Mor lam (Thai/Isan? [m: lam]; RTGS: mo lam) is a traditional Lao form of song in Laos and Isan. Mor lam means 'expert song', or 'expert singer', referring to the music or artist respectively. Other romanisations used include mor lum, maw lam, maw lum, moh lam, mhor lum, and molum. In Laos, the music is known simply as lam (); mor lam (?) refers to the singer.
The characteristic feature of lam singing is the use of a flexible melody tailored to the tones of the words in the text. Traditionally, the tune was developed by the singer as an interpretation of a glawn poem and accompanied primarily by the khene (a free reed mouth organ). The modern form is frequently composed and uses electrified instruments. Traditional forms (and some Lao genres) use a slower tempo than the quicker tempo and faster deliveries of more modern lam music. Strong rhythmic accompaniments, vocal leaps, and a conversational style of singing distinguish lam from American rap.
Typically featuring a theme of unrequited love, mor lam often reflects the difficulties of life in rural Isan and Laos, leavened with wry humor. In its heartland, performances are an essential part of festivals and ceremonies. Lam has gained a profile outside its native regions from the spread of migrant workers, for whom it remains an important cultural link with home.
In Laos, the traditional folk music is referred to as , lam /lám/, which refers to both the verb and noun 'dance', and is in general use in the central and southern areas of the country. In northern Laos, the regional folk music styles are referred to as , khap /k?áp/, and signifies 'to sing' or a 'song'. The Lao-speaking people across the river in Isan call the music , mo lam, /m: lám/, which refers to both the singer and the musical style, while in Laos, the equivalent term ?, molam /m: lám/, only refers to the singer. Lao and Isan , both mo /m:/, (as well as Thai , mo /m:/) refers specifically to an 'expert', 'shaman', or 'doctor'. The northern Lao terms , khap /k?áp/ and mokhap /m: k?áp/, are not used in Isan, but are likely still used in some Lao-speaking parts of Loei, Uttaradit, and Phitsanulok that were settled by people originally from northern Laos, however, khap is understood as a rarer word for 'to sing' or 'song' and in reference to specifically northern styles of lam. Northern Lao areas refer to the khène/khaen player as the mokhène/mokhaen just as in the rest of Laos and Isan.
In standard Thai, the music and the singer, as adopted from Isan usage, is also known as , molam, but because of the tone differences is generally pronounced /m: làm/. It is also common to "correct" or "translate" the Isan term into standard Thai as , mo ram /m: ram/, as Thai , ram /ram/, is cognate to Lao and Isan and shares the same meaning. Although Thai khap /k?àp/ is cognate to Lao and Isan , it only refers to the verb 'to sing' in Thai and is a rather archaic, poetic word and would generally be confused with the homonym which means 'to drive' (a vehicle), 'to drive away' or 'to expel'. Thus, the northern Lao forms are almost unknown in standard Thai media references to Lao and Isan folk music.
As the lowland areas of Laos and Isan are essentially one shared cultural region of Lao people, few differences, especially at its most traditional level, are present to distinguish traditional forms on either side. Throughout the Lao-speaking heartlands, the only accompaniment to performances of khap and lam was the local free reed mouth-organ, the khène (BGN/PCGN)/khaen (RTGS). Similar in many ways to the function of the bagpipe in the Scottish Highlands, the khène/khaen provides not only the melody but can also be used to provide a drone as it is played with circular breathing. So important is the khène/khaen in Lao music, the instrument even came to be used in the Lao classical music ensemble known as sép noy (BGN/PCGN)/sep noi (RTGS), where most of the instruments are influenced by the veneer of Indian musical traditions as well as classical musical traditions of neighboring Thailand, Cambodia, and Java.
In lam styles of central and southern Laos and most of Isan, traditional performances often included ensembles. Most northern khap styles relied solely on the khène/khaen, except for a few styles, such as those from Luang Phrabang, many of which were adaptations of the local classical music traditions as the city was the seat of the Lao monarchy until its forced abdication in 1975. The southern lam styles, heavily influenced by the ancient musical traditions of the Mon-Khmer peoples, such as the Mon, Khmer, Kuy and Bru that either were the former inhabitants or continue to live amongst the Tai peoples that now make up the majority in the Lao-speaking region.
Most modern styles, including the northern khap varieties, are generally heard with ensembles consisting of a mixture of Western instruments and traditional ones. Contemporary ensembles often feature electric guitars, drum sets, bass guitars, accordions, saxophones, violins, and keyboards set to sound like the 1960s Farsifa organs or set to provide equivalents of native instruments.
|pi||/p?:/||pi||/p?:/||/pì:/||Class of four-reed oboes.|
|vôt||? /v?:t/||wot||? /v?:t/||? /w?:t/||A circular panpipe.|
|khouy||?/? /kj/||khlui||/kj/||/klûj/||Class of reedless, single- or double-reed flutes.|
|hun/hune||/h?`:n/||chongnong||/h?`:n/ (RTGS huen)||/t? n/||Bamboo Jew's harp or jaw harp|
|chakhé||/t?á k:/||chakhe||/t?á k:/||/t k?ê/||A type of zither.|
|xo||/s:/||so||/s:/||/s?:/||Class of fiddle instruments. Most common is the xo ou/so u / /sû:/ or Thai /s?û:/ and the xo i/so i ?/? /s: i:/ (RTGS so i), known in Thai as the /s?: dû/.|
|hai xong||/h?j s:?/||hai song||/h?j s:?/||/h?j s?:?/||Series of different sized earthenware jugs with a taught string over its mouth which are plucked or struck. Traditional lam performances often feature a female dancer that pretends to play the hai xong/hai song.|
|kachappi||/ká t?áp p?:/||krachappi||/ká t?áp p?:/||/krà t?àp pì:/||A two-stringed, four-coursed lute no longer commonly used.|
|? /si?/||ching||? /si?/||? /tì?/||Cymbal-like instrument used for tempo.|
|xap||/s?:p/||chap||/s?:p/||/tà:p/||Cymbal-like instrument used for tempo but attached with a chord.|
|phin||/p?ín/||phin||/p?ín/||/p?in/||A small mandolin that is plucked with the other hand unique to Lao/Isan music.|
|khim||/km/||khim||/km/||/km/||A hammered dulcimer adopted from Chinese music, but has a distinctly local, softer sound, often used in styles descended from Lao classical music.|
|kap||/káp/||krap||? /káp/||? /kràp/||A wooden clapper used to keep the tempo. Also known in Lao as / mai pôkpèk (BGN/PCGN)/mai pokpaek (RTGS) /mâj p?:k p:k/ or Thai /máj pó:k p:k/ and takes its name from the onomatopoeia for striking wood with a hammer.|
|khong||? /k:?/||khong||? /k:?/||? /k:?/||A class of small, handheld gong instruments.|
|khong vông||? /k:? vó?/||khong wong||/k?:? vó?/||/k:? wo?/||Similar to a gamelan, consists of a set of gongs struck with mallets, used in styles of khap and lam adapted from Lao classical music. Usually the khong vông gnai (BGN/PCGN)/khong wong yai (RTGS) and khong vông noy/khong wong noi, or 'large khong vông' or 'small khong vông,' respectively.|
|kong||/k?:?/||klong||? /k?:?/||? /kl?:?/||Refers to a class of various drums.|
|ranat/lanat||/ /l? n?:t/||ranat||/l? n?:t/||/rá nâ:t/||A class of xylophone instruments, including the famous pônglang (BGN/PCGN)/ponglang (RTGS) of Isan.|
|mai ngop ngèp||/m?j :p :p/||mai ngop ngaep||/m?j :p :p/||/máj :p :p/||A clapper of southern Laos but also contains notched grooves that function like the güiro of Latin America.|
|pông||/p?:?/||pong||/p?:?/||/pó:?/||A bamboo rattle used as a cowbell by farmers for domestic cattle and water buffalo.|
|ko||? /k/||kro||/k/||/kr/||A small bamboo section of hollow bamboo with a slit cut on one side, struck with a stick. Originally used to call the cattle or water buffalo back from the pastures.|
|sakmong||/s?:k m:?/||krong||/s?:k m:?/ (RTGS sakmong)||/krò:?/||A large bamboo pestle used for husking or milling rice, played by stamping the floor but can also be tapped with sticks to maintain the beat, also used to keep rowers in long boats in unison.|
Morlam had its birth in the Lao heartlands of Laos and Isan, where it remains a popular art form. Although its precursors probably lie in the musical traditions of the historical Tai tribes that migrated south from China and northern Vietnam, much cross-pollination with indigenous music of the region as well as importation of Chinese, Mon-Khmer, Indian, and Malay influences, has also had a pronounced effect on the dances, instrumentation, and melodies of mor lam.
In his Traditional Music of the Lao, Terry Miller identifies five factors which helped to produce the various genres of lam in Isan: animism, Buddhism, story telling, ritual courtship and male-female competitive folksongs; these are exemplified by lam phi fa, an nangsue, lam phuen and lam gon (for the last two factors) respectively. Of these, lam phi fa and lam phuen are probably the oldest, while it was mor lam gon which was the principal ancestor of the commercial mor lam performed today.
After Siam extended its influence over Laos in the 18th and 19th centuries, the music of Laos began to spread into the Thai heartland. Forced population transfers from Laos into the newly acquired region of Isan and what is now Central Thailand accelerated the rapid adoption of mor lam. Even King Mongkut's vice-king Pinklao became enamoured of it. But in 1857, following the vice-king's death, Mongkut banned public performances, citing the threat it posed to Thai culture and its alleged role in causing a drought. Performance of mor lam thereafter was a largely local affair, confined to events such as festivals in Isan and Laos. However, as Isan people began to migrate throughout the rest of the country, the music came with them. The first major mor lam performance of the 20th century in Bangkok took place at the Rajadamnern Stadium in 1946. Even then, the number of migrant workers from Isan was fairly small, and mor lam was paid little attention by the outside world.
In the 1950s and 1960s, there were attempts in both Thailand and Laos to appropriate lam for political purposes. The USIS in Thailand and both sides in the Laotian Civil War (the "Secret War") recruited mor lam singers to insert propaganda into their performances, in hopes persuading the rural population to support their cause. The Thai attempt was unsuccessful, taking insufficient account of performers' practices and the audiences' demands, but it was more successful in Laos. The victorious Communists continued to maintain a propaganda troupe even after seizing power in 1975.
Mor lam started to spread in Thailand in the late-1970s and early-1980s, when more and more people left rural Isan to seek work. Mor lam performers began to appear on television, led by Banyen Rakgaen, and the music soon gained a national profile. It remains an important link to home for Isan migrants in the capital city, where mor lam clubs and karaoke bars are meeting places for those newly arrived.
Contemporary mor lam is very different from that of previous generations. None of the traditional Isan genres is commonly performed today; instead singers perform three-minute songs combining lam segments with luk thung or pop style sections, while comedians perform skits between blocks of songs. Mor lam sing performances typically consist of medleys of luk thung and lam songs, with electric instruments dominant and bawdy repartee. Sing comes from the English word 'racing' (a reference to the music's origin among Isan's biker fraternity; pai sing means 'to go racing about on motorbikes').
Lam in Laos has remained more conservative, and traditional styles are maintained, but massive exposure to Thai media and culture has led to increasing influence and the adoption of the more modern and popular Isan styles.
Thai academic Prayut Wannaudom has argued that modern mor lam is increasingly sexualised and lacking in the moral teachings which it traditionally conveyed, and that commercial pressures encourage rapid production and imitation rather than quality and originality. On the other hand, these adaptations have allowed mor lam not only to survive, but itself spread into the rest of Thailand and internationally, validating Isan and Lao culture and providing role-models for the young.
Professor Charles F. Keyes argues for the value of the ancient forms as geomythology: "The Thai-Lao people of northeastern Thailand have a well-developed tradition of 'legends' (nith?n) which has been perpetuated in past through the media of folk opera ... known as m? lam m? ... no small number record[ing] events which happened 'long ago' on the Khorat Plateau... [N]ot historical accounts, they are not totally lacking in historical value. A number ... make reference to places which can be identified as being the sites of the ancient towns.... [T]he literature of the region has yet to be fully inventoried, much less analyzed", and adds in a footnote: "Unfortunately, most of these publications have had little circulation outside of the folk opera troupes for which they were intended." He next comments on five toponyms mentioned in the myth of Phadaeng and Nang Ai, and compares these with those in the "Accounts of F? Det-Song Y?ng".
There are many forms of mor lam. There can be no definitive list as they are not mutually exclusive, while some forms are confined to particular localities or have different names in different regions. Typically the categorisation is by region in Laos and by genre in Isan, although both styles are popular in the other region. The traditional forms of Isan are historically important, but are now rarely heard:
Isan has regional styles, but these are styles of performance rather than separate genres. The most important of the styles were Khon Kaen and Ubon, each taking their cue from the dominant form of lam gon in their area: the lam jotgae of Khon Kaen, with its role of displaying and passing on knowledge in various fields, led to a choppy, recitative-style delivery, while the love stories of Ubon promoted a slower and more fluent style. In the latter half of the 20th century the Ubon style came to dominate; the adaptation of Khon Kaen material to imitate the Ubon style was sometimes called the Chaiyaphum style.
The Lao regional styles are divided into the southern and central styles (lam) and the northern styles (khap). The northern styles are more distinct as the terrain of northern Laos has made communications there particularly difficult, while in southern and central Laos cross-fertilisation has been much easier. Northern Lao singers typically perform only one style, but those in the south can often perform several regional styles as well as some genres imported from Isan.
The main Lao styles are:
Below is a comparative table of regional mor lam styles, sourced from Compton (1979).
|Style||General geographic location||Musical accompaniment|
|Lam Sithandone||Muang Khong, Pak Se||khene|
|Lam Som||Muang Khong||khene|
|Lam Phu Thai||Saravane, Savannakhet area||khene, drum, bird calls, s i|
|Lam Tang Vay||Bang Tang Bay, west of Savannakhet||khene, drum, sing, mây pòok pk|
|Lam Ban Sok||Ban Sok, outside of Savannakhet||khene, drum, sing|
|Lam Khon Savan||Savannakhet area||khene, drum, sing, mây pòok pk|
|Lam Mahaxay||Mahaxay (west of Thakhek)||khene, drum, s i, mây pòok pk|
|Kap Sam Neua||Sam Neua||khene|
|Khap Ngum||Vientiane plain||khene|
|Khap Xieng Khouang||Xieng Khouang||khene|
|Aan Nang Syy||Luang Prabang||None|
|Khap Thum||Luang Prabang||Orchestra|
|Khap Salaam, Khap Saam Saaw||Luang Prabang||Orchestra|
|Khap Lohng Kohn Loht Kay||Luang Prabang||Orchestra|
|Khap Maa Nyohng||Luang Prabang||Orchestra|
Traditionally, young mor lam were taught by established artists, paying them for their teaching with money or in kind. The education focused on memorising the texts of the verses to be sung; these texts could be passed on orally or in writing, but they always came from a written source. Since only men had access to education, it was only men who wrote the texts. The musical education was solely by imitation. Khaen-players typically had no formal training, learning the basics of playing from friends or relatives and thereafter again relying on imitation. With the decline of the traditional genres, this system has fallen into disuse; the emphasis on singing ability (or looks) is greater, while the lyrics of a brief modern song present no particular challenge of memorisation.
The social status of mor lam is ambiguous. Even in the Isan heartland, Miller notes a clear division between the attitudes of rural and urban people: the former see mor lam as "teacher, entertainer, moral force, and preserver of tradition", while the latter, "hold mawlum singers in low esteem, calling them country bumpkins, reactionaries, and relegating them to among the lower classes since they make their money by singing and dancing".
In Laos, lam may be performed standing (lam yuen) or sitting (lam nang). Northern lam is typically lam yuen and southern lam is typically lam nang. In Isan lam was traditionally performed seated, with a small audience surrounding the singer, but over the latter half of the 20th century the introduction of stages and amplification allowed a shift to standing performances in front of a larger audience.
Live performances are now often large-scale events, involving several singers, a dance troupe and comedians. The dancers (or hang khreuang) in particular often wear spectacular costumes, while the singers may go through several costume changes in the course of a performance. Additionally, smaller-scale, informal performances are common at festivals, temple fairs and ceremonies such as funerals and weddings. These performances often include improvised material between songs and passages of teasing dialogue (Isan , soi) between the singer and members of the audience.
Lam singing is characterised by the adaptation of the vocal line to fit the tones of the words used. It also features staccato articulation and rapid shifting between the limited number of notes in the scale being used, commonly delivering around four syllables per second. There are two pentatonic scales, each of which roughly corresponds to intervals of a western diatonic major scale as follows:
Because Thai and Lao do not include phonemic stress, the rhythm used in their poetry is demarcative, i.e., based on the number of syllables rather than on the number of stresses. In gon verse (the most common form of traditional lam text) there are seven basic syllables in each line, divided into three and four syllable hemistiches. When combined with the musical beat, this produces a natural rhythm of four on-beat syllables, three off-beat syllables, and a final one beat rest:
In actual practice this pattern is complicated by the subdivision of beats into even or dotted two-syllable pairs and the addition of prefix syllables which occupy the rest at the end of the previous line; each line may therefore include eleven or twelve actual syllables. In the modern form, there are sudden tempo changes from the slow introduction to the faster main section of the song. Almost every contemporary mor lam song features the following bassline rhythm, which is often ornamented melodically or rhythmically, such as by dividing the crotchets into quavers:
Mor lam was traditionally sung in the Lao or Isan language. The subject matter varied according to the genre: love in the lam gon of Ubon; general knowledge in the lam jot of Khon Kaen; or Jataka stories in lam phun. The most common verse form was the four-line gon stanza with seven main syllables per line, although in Khon Kaen the technical subject matter led to the use of a free-form series of individual lines, called gon gap. In Laos, it is the regional styles which determine the form of the text. Each style may use a metrical or a speech-rhythm form, or both; where the lines are metrical, the lam styles typically use seven syllables, as in Isan, while the khap styles use four or five syllables per line. The slower pace of some Lao styles allows the singer to improvise the verse, but otherwise the text is memorised.
In recent decades, the Ubon style has come to dominate lam in Isan, while the central Thai influence has led to most songs being written in a mix of Isan and Thai. Unrequited love is a prominent theme, although this is laced with a considerable amount of humour. Many songs feature a loyal boy or girl who stays at home in Isan, while his or her partner goes to work as a migrant labourer in Bangkok and finds a new, richer lover.
The gon verses in lam tang san were typically preceded by a slower, speech-rhythm introduction, which included the words o la no ("oh my dear", an exhortation to the listeners to pay attention) and often a summary of the content of the poem. From this derives the groen (Thai ) used in many modern songs: a slow, sung introduction, generally accompanied by the khene, introducing the subject of the song, and often including the o la naw. (sample) The pleng (Thai ?) is a sung verse, often in central Thai. (sample), while the actual lam (Thai ) appears as a chorus between pleng sections. (sample)
As few mor lam artists write all their own material, many of them are extremely prolific, producing several albums each year. Major singers release their recordings on audio tape, CD and VCD formats. The album may take its name from a title track, but others are simply given a series number.
Mor lam VCDs can also often be used for karaoke. A typical VCD song video consists of a performance, a narrative film, or both intercut. The narrative depicts the subject matter of the song; in some cases, the lead role in the film is played by the singer. In the performance, the singer performs the song in front of a static group of dancers, typically female. There may be a number of these recordings in different costumes, and costumes may be modern or traditional dress; the singer often wears the same costume in different videos on the same album. The performance may be outdoors or in a studio; studio performances are often given a psychedelic animated backdrop. Videos from Laos tend to be much more basic, with lower production values.
Some of the most popular current artists are Banyen Rakgan, Chalermphol Malaikham, Somjit Borthong, Pornsak Songsaeng, Jintara Poonlarp and Siriporn Ampaipong. In 2001, the first album by Dutch singer Christy Gibson was released. In 2007, Jonny Olsen released the first ever mor lam album by a Westerner or "farang" in Laos.
There are several popular venues where mor lam and luk thung music are performed. These venues usually carry the word "Isan" in their names. such as "Tawan Daeng Isan" and "Isan Isan" in Bangkok.