ABOVE: Thai Mo Lam singers perform on stage in Bangkok on May 14, 2015. Photo: Pornchai Kittiwongsakul / AFP
Flashing a toothless smile, 96-year-old Gaew breaks into the jaunty, staccato verses of Mo Lam, a style of folk music that reaches deep into the heritage of northeastern Thailand.
For generations, the humor-laden lyrics have covered tales of unrequited love, rural hardship and changing political winds, with the travelling Mo Lam – the name also refers to the music’s expert singers – commissioned to spread campaign messages across the remote villages of the Isaan region.
But the politics have for now been pulled from the playbooks under a military government which brooks no dissent – especially from Isaan, the heartland of the Red Shirt movement loyal to the elected government toppled by the generals in May, 2014.
“Mo Lam is our history, our culture,” said the remarkably spry Gaew Sornthunthue. “When I was young we learned Mo Lam under trees in the rice fields while we looked after our buffalo and cows.”
The male or female Mo Lam delivers the song in the Isaan dialect to the mesmeric tempo of a kaen, a bamboo mouth organ unique to the Thai northeast and neighbouring Laos.
Gaew’s early memories of the music stretch back to the start of the 20th century when Thailand was ruled by an absolute monarch, and Isaan’s Laos-origin people were still yet to be fully co-opted by the central state run by Bangkok.
To Isaan people, millions of whom now live and work in Bangkok, its sound still evokes nostalgia for a region which is modernising at breakneck speed but maintains a proud and distinct culture.
“We use Mo Lam to talk, debate, express ourselves and reflect on our lives and traditions,” says Sarawoot Srihakot, a kaen player and music teacher trying to preserve the art form.
“You can compare it to a community television station of its time.”
His village is in Khon Kaen province, a once-vocal bastion of the Red Shirt pro-democracy movement.
Their hero and patron, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra – a billionaire who won the region’s loyalty with policies recognising their changing aspirations – was booted out of office by a coup in 2006, and was then hit with a graft conviction sending him into self-exile.
The fraught years between then and now have curdled a sense of cultural and geographic difference between the center and the northeast – home to a third of Thailand’s people and most of its poorest provinces.
When they are allowed to vote, Isaan people do so in droves for the Shinawatra family.
But the clan is hated by a Bangkok-centric royalist elite whose parties have proved impotent at all elections since 2001 and are reliant on the army to guarantee their ascendancy.
Before the most recent coup last year, Mo Lam songs extolling the virtues of Thaksin and lampooning the Thai elite did the rounds at Red Shirt rallies and on their radio stations.
One, entitled “Thaksin was bullied,” laments the putsch that toppled him and “took away the house of democracy.”
But when the military seized power, it shuttered radio stations and silenced local leaders, tearing down posters of Thaksin and outlawing rallies.
In normal times, Mo Lam – and its racier electric guitar-backed offshoot Mo Lam Sing – would be expected to provide the soundtrack to a resistance.
But, this time, the Red Shirts have barely flickered in defiance.
“There is nothing to gain from any movement… it’s better to wait,” a senior northeastern Red Shirt leader told AFP, requesting anonymity.
The genre’s political influence stretches much further back than the current situation, however.
Generations of singers have been paid – or inspired – to promote political candidates or competing ideologies in remote areas reared on storytelling traditions.
“Mo Lam have sung (about) unhappiness with the center for centuries, especially in the pre-television and radio eras,” says Gridthiya Gaweewong of the Jim Thompson Art Center, who curated a recent exhibition on the art form.
“But it has been used as political tool by both sides. During the Cold War period – because of the strong support from the US – the Thai government promoted ideas of democracy and anti-communism through Mo Lam,” she says.
For their part, the Communist Party of Thailand, which fought a guerilla war against the Thai state through the mid-60s and 70s, wrote lyrics praising their collective system and warning Isaan against becoming “servants of Bangkok” under the yoke of “bastards who don’t have farms.”
But the genre is under threat.
While many village elders can reel off Mo Lam lyrics, youngsters weaned on pop music and 24-hour television often lack the patience to master the complex verses or instruments.
Remodeled in the 1980s, the modernised Mo Lam Sing thrusts the original version from its bucolic village setting onto the big stage with drums, electric guitars and lights, winning new legions of fans to its bawdy and boozy shows.
A more recent revision, with a kaen backed by a funk bass, is pulling crowds on the world music scene.
While the revival is welcome, purists such as Noochid Punsang, a 54-year-old Mo Lam, fear the original art form faces decline, threatening to take with it a key element of Isaan culture.
“There are fewer singers these days… there is a huge notebook of lyrics to memorize,” she said. “But if you have don’t have the passion, you can’t do it. It takes love.”
Story: Aidan Jones / AFP
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