Monday, March 24, 2008

Taxi Tunes

There's nothing that quite sets a mood in a Bangkok taxi like Thai music. I'm not talking about the Thai pop variety. I'm referring to two forms of Thai music known as Luk Thung and Mor Lam. Unlike most other music recorded in Thailand, these two styles are distinctly Thai. While there are traces of Western influence, the musicians haven't forgotten their roots.

Luk Thung is Thai Country music, and the name means "child of the fields". It emerged in the late '40's, or early 50's, but it wasn't until the '60's when the name was coined by a well-known DJ. The songs are ballads and more upbeat tunes about farmers, workers, lovers, and people moving to the big city in pursuit of a job and money. The sound can best be described as "croony" and emotional, and includes a singer whose voice rises and falls, wavers and wails.

The style derives from traditional Thai music, both classical and folk, and originally included only traditional Thai instruments. Luk Thung continues to evolve, and even in its early days, the music underwent changes, adding Malay strings, cha-cha-cha and mambo rhythms inspired by Xavier Cugat, elements from Hollywood movie music, and "yodelling" from American County and Western tunes.

Luk Thung started in central Thailand, but it's become popular throughout the country. There's now a slightly faster version from the Northeast (Isaan), and singers from the South. There's even a blonde haired Swede who gets in on the act.

When it comes to Mor Lam, there are several ways to tell it apart from Luk Thung. First of all, the language is different in Mor lam. The singers use an Isaan (Lao) dialect. And, each song begins with the singer moaning, "Oh la naw", which means fortune. In a nut shell, the style is more lively with a faster rhythm, and the vocals are almost rap-like. Male and female duets are common, and they like to improvise, especially in live performances. In between lyrics based on Lao epic poems and more current issues, they like to crack jokes, add a bit of news, and sometimes even heckle the audience.

Bangkok taxi drivers love to crank up the volume when luk thung and mor lam songs come on the radio. Who can blame them? It adds fun and drama to the drive. I love it when I catch the driver tapping to the rhythm, or bobbing their head to the music, and I especially enjoy when they croon along. It doesn't take much for me to start tapping and bobbing, too, and sometimes I even find myself humming in harmony with the driver.

To hear some luk thung and mor lam, check out monrakplengthai.