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The music of Thailand reflects its geographic position at the intersection of China and India, and reflects trade routes that have historically included Persia, Africa, Greece and Rome. Traditional Thai musical instruments are varied and reflect ancient influence from far afield - including the klong thap and khim (Persian origin), the jakhe (Indian origin), the klong jin (Chinese origin), and the klong kaek (Indonesian origin). Though Thailand was never colonized by colonial powers, pop music and other forms of modern Asian, European and American music have become extremely influential. The two most popular styles of traditional Thai music are luk thung and mor lam; the latter in particular has close affinities with the music of Laos.
Aside from the Thai, ethnic minorities such as the Lao, Lawa, Hmong, Akha, Khmer, Lisu, Karen and Lahu peoples have retained traditional musical forms.
Thai classical music is synonymous with those stylized court ensembles and repertoires that emerged in their present form within the royal centers of Central Thailand some 800 years ago. These ensembles, while being influenced by older practices and repertoires from India, are today uniquely Thai expressions. While the three primary classical ensembles, the Piphat, Khrueang sai and Mahori differ in significant ways, they all share a basic instrumentation and theoretical approach. Each employs small ching hand cymbals and krap wooden sticks to mark the primary beat reference. Thai classical music has had a wide influence on the musical traditions of neighboring countries. The traditional music of Myanmar was strongly influenced by the Thai music repertoire, called Yodaya (ယိုးဒယား), which was brought over from the Ayutthaya Kingdom. As Siam expanded its political and cultural influence to Laos and Cambodia during the early Rattanakosin period, its music was quickly absorbed by the Cambodia and Lao courts. As Frédéric Maurel explains:
"From the close of the eighteenth century and through the nineteenth century, a number of Khmer pages, classical women dancers, and musicians studied with Thai ajarn (masters or teachers) in Cambodia. The presence of this Thai elite in Cambodia contributed to the development of strong Thai cultural influence among the Khmer upper classes. Moreover, some members of the Khmer royal family went to the Thai court and developed close relations with well-educated Thai nobility, as well as several court poets. Such cultural links were so powerful that, in some fields, one might use the term 'Siamization' in referring to the processes of cultural absorption at the Khmer court at that time."
Several kinds of small drums (klong) are employed in these ensembles to outline the basic rhythmic structure (natab) that is punctuated at the end by the striking of a suspended gong (mong). Seen in its most basic formulation, the classical Thai orchestras have a very strong influence on the Cambodian (Khmer) pinpeat and mahori ensembles, and structurally similar to other orchestras found within the widespread Southeast Asian gong-chime musical culture, such as the large gamelan of Bali and Java, which most likely have their common roots in the diffusion of Vietnamese Dong-Son bronze drums beginning in the first century.
Traditional Thai classical repertoire is anonymous, handed down through an oral tradition of performance in which the names of composers (if, indeed, pieces were historically created by single authors) are not known. However, since the beginning of the modern Bangkok period, composers' names have been known and, since around the turn of the century, many major composers have recorded their works in notation. Musicians, however, imagine these compositions and notations as generic forms which are realized in full in idiosyncratic variations and improvisations in the context of performance.
The most common and iconic Thai classical music that symbolizes the dancing of the Thailand's legendary dragons, a midsized orchestra including two xylophones (ranat), an oboe (pi), barrel drums (klong) and two circular sets of tuned horizontal gong-chimes (khong wong lek and khong wong yai). Piphat can be performed in either a loud outdoor style using hard mallets (Piphat mai khaeng; ปี่พาทย์ไม้แข็ง) or in an indoor style using padded hammers (Piphat mai nuam; ปี่พาทย์ไม้นวม).
There are several types of piphat ensembles ranging in size and orchestration, each kind typically being associated with specific ceremonial purposes. The highly decorated piphat ensemble that features the ornately carved and painted semicircular vertical gong-chime is traditionally associated with the funeral and cremation ceremonies of the Mon ethnic group. Different versions of the piphat ensemble are employed to accompany specific forms of traditional Thai drama such as the large shadow puppet theater (nang yai) and the khon dance drama.
The khrueang sai orchestra combines some of the percussion of wind instruments of the piphat with an expanded string section including the saw duang (a high-pitched two-string bowed lute), the lower pitched saw u (bowed lute) and the three-string chakee (a plucked zither). In addition to these instruments are the khlui (vertical fipple flute) in several sizes and ranges, a goblet drum (thon-rammana) and, occasionally, a small hammered Chinese dulcimer (khim). The khrueang sai ensemble is primarily used for instrumental indoor performances and for accompanying the Thai hoon grabok (stick-puppet theater), a genre deeply influenced by Chinese puppetry styles. Accordingly, the addition of Chinese-sounding string instruments in the khrueang sai ensemble is imagined, by the Thai, to be a reference to the probable Chinese origins of this theater form.
The third major Thai classical ensemble is the Mahori, traditionally played by women in the courts of both Central Thailand and Cambodia. Historically the ensemble included smaller instruments more appropriate, it was thought, to the build of female performers. Today the ensemble employs regular sized instruments—a combination of instruments from both the Khrueang sai and Piphat ensembles but excluding the loud and rather shrill oboe pi. The ensemble, which is performed in three sizes—small, medium and large—includes the three-string saw sam sai fiddle, a delicate-sounding, middle-range bowed lute with silk strings. Within the context of the Mahori ensemble, the so sam sai accompanies the vocalist, which plays a more prominent role in this ensemble than in any other classical Thai orchestra.
While Thai classical music was somewhat discouraged as being unmodern and backward looking during Thailand's aggressively nationalistic modernization policies of mid-20th century, the classical arts have benefited recently from increased governmental sponsorship and funding as well as popular interest as expressed in such films as Homrong: The Overture (2003), a popular fictionalized biography of a famous traditional xylophone (ranat ek) performer.
Luk thung, or Thai country music, developed in the mid-20th century to reflect daily trials and tribulations of rural Thais. Pongsri Woranut and Suraphol Sombatcharoen were the genre's first big stars, incorporating influences from, Asia. Many of the most popular artists have come from the central city of Suphanburi, including megastar Pumpuang Duangjan, who pioneered electronic luk thung. The late 1990s saw a commercial resurgence of Luk Thung, and the modern electrified, pop-influenced version of the genre remains the country's most popular music form.
Mor lam is the dominant folk music of Thailand's north-eastern Isan region, which has a mainly Lao population. It has much in common with luk thung, such as its focus on the life of the rural poor. It is characterized by rapid-fire, rhythmic vocals and a funk feel to the percussion. The lead singer, also called a mor lam, is most often accompanied by the khaen, also known as khene.
There are about fifteen regional variations of mor lam, plus modern versions such as mor lam sing. Some conservatives have criticized these as the commercialization of traditional cultures.
The people of Isan are also known for kantrum, which is much less famous than mor lam. Kantrum is played by Khmer living near the border with Cambodia. It is a swift and very traditional dance music. In its purest form, cho-kantrum, singers, percussion and tro (a type of fiddle) dominate the sound. A more modern form using electric instrumentation arose in the mid-1980s. Later in the decade, Darkie became the genre's biggest star, and he crossed into mainstream markets in the later 1990s.
While the composer Luang Pradit Phairau (1881–1954) used localized forms of cipher (number) notation, other composers such as Montri Tramote (1908–1995) used standard western staff notation. Several members of the Thai royal family have been deeply involved in composition, including King Prajadhipok (Rama VII, 1883–1941) and King Bhumibol Adulyadej (1927–2016), whose compositions have been more often for jazz bands than classical Thai ensembles.
Classical Thai music is polyphonic and follows similar conventions to American folk and dixieland music. Each instrument improvises within accepted idioms around basic lines of harmony or melody called paths. Rhythmically and metrically Thai music is steady in tempo, regular in pulse, divisive, in simple duple meter, without swing, with little syncopation (p. 3, 39), and with the emphasis on the final beat of a measure or group of pulses and phrase (p. 41), as opposed to the first as in European-influenced music. The Thai scale includes seven tempered notes, instead of a mixture of tones and semitones. Five of seven pitches are used as the principal pitches in any mode, introducing nonequidistant intervals.
From the 1940s to the 1970s King Bhumibol Adulyadej wrote a total of 48 compositions. It was during this time that he decided to specialize in wind instruments, especially the saxophone and the clarinet.By the time Bhumibol turned 18, he started to compose his own music with the first song being Candlelight Blues. He continued to compose even during his reign following his coronation in 1946. Bhumibol performed with Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Benny Goodman, Stan Getz, Lionel Hampton, and Benny Carter. Throughout his life, Bhumibol wrote a total of 49 compositions. Much of it is jazz swing but he also composed marches, waltzes, and Thai patriotic songs. His most popular compositions were Candlelight Blues, Love at Sundown, and Falling Rain which were all composed in 1946. Bhumibol's musical influences included Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Benny Carter, and Johnny Hodges. Bhumibol also performed with his band at Thai universities, composing anthems for the universities of Chulalongkorn, Thammasat, and Kasetsart.
By the 1930s, however, Western classical music, showtunes, jazz and tango were popular. Soon, jazz grew to dominate Thai popular music, and Khru Eua Sunthornsanan soon set up the first Thai jazz band. The music he soon helped to invent along with influential band Suntharaporn was called pleng Thai sakorn, which incorporated Thai melodies with Western classical music. This music continued to evolve into luk grung, a romantic music that was popular with the upper-class. King Bhumibol was an accomplished jazz musician and composer.
By the 1960s, Western rock was popular and Thai artists began imitating bands like Cliff Richard & the Shadows; this music was called wong shadow, and it soon evolved into a form of Thai pop called string. Among the groups that emerged from this period was The Impossibles. The '70s also saw Rewat Buddhinan beginning to use the Thai language in rock music as well as the rise of protest songs called phleng phuea chiwit ( songs for life ).
The earliest phleng phuea chiwit band was called Caravan, and they were at the forefront of a movement for democracy. In 1976, police and right wing activists attacked students at Thammasat University; Caravan, along with other bands and activists, fled for the rural hills. There, Caravan continued playing music for local farmers, and wrote songs that would appear on their later albums.
In the 1980s, phleng phuea chiwit re-entered the mainstream with a grant of amnesty to dissidents. Bands like Carabao became best-sellers and incorporated sternly nationalistic elements in their lyrics. By the 1990s, phleng phuea chiwit had largely fallen from the top of the Thai charts, though artists like Pongsit Kamphee continued to command a large audience.
String pop took over mainstream listeners in Thailand in the 90s, and exponents like Christina Aguilar, Bird Thongchai McIntyre and Asanee-Wasan became best-sellers. Simultaneously, Britpop influenced alternative rock artists like Modern Dog, Loso, Crub and Proud became popular in late 1990s. In 2006, famous Thai rock bands include Clash, Big Ass, Bodyslam and Silly Fools. The late 90s saw pop overshadowed by the remarkable commercial resurgence of Luk Thung, but modern Luk Thung has also adopted some elements from the pop acts.
Heavy metal music in Thailand was very popular in early 90s. Many heavy metal bands in this era included Hi-Rock, Stone Metal Fire, I-Scream, Uranium and Big Gun.
A group of independent artists and records which produces music for non-commercial purpose also found in Thailand: Bakery Music (now under Sony Music) ; Smallroom ; FAT radio ; City-Blue ; Coolvoice ; Dudesweet ; Idea-radio Panda Records ; and SO::ON Dry Flower .
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Traditional Lao music can be divided into classical and folk forms.
The music of Laos includes the music of the Lao people, a Tai ethnic group, and other ethnic groups living in Laos. The traditional music of Laos has similarities with the traditional music of Thailand and Cambodia, including the names of the instruments and influences and developments. To categorize Lao music, it seems helpful to distinguish between the nonclassical folk traditions, the classical music traditions and its basic ensembles, and vocal traditions.
Mor 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 (ລຳ); mor lam (ໝໍລຳ) refers to the singer.
Luk thung, or Phleng luk thung, often known as Thai country music, is an acculturated song genre that emerged after World War II in the central region of Thailand. The genre was derived from phleng Thai sakon, and developed in the early-20th century. Suphan Buri in particular became the center of luk thung music, producing many major artists, including Suraphol Sombatcharoen, and Pumpuang Duangjan. The genre has been prominently popularized in the northeastern region, having from its beginnings drawn upon northeastern mor lam musical traditions and the northeastern Isan language.
A piphat is a kind of ensemble in the classical music of Thailand, which features wind and percussion instruments. It is considered the primary form of ensemble for the interpretation of the most sacred and "high-class" compositions of the Thai classical repertoire, including the Buddhist invocation entitled sathukan as well as the suites called phleng rueang. It is also used to accompany traditional Thai theatrical and dance forms including khon, lakhon, and shadow puppet theater.
The Pinpeat is the largest Khmer traditional musical ensemble. It has performed the ceremonial music of the royal courts and temples of Cambodia since ancient times. The orchestra consists of approximately nine or ten instruments, mainly wind and percussion. It accompanies court dances, masked plays, shadow plays, and religious ceremonies. This ensemble is originated in Cambodia since before Angkorian era.
Wong khrueang sai is a musical ensemble in Thai classical music which consists primarily of string instruments. A typical khrueang sai ensemble features two two-string fiddles, one high and one low, a three-string zither called jakhe, a vertical duct flute called khlui, hand drums, and various cymbals. Depending on the size of the ensemble, instruments may be doubled or left out. A three-string spike fiddle called saw sam sai may be added as well. The khim has become popular and is also used in this ensemble. In the 20th century, Western instruments such as the violin or organ have also occasionally been integrated into khrueang sai ensembles.
Caravan, is a Thai folk-rock band that formed out of the 1973 democracy movement. It launched the phleng phuea chiwit genre that has since been popularized by Carabao.
Phleng Thai sakon is a Thai term translating roughly as "international-style Thai music". It refers to Thai music in which traditional elements are blended with the use of Western notation and instruments. In the narrow sense, the term refers to the early movement in which this style of music was popularized. This roughly corresponds to the first half of the twentieth century, until the 1950s, when the style was split along cultural lines between the rural luk thung and the urban luk krung. In the wider sense, the term refers to all genres of Westernized Thai music, including luk thung, luk krung, phleng phuea chiwit and modern Thai pop and rock. As a genre, the most representative composer of phleng Thai sakon is Eua Sunthornsanan, who popularized the genre during the 1930s – 1940s.
Traditional Thai musical instruments are the musical instruments used in the traditional and classical music of Thailand. They comprise a wide range of wind, string, and percussion instruments played by both the Thai majority as well as the nation's ethnic minorities.
Klong that are large barrel drums used in the classical music of Thailand. They are played with large wooden sticks. They are usually played in a pair and used in the piphat ensemble. Drums of this kind have also been called klong chatri (กลองชาตรี) and klong túk (กลองตุ๊ก).
The mahori is a form of Cambodian and Thai classical ensemble traditionally played in the royal courts for the purpose of secular entertainment. It combines the xylophones and gong circles of the piphat with the strings of the khruang sai ensemble. Originally, the term referred only to a string ensemble, although today it includes both string and percussion. There are three broad types of Mahori: Mahori Khryang Lek, Mahori Khyrang Khu, and Mahori Khyrang Yai, each differentiated by the types of instruments utilized.
The Roneat Ek or Roneat Aek is a xylophone used in the Khmer classical music of Cambodia. It is built in the shape of a curved, rectangular shaped boat. It has twenty-one thick bamboo or hard wood bars that are suspended from strings attached to the two walls. They are cut into pieces of the same width, but of different lengths and thickness. Originally these instruments were highly decorated with inlay and carvings on the sides of the sound box. Now they are simpler. The Roneat is played in the Pinpeat ensemble. In that ensemble, sits on the right of the Roneat Thung, a lower-pitched xylophone. The roneat ek is the analogous equivalent to the Thai xylophone called ranat ek, and the Burmese bamboo xylophone called "pattala".
The Roneat Thung or Roneat Thum is a low-pitched xylophone used in the Khmer classical music of Cambodia. It is built in the shape of a curved, rectangular shaped boat. This instrument plays an important part in the Pinpeat ensemble. The roneat Thung is placed on the left of the roneat ek, a higher-pitched xylophone. The Roneat Thung is analogous to the ranat thum of Thai.
Phleng phuea chiwit describes a type of Thai folk music, strongly influenced by elements of Western folk and rock music with a protest theme mainly centred on the hardship of working-class people and in favor of a democratic political system. The term phleng phuea chiwit came from "art for life" or "literature for life", that is, literature on life and society, while phleng phuea chiwit era flourishing in the 1970s also known as "jewel of the literature of life".
Theatre of Cambodia known as Lakhon is composed of many different genres. There are three main categories: classical, folk, and modern. Many forms of theatre in Cambodia incorporates dance movement into performances and are referred to as dance dramas.
Roneat is the generic Khmer word for referring to several types of xylophones used in traditional Cambodian music; the pinpeat and mohaori.
Thanis Sriklindee or simply known as Ajaan Thanis is a Thai musician and former member of Carabao, a famous and popular Thai rock and Phleng phuea chiwit band.
Amnaat Luukjan or better known as Pao Carabao, nickname Pao (เป้า), was a former Thai musician. he was known as drummer of Carabao, a famous Thai rock and Phleng phuea chiwit band.
Mohaori is one of the traditional musical ensembles of Cambodia. This traditional ensemble is known in full name as Vung Phleng Mohaori (វង់ភ្លេងមហោរី), literally means Mohaori Musical Ensemble. It composed of many kinds of musical instruments, but today it is more specifically applied to a small ensemble of wind, stringed, and percussion musical instruments.