The earthly j oys of Ko­rat song

The de­lights of pleng Ko­rat from Nakhon Ratchasima

Bangkok Post - - LIFE - JOHN CLEWLEY This colum­nist can be con­tacted at

World Beat was at the Ko­rat Fes­ti­val re­cently to check out the ac­tiv­i­ties based around pay­ing homage to the Thao Su­ra­nari Mon­u­ment, or Ya Mo, as it is known lo­cally. Ko­rat, or Nakhon Ratchasima, is of­ten thought of as the gate­way to Isan, the north­east­ern re­gion of the coun­try.

Ko­rat was one of the first towns to de­velop in the North­east; a rail­way line was built in 1900 which brought moder­nity to the re­gion for the first time. Later, dur­ing the Viet­nam War, Ko­rat would get an­other shot of all things mod­ern with the cre­ation of huge US air­bases, which in­tro­duced rock’n’roll and soul mu­sic to the lo­cal mu­si­cal mix.

These days, Isan is well-known for its spicy food and funky lo­cal mo­lam mu­sic. Mo­lam, as most read­ers know, comes from the ma­jor­ity group in Isan, eth­nic Lao; some of you will also know Thai-Kh­mer mu­sic, such as tra­di­tional jar­i­ang and mod­ern kantrum, from the lower North­east and towns like Surin.

But what is not com­monly known is that Isan ac­tu­ally has three dis­tinc­tive mu­sic zones: Lao mo­lam found in cen­tral and north­ern Isan (and many other places where eth­nic Lao have set­tled); Kh­mer kna­trum from the lower (southern) Isan; and the Ko­rat zone, where you’ll find

pleng Ko­rat.

The Ko­rat Fes­ti­val is cen­tred around the Ya Mo shrine in down­town Ko­rat. Sev­eral stages were set up around the shrine for all kinds of per­for­mances, and the usual tem­ple fair de­lights were in ev­i­dence — Fer­ris wheel, games, beauty pageants, snake shows, all kinds of lo­cal food del­i­ca­cies in­clud­ing hard-to-find desserts and bug ven­dors. And with the cur­rent fad of gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials wear­ing tra­di­tional clothes, no doubt in­spired by his­tor­i­cal dra­mas, there was a lot of “selfie” ac­tion.

But World Beat was there to check out the an­nual Pleng Ko­rat Com­pe­ti­tion on April 1 and the salas (pavil­ions) be­hind the shrine, in which tra­di­tional pleng Ko­rat singers face off against each other. The com­pe­ti­tion, un­der the pa­tron­age of HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirind­horn, was hosted by the Ko­rat lo­cal au­thor­i­ties and or­gan­ised by the Pleng Ko­rat As­so­ci­a­tion and Ko­rat Ra­jab­hat Uni­ver­sity. In be­tween rounds of the com­pe­ti­tion, a mo­lam/bonglang band from the uni­ver­sity en­ter­tained with some ex­cel­lent play­ing and danc­ing (I no­ticed, for the first time, a fe­male

phin player in the band and she was ex­cel­lent, too.)

Pleng Ko­rat was orig­i­nally called pleng kom or pos­si­bly

wah pleng ac­cord­ing to Pramote Pakdeenarong, and was a court­ing/ver­bal joust be­tween a male and fe­male mo pleng, some­times two fe­male and two male singers. As with pleng choi and lam tad, from the cen­tral re­gion, the lyrics used were and are bawdy and of­ten used colour­ful (and very rude) lan­guage. The form de­vel­oped from farm­ing roots like pleng choi and lam tad and the form of­ten in­volves one part­ner danc­ing around the other singing. The genre is sung in lo­cal Ko­rat di­alect, and has all the vo­cal py­rotech­nics you would ex­pect from lo­cal singing with glis­san­dos and vi­brato fea­tur­ing. Like Lao lam and Si­amese pleng choi, a singer’s pop­u­lar­ity of­ten in­volves not just singing well but also bat­ter­ing the other singer in ex­cit­ing ver­bal ex­changes. And as with lam tad, the sub­ject mat­ter may vary from courtship style singing to pol­i­tics, news and gos­sip. In the old days, you might have checked in with your favourite singer to find out the lat­est gos­sip and takes on the news.

But un­like mo­lam and pleng choi, no in­stru­ments are used, not even the hand­claps you find in pleng choi. The rhythm of the mu­sic is car­ried in the way the singer uses his/her voice.

The com­pe­ti­tion lasted most of the Sun­day evening, with age groups set at un­der 12s, un­der 15s, un­der 18s and not over 25 years. A panel of singing teach­ers graded the per­for­mances and each pair was in­tro­duced. Acharn Suchart of Ko­rat Ra­jab­hat Uni­ver­sity told me that there is only one pro­gramme avail­able for stu­dents to learn this genre but it is be­ing taught in schools across the prov­ince. In­deed, it was no­tice­able that some of the older per­form­ers had to have their teacher on stage as they did not have a part­ner (so, not enough peo­ple learn­ing the tra­di­tional styles). The qual­ity of the per­form­ers was quite high, and the open cat­e­gory (over 25) per­form­ers were ex­cel­lent.

Ob­vi­ously, the more “vo­tive” style of pleng Ko­rat is shorn of its bawdy na­ture, so you have to see a lo­cal per­for­mance to get a sense of tra­di­tional pleng Ko­rat. At the var­i­ous sala where the pro­fes­sional per­form­ers were lo­cated, there were some fas­ci­nat­ing ver­bal duels on go­ing through­out the fes­ti­val.

It was great fun to see the au­di­ence re­ally get­ting into the per­for­mances — there was a good crowd and some great per­for­mances. Not sure my Ko­rat di­alect skills were up to much so I found un­der­stand­ing the ver­bals dif­fi­cult but then lo­cal Ko­rat folk were kind enough to let me know what was go­ing on and to trans­late some of the fun­nier bits. It was a lot of fun.

Many lo­cal folk styles are strug­gling to keep rel­e­vant and find sup­port, so it was heart­en­ing to see so many peo­ple work­ing to­gether to pass on their skills to the younger gen­er­a­tion. Chat­ting with mo pleng dur­ing a break I found out that the big luk thung stars from the re­gion, like Ta­gaten Cho­lada and Got Chakkaphan, have recorded some pleng Ko­rat and there are some newer groups play­ing what they call “turbo-charged” pleng Ko­rat sing (named af­ter mo­lam­s­ing) from bands like Kam­pan Ban­pen, Saeng Som­chit and Boon­tung Karasang-silpa — worth look­ing out for.

The pre­vi­ous night I waited for ages for the best known Ko­rat star Suna­ree Ratchasima to per­form but didn’t re­alise that she was only do­ing a few songs on the stage re­served for a beauty pageant, so I hot footed it down to the main stage to see some mo­lam, cour­tesy of Somjit Borthong and his amaz­ing hang krueang (cho­rus line), all of whom were of the third gen­der and they were “truly fab­u­lous”!

There is lots of mu­sic in Ko­rat. Next time you travel to the re­gion, get off at Ko­rat and check out the mu­sic.

It de­vel­oped from farm­ing roots and of­ten in­volves one part­ner danc­ing around the other singing

A per­former sings pleng Ko­rat.

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