Traditional Thai mahori court music ensembles consist of gongs, xylophones and strings, though not oboes, which are central to another Thai classical genre, piphat. Centuries ago in the Kingdom of Siam, performing mahori on these gongs, xylophones and strings — but not oboes! — was exclusively the task of males, though bit by bit women from royal families trained as classical musicians and were welcomed into the ensembles. In the mid-19th century the Siamese King Rama IV decreed that women would be permitted to not only perform in the mahori ensemble but could act onstage as well. Initially many women left mahori ensembles and chose to act rather than make music…but why? Look at this video of a performance of a mahori ensemble from Bangkok’s Ramkhamhaeng University. How could anyone ever choose to act instead?
The Ramayana Monkey Chant, also known as the Kecak (ketjak), originated as a “trance”/exorcism chant in Bali that only became internationally known after German artist Walter Spies, living in Bali, Indonesia, in the ’30s, helped develop it into a performance depicting a battle described the Ramayana, an ancient Sanskrit epic. Today the Monkey Chant is a tourist-friendly Balinese spectacle during which over a hundred male performers wearing checked waist cloths, chanting “chak chak chak chak chak!,” gesturing boldly with their arms to act out the tale in which the monkey-like Vanara aids Prince Rama in his fight against evil King Ravana. Whatever the origins of the Ramayana Monkey Chant, it sure is spectacular.
On the All Around This World/Sand Family summer tour of Europe we were honored to be able to play a concert at the Diakonie Offenbach center Frankfurt, Germany, for families who are in various stages of the process for gaining official status as asylum seekers in Germany. The performance was delightful, and the kids there had THE BEST time. The facility was new and felt so welcoming, with families living in apartments, children playing together in a giggling group outside and neighbors greeting each other as they would in any suburban apartment complex in the US. As we were there we were looking home, reading horrifying accounts of the conditions in facilities for those seeking asylum on the southern border. At the peak of Europe’s recent migration crisis just a few years ago Germany accepted over a million refugees and asylum seekers, and is now home to over 1.4 million people in various stages of the process. No one involved says the German process is perfect, or has been easy in any way, but still…. Here are the US numbers for accepting refugees in 2018.
Yesterday we learned about the Laotian and northeastern Thai form of traditional music called “Mor lam.” In the form, a singer will create an improvised song consisting of Laotian glawn poetry, interacting playfully with the audience. Improvising a song is scary! In class, though, sometimes we work up our confidence and take a leap. In this video we start with a Laotian mor lam melody, a nugget of an idea of a topic for a song, and we…try.
In its most traditional form, Mor lam, from the landlocked Southeast Asian nation of Laos and the Isan region of northeastern Thailand, is a kind of a bluesy improvised poetry song. The term translates loosely as “expert song,” referring to the “expert singer,” the vocalist who is singing. Mor lam singers will have a prescribed rhythm but make up a story as the song goes along. The words of these songs often border on the bawdy, focusing on themes of love — often unrequited — and addressing the challenges of Laotian life. We particularly enjoy the mor lam performed in this video. (Note the guys playing the Laotian “free reed” khenes.)
Oh, so sad…this week we must say goodbye (Sayonara! Selamat tinggal!) to East and Southeast Asia. For the last three months we’ve been traveling around the region in the virtual way we do, appreciating ancient court ensembles (Piphat!), celebrating our ancestors (Obon!), dancing like dragons (Happy Chinese New Year!) and rocking out (Dangdut!). Let’s take a few more days to enjoy some songs and musical bits we missed before we must sigh, bow to each other one last time, and move on.
Gamelan is an extraordinary form of music, an engaging Indonesian art form that features a community orchestra performing on an ensemble of instruments — primarily an impressive array of gongs — that are tuned very specifically to one another. (“Gamelan” is actually the name for the set of instruments rather than the genre.) Gamelan compositions are melodically complex because of the interaction of the various gongs and other percussion instruments that seem to sing to one another, dance around each other and playfully chase each other about. Rhythms interlock as well, with two musicians playing intimately connected parts to form a unified whole. There are two main centers of gamelan in Indonesia — Bali and Java. What’s the difference between Balinese and Javanese gamelan? Let Allmusic Guide explain. In the meantime, here are examples of Balinese gamelan and Javanese gamelan. (spoiler alert: Balinese gamelan is more dynamic and rhythmically dense than tranquil Javanese gamelan.)
“Sada Do” is a song by Marsada Band, an internationally-known (and deservedly so!) Toba-Batak vocal group based in Sumatra, one of the largest islands of the more than 17,000 in Indonesia.. (“Marsada” means “together” in Batak.) Though Marsada Band’s music is modern their Toba-Batak indigenous group is ancient and has a rich language and culture. The Toba are most known for their distinctive three-story “Jabu” houses. Concerned about other things you may have heard about the Batak? This page, listing many beautiful elements of Batak culture, argues that you need not worry.
Dangdut music emerged in the mid 1970s from the poorer areas of Jakarta as a politically astute style that blended Islamic, Indian and Malaysian traditional musics with American rock. Rhoma Irama is widely known as “the King of Dangdut.” After developing a decent career performing light-hearted songs, in the mid ’70s Rhoma Irama began expressing his Islamic faith and conservative morals through his lyrics, even as his music veered more toward American rock. National Geographic describes Irama’s stage persona at the time: “the King of Dangdut, dressed in a tight black tanktop, headband, leather pants, gloves and boots, and playing a black flying-V guitar, sweatily glistening in heavy-metal dangdut glory–certainly a far cry from the bubblegum, coy flirtatiousness of the heavily made-up teen dangdut singers of the genre’s early years.” Indonesia’s government feared a politicized, primarily poverty-stricken dangdut audience would become a threat, so they banned Irama from appearing on state television. Irama has continued to be famous, musical and moralistic, using his music to sway elections, even while being mired in controversy.
Jaipongan is an Indonesian dance music with unpredictable rhythms and almost exclusively non-Western instruments that artists in Western Java–specifically Dr. Gumgum Gumbira–created in 1961 when the Sukarno government banned rock ‘n’ roll. Take a look at this Jaipongan dance from West Java.