Thai Music - Genres and History
It would be very easy for visitors to Thailand to get the impression that Thailand does not have its own music scene. The tourist bars have bands playing covers of western pop. The discos are blaring out house and hip-hop. The bars blast out rock classics. Even the few bands that are playing Thai music are only doing covers of classic old Thai songs. This causes many musical purists to bemoan their lack of creativity. Why aren't they writing and playing their own stuff? Why aren't they creating their own musical styles?
There are many visitors to Thailand who believe that the Thai music scene is just a rip-off of western music. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. The Thais love music and Thailand has a huge and thriving music scene. They have their own distinct music styles and a rich musical heritage. There is a strong western influence to some of their music but there are also distinct branches of musical styles that are purely Thai.
Why don't western visitors get to hear much of this side of the Thai music scene? The problem is the Thais are giving the tourists what they think the tourists want to hear. They think the tourists want music from their own countries. Perhaps they are right, although I suspect most tourists would like to hear a bit more of Thai music culture as well.
In this article, we will discuss the main genres of Thai music. In our next article, we will take a more specific look at some of the big names in Thai music and their songs. Then finally, we will take a look at the live music scene in Phuket.
There are many sub-genres, offshoots and variations of the following but these are wide definitions of the main Thai music genres.
Thai Classical Music
Thai classical music can be traced all the way back to the royal courts of more than 800 years ago. The names of the composers have long been lost in history. The performers have passed the ancient classical pieces down from generation to generation.
The most distinctive instrument of Thai classical music is the Thai Xylophone (Ranaht). The bars are made from hardwood or bamboo and strung in a gentle arc on two cords. The base has the curved shape of a Thai river boat. The ancient instruments were beautifully ornate creations. The Thai xylophone has a light melodic resonance that would generally be the centrepiece of Thai classical music.
The rest of the classical Thai orchestra would include a number of percussion instruments such as drums, cymbals and chimes. Some genres of Thai classical music also used woodwind and string instruments. The percussion instruments provide a repeating, reverberating beat while the xylophone or wind instruments create the melody.
Tourists are most likely to hear Thai classical music at shows with renditions of Thai classical dancing.
The more modern genres of Thai music could probably be said to have started with Luke Toong. You may see this written Luk Thung, Look Thoong or other variations of spelling. Luke is Thai for children and Toong means field so it is 'children of the field'.
Luke Toong developed in the mid 20th century. It is a form of folk music. The songs have a melancholy, soulful lilt. The lyrics tell of the hardships of rural Thai life and as such they quickly struck a chord with a large swathe of the Thai population. The tunes are perhaps a little difficult for westerners to appreciate because, much like country music, the songs are very much about the words and telling a story. Still the soulful, almost wailing notes can strike a chord.
Perhaps the biggest star of Luke Thung is Pumpuang Duangjian.
Just a quick mention for Luke Rung. Thailand has a clear social division between the wealthy urban middle and upper classes and the majority of the rest of the population from poor rural backgrounds. Luke Rung (children of the city) is romantic music from urban Thailand. The themes of the songs are all romance and life is good. It is a world away from the pain and suffering of Luke Toong. Luke Rung has a very limited fan base.
Mor Lam is a much older form of folk music and forms of it have been played around Isaan for centuries. The music originates from the northeastern Issan region of Thailand and it has a very strong Laos influence. 'Mor' is Thai for doctor and 'Lam' is a Laos word for singer. It roughly translates as 'Doctor Singer' or 'Expert Singer'.
Mor Lam is similar to Luke Toong in that its lyrics are all about the lives and hardships of the rural poor. The music has distinctive snappy, rhythmic vocals and a funky beat. The backing music is often provided by the Laos mouth pipe organ (khaen) made from bamboo tubes.
Good Morlam music is fast-paced, driven by the khaen, bass, organs and drums. Morlam singers are accompanied by dancers dressed in traditional Thai costume.
One of the best-known performers of Mor Lam and a huge star in Thailand is Jintara Poonlarp.
By the late 1960s, early 1970s, western rock and pop was becoming increasingly popular in Thailand. Thai artists were influenced by the input and eventually evolved their own offshoot genre. It was a blend of rock and country that eventually took the name 'peua cheewit' -- 'for life' or 'songs for life'.
The music had a strong rock influence with guitar riffs and strong drum beats but the lyrics were still about life and the injustices of Thai society.
There was a strong element of protest in the lyrics and the early Peua Cheewit bands were at the forefront of the movement for democracy. In 1976 the ruling regime cracked down hard and Peua Cheewit music was driven underground. This only served to give the music a rebellious edge and even more credibility among the general population.
As Thailand entered the eighties, it was developing into a more democratic and open society and Peua Cheewit also re-emerged into the mainstream scene. The lyrics changed to wider political issues and more general subjects of life.
Carabao became a hugely popular band with lyrics that were strongly nationalistic and protectionist. Carabao are still going strong today and draw big crowds. Other Peua Cheewit artists such as Pongsit Kamphee continued to find success but as Thailand entered the late nineties, peua cheewit was losing popularity to the more modern, western influenced rock and pop bands.
Thailand finally, fully embraced the world of western style commercialised pop, in the mid-nineties. The western influence which had first found an Asian home in Japan and South Korea, was now welcomed by Thai youth. First they embraced pretty boy and girl bands from Japan and Korea, while also giving wider recognition to western superstars such as Michael Jackson and Britney Spears.
It was not long before Thailand was producing its own pop stars. Tata Young and Bird Macintyre (both have mixed Thai-western parentage) became huge stars, singing mainstream pop music. Soon Thai music companies started forming their own pretty boy and girl bands such as Girly Berry. And of course, a few soap stars also wanted to get in on the act.
At the same time that western style pop was influencing a generation of Thai popsters, British Britpop was also spawning a whole new generation of Thai rock bands. Talented, energetic rock bands emerged performing their own version of Thai rock. Bands such as Loso, Modern Dog, Bodyslam, Clash and Big Ass roared into the charts, taking up the mantle left by peua cheewit.
You can find examples of many of the above performers work on YouTube.
In our next article about the Thai music scene, we will take a more detailed look at some of the big name Thai stars and a few of the classic Thai songs.
Thai Music -- Genres & History - An introduction to the main genres of Thai music and their history.
Thai Music -- Mor Lam - An introduction to the stars of Mor Lam (Thai folk music).
Thai Music -- Luke Toong - An introduction to the stars of Luke Toong (Thai folk and country music).
Thai Music -- Peua Cheewit - AAn introduction to the stars of Peua Cheewit (Thai songs for life).
Thai Music -- Pop - An introduction to the stars of Thai pop music.
Thai Music -- Rock - An introduction to the stars of Thai rock music.
Live Music in Phuket - We finish our series about Thai music with a look at the live music scene in Phuket.