Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Mor lam (Thai/Isan: หมอลำ) is an ancient Lao form of song in Laos and Isan (Northeastern Thailand). Mor lam means expert song, or expert singer, referring to the music or artist respectively. Other romanisations used include mo lam, maw lam, maw lum, moh lam and mhor lum. In Laos, the music is known as lam lao.
Traditionally, mor lam was extemporaneous singing accompanied by the khene, a free reed mouth organ; but the modern form is most often composed and uses electrified instruments. Musically it is characterised by quick tempi and rapid delivery.
Typically featuring a theme of unrequited love, mor lam also reflects the difficulties of life in rural Isan and Laos, leavened with wry humour. In its heartland performances are an essential part of festivals and ceremonies, while the music has gained a profile outside its native regions thanks to the spread of migrant workers, for whom it remains an important cultural link with home.
Some scholars have proposed that the origin of the form was in shamanistic chants: one variant, the lam phi fah, involves elderly women dancing and chanting to propitiate spirits. Other varieties have similarities to Central Thai lam tad , suggesting that lam is a formalized courting rite. One of the most popular styles of traditional mor lam, mor lam glawn, is a vocal "battle" between a man and a woman, who alternately improvise songs teasing and mocking one another. The music has evolved more in Thailand than in Laos, under greater exposure to Central Thai luk thung and to western pop music. Mor lam sing is the newest version: it prominently features electrified instruments and bawdy content and presentation. Even in Laos, however, the music is beginning to change under the influence of Thai culture.
After Siam extended its influence over Laos in the 18th and 19th centuries, the music of Laos began to spread into the Thai heartlands; even King Mongkut's vice-king Pinklao becoming enamoured of it. But in 1865, following the vice-king's death, Mongkut banned public performances, citing the threat it posed to Thai culture and its role in causing 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 to the rest of the country, the music spread with them. In 1946 a performance took place at the Rajdamnoen Boxing Stadium in Bangkok which was first advertised by sound trucks. Migrant Lao, upon hearing their music, followed the trucks to the stadium where nearly three thousand people heard the performance.
Even then, the number of migrant workers from Isan remained fairly small, and mor lam was paid little attention by the outside world. This began to change in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when more and more people left Isan in search of work. Mor lam performers began to appear on television, and the genre soon gained a national profile. The music remains an important link to home for Isan people in the capital, where mor lam clubs and karaoke bars act as meeting places for migrants.
Live performances are 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 and passages of teasing dialogue (Isan สอย, soi) between the singer and members of the audience.
The traditional instruments of mor lam are:
- the khene: a mouth pipe organ, consisting of approximately fourteen bamboo tubes above a mouthpiece;
- the phin : a lute, normally three-stringed;
- the ching: small bells resembling cymbals;
- the sor: a bowed string instrument;
- panpipes; and
- hand drums.
Most commercial artists now use at least some electric instruments, most often a keyboard set up to sound like a 1960s Farfisa-style organ; electric guitars are also common. Other western instruments are also becoming popular, such as the saxophone and the drum kit.
The vocal line is characterized by staccato articulation and a great tonal range, the singer rapidly shifting between a limited number of notes. There are sudden tempo changes from the slow introduction to the faster main section of the song. Almost every mor lam song features the following bass rhythm, which is often ornamented melodically or rhythmically, such as by dividing the crotchets into quavers:
There are three main sections to a mor lam song, although not all appear in every song:
- The gern (Thai เกริ่น) is a slow, sung introduction, generally accompanied by the khene, and often including the words o la naw ("oh fate") (Gernsample.ogg).
- The plaeng (Thai เพลง) is a sung verse (Plaengsample.ogg).
- The lam (Thai ลำ) is a rap-style chorus (Lamsample.ogg).
The samples are in Ogg format, and are taken from Peemai Jaisalai by Dokfa Petcharaphupan.
Mor lam songs are most often in the Lao or Isan language, or in a mix of Isan and Thai. As in most popular musics, unrequited love is a prominent theme in mor lam. However, this is laced with a considerable amount of humour, as in song titles such as Rock Salaeng 's "I Want to Get a Foreign Husband", and Jintara's "Jeans that Belong to the Past". 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.
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.
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. Many traditional forms are now rarely heard. The following is a partial list:
- lam phi fah — a ritual to propitiate spirits
- mor lam glawn — a vocal "battle" between the sexes
- mor lam sing — a modern, electrified form
- mor lam mu — folk opera
- mor lam soeng — for a dance ensemble
- lam phun — recital of local legends or Jataka stories by a male singer
- mor lam diao — a performance by one singer
- mor lam ku — a dialogue between a man and a woman
- mor lam ploen — a celebratory narrative, performed by a group
- lam tang san — a song with short content and treatment
- lam tang yao — a song with long, slow content and intonation
- lam kiu — literally "sickle song", talking about rural life
- lam toei — a medium-paced form for courting men and women
- lam tangwai — a slow form
- Broughton, Simon (ed). World Music Volume 2. Rough Guides (2000).
- Chawiwan Damnoen. Mo Lam Singing of Northeast Thailand (CD). World Music Library (1991).
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