Book author James Mitchell talks about Thailand’s most popular music. Interview by Fabian Drahmoune.
In an excellent new book, James Mitchell traces the evolution of the Thai music genre luk thung (literally, “child of the fields”) from its working class origins to becoming Thailand’s most popular music. The Isaan Record talked to the author about how luk thung energized the revival of Lao-Isaan identity and culture in Thailand from the 1990s on, and how it came to play a vital role in the protest music of the country’s color-coded political conflict.
IR: How did you come to write a book about luk thung?
JM: The book is based on my Ph.D. thesis, but it is very much different. Before it was published by Silkworm, it was rejected by major ethnomusicology series because it was too multi-disciplinary for them. It mixes politics, it mixes history and there is only one chapter on music ethnology and perhaps that was not “heavy” enough for them.
In the making of the book, I collaborated with Peter Doolan, who runs the Thai music blog Mon Rak Pleng Thai and Peter Garrity, who is a passionate luk thung fan. This book would have never come about without them. Nick Nostitz contributed a couple of photos and more to the original article on the use of music by the Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts.
IR: Is luk thung known outside of Thailand and is it considered an area of academic interest?
JM: Luk thung is an area that has not really become mainstream in the academic world and hopefully this book will change this a bit. It is becoming a far more well-known music genre and there are many more international luk thung fans than before. Through my website Thai Music Inventory, I’ve been contacted by people in Germany, Australia, USA and elsewhere who are fans of Thai music rather than academics.
IR: How did you become interested in luk thung and was it easy to gain access to the scene?
JM: It really was because of my wife, who I met in 2002 in Khon Kaen. After we got married and moved here, I started working at Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts at Khon Kaen University. The Dean of the Faculty, Chaloemsak Phikunsri, got me started with luk thung. He gave me some old books and articles on the topic, such as Anek Nawikamun’s “Phleng Nok Sathawat“ (“Songs Outside the Century”).
At first, it was frustrating to get people to talk to me. I tried to go everywhere in Bangkok to make connections. I tried to ask major music companies for introductions to singers but no one was interested. It is about maintaining control over their artists and their music. They seem to not want to give anything away if they don’t see an upside to it. And for academic work, they don’t see any upside to it.
But when I communicated this to my friend, Ajan Jenwit Phikap at Khon Kaen University, he immediately said , “Oh, I know a really famous luk thung artist.” He took me to meet Soraphet Phinyo right away. Soraphet became the main case study of my book and that’s how it all started.
IR: In the book, you highlight the interaction between luk thung singers and fans as a reflection of Thai society.
JM: Apart from the concerts sponsored by TV and radio stations, luk thung artists also perform at funerals, weddings, and ordination ceremonies. At concerts, all the big luk thung fans are up front, and are mostly known by name to the singers. In one amazing picture that didn’t make it into the book, two famous singers hand Peter Garrity a birthday cake. They bought it themselves and presented it to him at their concert. You’d think it should be the other way around. These reciprocal relationships are not specific to luk thung, but you certainly do not see the same kind of relationships in Thai pop, in which artists are much more standoffish.
IR: You argue that luk thung became a main driver for the revival of Isaan culture in Thailand. Can you explain what that means?
JM: Yes, and I say revival only because I am thinking back to when Isaan culture was quite strong but successive Thai governments, and that goes back to the 19th century, have put their stamp down on Isaan culture – like discouraging the use of Isaan language in both spoken and written form.
The oral nature of Isaan culture contributed to not only the success of the luk thung music industry, but the entire entertainment industry. Isaan performers now really are everywhere, like all the comedians from the Northeast who often started performing on luk thung stages. Luk thung created this space for Isaan people to move into jobs in the entertainment industry.
IR: Around what time did the Isaan cultural influence on luk thung become noticeable?
JM: This began as early as the 1950s with Benjamin and Saksri Sri-akson. Saksri was a big star in nightclubs with her song “Phu Yai Lee,” which was a phenomenon. In the 1950s and ’60s these artists were not playing so much on the Isaan identity yet, but from the early 1970s on the whole genre of luk thung isaan, or luk thung mo lam, began to develop. Around 1981-2 this really took off big time.
This development might have been linked to the large of numbers of Isaan people who migrated to central Thailand looking for work. It reached a certain point where the Isaan audience became the most important audience in Bangkok and of course also for the bands touring throughout the countryside. It might also be related to the many Isaan migrants going to work overseas and then starting to come back, which meant that their social upward mobility and their economic standing improved. They started to have more money to spend on records and concerts and that began in the early 1980s.
IR: Luk thung used to be the music of the working class, how did it move into the mainstream of Thai music?
JM: The real shift of luk thung becoming big business and rising in status took place after 1976. It was especially fueled by the rise of Phumphuang Duangjan, the big star of the 1980s.
Oddly enough, as I write in my book, Soraphet Phinyo’s singing partner Nong Nut Duangchiwan was actually a bigger star than Phumphuang for two or three years in the early 1980s. But by 1984 Phumphuang became the dominant luk thung star until her death in 1992. She added dancing to her stage acts and her voice was just very powerful and sexy – before that most female luk thung singers were more sweet and nice. She was also really the first person to combine luk thung with Thai pop.
In 1989 and 1991 the royal patronage over luk thung began with “50 Years of luk thung” celebrations and Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn became involved with it. She actually wrote the lyrics to the song “Som Tam,” the big Phumphuang hit, which explains how to make som tam.
IR: You write that the usual portrayal of luk thung as an apolitical genre is a misperception, why is that?
JM: Craig A. Lockert wrote a very good book, Dance of Life: Popular Music and Politics in Southeast Asia, which looks at political use of music throughout the region. He concluded that luk thung could not be used for political purposes because of the extravagant lifestyles of the artists and all the commercial trappings of modern luk thung – like all the dancers, the wonderful costumes, the commercialized lyrics. But when I saw luk thung artists perform at Red shirt protests, it became clear to me that the concert really was part of the protest.
IR: Does that mean that luk thung became politicized through the Red Shirt protests?
JM: No, it was not the first time for luk thung to carry politicized messages. In the 1950s, before it was called luk thung, it was called phleng chiwit (“songs of life”), which is not be confused with phleng phuea chiwit (“songs for life”). Phleng chiwit is a very early version of luk thung; the songs were sung in rural accents using rural themes, and they were highly political. So much so that the songwriters were put in jail or they were threatened.
During the 1970s phleng phuea chiwit was the dominant protest music, but from what I have found even during that time luk thung was used a lot for protests, for example by the communist insurgents.
So, luk thung has always been political, but it has always been heavily censored too. It has been the music of the working class and of the poor, but it wasn’t until the Red Shirts that the working class could really be open about their criticism of the establishment in public.
IR: Have only the Red Shirts made use of luk thung music or did the Yellow Shirts incorporate it in their protests too?
JM: When the Yellow Shirts and the other offspring groups used luk thung it was clear that they didn’t have any real connection to the music. They use it because it is popular and it is party music, so all the yellow luk thung songs are either very patriotic songs or they are party songs.
The Red Shirts were able to use luk thung with what might be the main focus of this genre, namely themes of sadness and mourning. For example, they were able to write all these songs about Thaksin and his absence. And really, the theme of absence is what luk thung is all about. But not only songs about Thaksin, also mourning songs for Red Shirts who were killed during protests or about the absence of democracy. For the Yellow Shirts, there were never these kinds of songs. When the yellow side used luk thung, it wasn’t professional luk thung singers performing, but more Thai pop stars or old luk krung singers – it always felt quite token.
IR: Given the political nature of many luk thung songs, has the scene been affected by last year’s military coup?
JM: There have been less luk thung concerts since the coup. At least, during the martial law period, I think it was difficult to put concerts on at night. However, the regime has made up for this by using luk thung concerts as “rewards” for certain communities or as a propaganda tool.
There aren’t any political songs being put out in Thailand right now. It is amazing to me how successful the junta has been in oppressing political expression. All the political artists are pretty scared at the moment. The only political songs that are being released at the moment come from overseas, for example from the band Fai Yen. They are pumping out music all the time and some of their songs are luk thung.
IR: Do you have plans for another book?
JM: A lot of my current research has been on old Thai records in the 78 rpm format and I plan to publish a complete discography of Thai 78s, which has never been done for any Southeast Asian country. I find these records through collectors, especially buy and sale forums on the internet. There is a lively scene of Thai record collectors, but the part of 78 format collectors is quite small and specialized.
I am also planning to write more articles and I would like to write something on Fai Yen. I didn’t cover them in my book and I keep discovering new protest music that I missed. I’m also planning an article on Sayan Sanya. Chris Baker quite rightly points out that the book misses out on some of the biggest stars, such as Sayan, simply because they are not from Isaan. In the end the book became a triangle of luk thung, Isaan culture, and politics with a focus on the Red Shirts. Of course, in the future there could also be a second, updated edition of the book or perhaps a new, more comprehensive history of luk thung.
By James Leonard Mitchell
James Leonard Mitchell completed his Ph.D. from Macquarie University in 2012 and is currently a lecturer at Khon Kaen University and an adjunct research fellow at Monash University, Australia.