The earthly j oys of Korat song
The delights of pleng Korat from Nakhon Ratchasima
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
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.