Recently I’ve been reading and listening to a new book with accompanying CDs called Longing for the Past: The 78 rpm Era in Southeast Asia.
In the early 20th century, gramophone companies sent people around the world to record local music in an effort to produce records that local people would want to buy. This compilation contains some of these recordings, and the book has explanations of each song by experts on the various musical histories of Southeast Asia. The person who wrote on Thailand, Cambodia and Laos was retired Kent State professor Terry E. Miller.
In listening to the music from Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, one thing that becomes immediately obvious is the degree to which the music in these various places was not ethnically or nationally “pure.”
For instance, there is a 1929 recording from Cambodia that features a Siamese composition that reportedly dates from the Ayutthaya period as well as a song about Khun Chang Khun Phaen, the famous Siamese epic story. Finally, in between these two songs is a brief piece entitled “Phleng Barang” (Western Song) which is performed by a Western-style brass band, and was reportedly written by the Cambodian king.
Then there is an example of a Lao song performed on the lanat, or xylophone. Miller makes the following comment about this piece:
“Although some Lao wish to claim Lao classical music as independent of Thailand, the Lao play compositions by known Thai composers in the Thai idiom. It is known that many Lao classical musicians had been sent earlier to Bangkok to study, and, at least later, some Thai teachers were sent to Laos to teach.
“The relationship between Lao style and Thai style, and the matter of the compositions played, is a contentious one between Thai and Lao because of long-standing negative feelings stemming from, among other things, the fact that the Thai king, Rama III, invaded and destroyed Vientiane and carried off most of the population in 1828.”
Finally there are songs from Siam like one called “Khaek Lopburi” which Miller translated as “Lopburi (In Malay Accent).” This is what he says about that song:
“The first word in the title, ‘Khaek,’ indicates the work’s somniang or ‘ethnic character.’ The Thai repertory includes a great many works whose titles begin with such a word, including Lao (Lao), Jin (Chinese), Khamen (Khmer/Cambodian), etc. Each term references a certain mode/scale, a particular drum cycle (nathap khaek), sometimes a pair of drums (khlawng khaek), the scale pitch level, and the general melodic instruments.”
In the nineteenth century, the Siamese kingdom based at Bangkok was one of the most powerful kingdoms in the region. Its leaders sent military expeditions to places like present-day Laos to capture people and bring them back to Bangkok to provide labor.
Alongside such captives came their music as well, and that is clearly evident in the songs in Longing For the Past.
Although these works were recorded in the early twentieth century, they still to some extent reflect the world of the nineteenth century when Siam was a powerful center that could enjoy the “exotic” sounds of its far-flung tributaries, and when people in those lands, one way or another, came to follow the ways of the Siamese imperial center.