DJ Maft Sai, who brought familiar but somehow already forgotten voices back to Thai audiences. DJ Maft Sai likes to listen to music and collect vinyl records of music from various countries. He became interested in mor lam and began collecting discs from many parts of Isaan. He then founded Zudrangma Records and formed a band, Paradise Bangkok Molam International, which caused teenagers to see mor lam in a new light, as something new and relevant for this era.


Song in the style of »Ngad-Tang-Ngad.«

In the age of the internet, we are no longer pulled in one direction only. The internet world doesn’t just bring in new music from outside Thailand, but also spreads mor lam to people outside the country. Even large music labels must accept the changes of the modern era, where we all have the power to communicate and interact with our target audience or to expand our target group directly. Just as modern mor lam or »mor lam indie« uses the internet as its main weapon, YouTube has become an important space for modern mor lam bands. Teenagers from the Isaan region no longer need a record label; on the other hand, music labels have to approach them. Nowadays, there are many small music labels in Isaan, such as Sing Music, Guitar Record Channel, or Tsir Sound, that produce many famous tracks with millions of views, for example as »Hoh-Mhok-Huag-Pai-Fak-Pa,« »Ngad-Tang-Ngad,« and »Malong-Kong-Kaeng.« In addition, there are many films about contemporary Isaan life, such as PBTB E-San Indy, Thai-Baan the Series, and Nah-Han. As a result, the strength of mor lam music and Isaan culture can thrive far beyond its home region.


1) The Mon language is recognized as an indigenous language in Thailand and Myanmar.
2)  »String music« is a colloquial term for modern forms of music, which takes its name from the fact that many such musics were played on the guitar.
3) Isaan, located in the northeast of Thailand, is the country’s largest region. The majority population of the Isaan region is ethnically Lao, but distinguish themselves from the neighboring country by calling themselves Thai Isaan. Isaan is also the name by which the Lao language is referred to in Thailand, though most people in the Isan region still refer to language as Lao among themselves.
4) Phu-Mi-Bun or Pi-Bun (Holy Man’s Rebellion) were popular movements rebelling against the monarchy’s total control of religion at that time. Forms of rebellion included sarcastic gestures or commentary, the creation of new supernatural religious stories, as well as the invention of new figureheads or ‘holy men’ for these beliefs. While mainly interpreted by historians as anti-state rebellions, new evidence suggests that royal members played crucial roles in supporting the revolts in order to enhance their own power. 
5) The revolution took place as a nearly-bloodless transition lled by a group of civilians and military officials that had studied abroad in Europe and brought back the wish to reform their country into a Western-style democracy as they took on powerful positions in the government and military. 
6) Kathina is a Buddhist ceremony at the end of the rainy season, characterised by gratitude and giving. Local communities would bring donations to temples, such as new robes for monks.
7) Songsaeng’s joke was a play on the Thai word for nationalism, implying local cultural pride while sarcastically snubbing classicism and localist patriotism.
8)  Lam-Lueng-Tor-Klon is a type of counter-narration that presents alternative histories and fairy tales as part of the performance.