Junlaholaan: An Isaan band playing the sound of sincerity


Interview by Christopher Burdett, Staff Reporter

Photos by Adithep Chanthet

Coming out of sleepy Sakon Nakhon, Junlaholaan is a genre-bending band that seems to be striking a chord with a rapidly growing number of listeners in Isaan and beyond. 

First becoming famous across Thailand via YouTube, through their molam-folk fusion covers of popular Thai songs, they now play to packed venues and are steadily filling their yet-to-be-released first album with thoughtfully written and composed songs of their own. 

The Isaan Record recently sat down with Junlaholaan’s three members to talk about their music and how their multi-ethnic background shapes the band’s songs. 

From left to right: Yua (Alongkot Charoentham), Game (Sujitra Thotankham), and Pay (Nattapong Napong).

The Isaan Record: How did you come to be together in this band and what does “Junlaholaan” mean?

Game (Sujitra Thotankham): “Junla” is Sanskrit for micro and maholan is Sanskrit for enormous, hence, Junlaholaan. The band was formed about ten years ago, but at that time it was just Yua and a male singer. I came afterwards because I knew Yua. I’ve only been in the band for seven years. 

Yua (Alongkot Charoentham): The first member of Junlaholaan was actually a guy who was the lead singer, and I was the guitarist. At that time we were a duo playing at various night spots in Sakon Nakhon city. Then one day–I can’t remember the details exactly–he was busy or something, so Game came and stood in for him as the lead singer.

Pay (Nattapong Napong): I came last. I’ve been in Junlaholaan for four years. It was Yua who invited me to play the phin [Isaan mandolin] and the khaen [Isaan mouth-organ]. Before that I was playing nights on the local pub circuit. 

The Isaan Record: What happened to the other guy? 

Yua: He went and got himself a real job. He’s all grown up now. Not like us though, we’re still like…like this. [laughter]

IR: In your eponymous song, “Junlaholaan,” there’s a line that goes, “we’re a band from the Isaan country, playing the sound of sincerity.” Does that have anything to do with your sound, the fusion between Western folk music and traditional Isaan folk music?  

Game: In the beginning, when it was just me and Yua; we were still playing covers. Even back then, we would infuse everything we played with a luk thung [Thai country music] flavor. Whether it was originally a pop song or a foreign song, we’d put the luk thung in it. Then when Pay came along with his phin and khaen, our sound morphed from luk thungfolk fusion to molam-folk fusion. I can sing molam because I was born into a molam family. Both of my maternal grandparents led a molam troupe. 

IR: What was the name of that troupe?

Game: It was called Phetdaorung Yot Lam Ploen, in Kut Bak district of Sakon Nakhon province, near the Phu Phan mountains. By the time I was about five or six years old, I would always watch the band rehearse, I’d see the dancers practicing their moves, and I’d go and join in. I’ve been soaking it all up ever since I was a small child, so I’ve still got some of that coming out when I sing. I wouldn’t say I’m a fully fledged molam singer but I’ve got the flavor of it. Pay’s phin and khaen playing and the way I sing, that’s how Isaan is expressed through our music.  

IR: So you’ve been singing ever since you were a child?

Game: Yes, I put in a lot of practice with the radio! I never took formal singing lessons. I’d try to copy the way [the artists on the radio] used their voices,  and I learned from the family members who also sang in my grandparents’ molam troupe. Whenever there was fair, such as the Children’s Day fair, my father and stepmother would take me to the singing competitions. It felt good when I got tips from the audience. Singing on stage made me feel successful because I got prize money and tips. And then I could eat whatever I wanted at the fair. 

Pay: For me, it started with my great-grandparents, who sang and led the Sriwai molam troupe, which was passed down to my grandparents, and then to my father, who plays the guitar and the phin. My father didn’t stay in the molam scene but became a musician playing the club circuit in Bangkok during the 1980s. 

When he came back to Sakon Nakhon in 1989, my father formed a band called Dok Krajiao and I learned to play the guitar and phin from him. When I was about 19 or 20 years old, I invited my dad to form our own molam band with me playing the phin. It was a traditional long-drum type band. We did weddings, temple fairs, merit-making ceremonies, that kind of thing. 

When I got a little bit older than that–I’m 26 now–I formed my own molam band which I led and kept playing with all through university. I was also in a local reggae band called Krung Kawi. Then I met Yua, who asked me to play in Junlaholaan. 

IR: What kind of music were you into when you first started learning to play music? 

Yua: I was into heavy metal when I first started learning to play guitar. I was into bands like Hin Lek Fai and Iron Maiden. The first tape I ever bought was an Iron Maiden album. 

Junlaholaan at a recent concert at Bang Bar in the Khon Kaen University area.

About the songs

IR: I see that quite a few of your YouTube releases are actually covers. Which ones are original Junlaholaan songs?

Yua: Wong Khojon is one. We did have Tai [“Tai Apirom” Prakasit Saenpakdi] help us to write and produce that song, though. 

IR: Can you tell us a bit about your song-writing process? What tends to come first: the tune or the lyrics? 

Yua:  We don’t really think about it that much, to be honest. Take Wong Khojon. That song first came to me as an image in my head. Then I started writing the words to describe what I was seeing and feeling from that scene in my head. When I’m not sure about how to express something, I ask Tai for help. 

Game: That song really took some writing. I’ve seen Yua fiddling around with that song ever since I first got to know him. 

Yua: I just didn’t feel like it was done until recently. It was always either missing something or had too much of something. I’m really grateful that Tai came along and put his spin on it. He’s a really good song writer, a better one than me anyway. 

IR: What about “Der Ai Der? Is that a cover or is it one of your own?

Game: That was actually all written by Tai. It was written for Handy, the singer of Cherb Music. This one time I was just hanging out in the studio while they were practicing this song. I was fooling around, doing a molam style intro for the song–which was originally the story of a man telling his girl in Bangkok not to forget how to speak Lao when she comes back from Bangkok, and not to try too hard to be a Bangkokian. Tai liked the way it sounded with my voice, so he rewrote the whole song, with the girl and the man switching places. I memorized the song backstage that very night and sang it. That’s how it became our song.

Yua: But we were playing that song long before Game sang it in the male version. 

Game: It’s been about a year since the song had its sex change. 

IR: Do you get into character when you sing this song? 

Game: I do. I assume the character. I feel like the lyrics are for everyone in the audience, too. If they have to go and live in Bangkok, I want them to keep speaking whatever language they speak at home. Like, “We’re not in Bangkok anymore. When you’re with me, you’re at home. Can we not speak Thai [Bangkok Thai] please?” That’s my feeling when I sing this song. 

IR: That song has a retro sound to it, like it’s from the 1970s, 1980s, when Isaan people first started to go to Bangkok in droves. Is that deliberate? 

Game: Exactly! That’s right. 

Junlaholaan singer Sujitra “Game” Thotankham engages the audience from the stage.

Isaan roots

IR: Where is everyone in this band from?

Game: I’m from Kut Bak district, right here in Sakon Nakhon. I’m from the Kaloeng ethnic group. 

Pay: I’m also from Sakon Nakhon, from the So ethnic group. 

Yua: I originally come from Ban Chiang Khruea in Kalasin city district. 

IR: Can you say a few words in your languages, just for comparison’s sake? 

Game: Where I come from we say “maen la ber” as opposed to “maen laew bor” in Lao. It’s very close to Phu Thai. The Kaloeng people tend to live in the same areas as the Phu Tai people. I’m from Kut Bak, but just down the road in Phu Phan are the Phu Tai. We can understand each other’s speech, but if you took me a So village like where Pay comes from I’d be clueless. 

Pay: In So, to eat is jia. “Where are you going” is poh-moh. “Hello” is loeh-or. There is no written So; we have no script. It exists only in the spoken word.

Nattapong “Pay” Napong on stage with his phin, a pear-shaped stringed instrument popular in Isaan and Laos.

Game: I’ve been to those places. I have no idea what they’re saying at all. 

Yua: There are really a lot of different ethnicities and languages spoken in Sakon Nakhon. 

IR: As the traditional instrumentalist in the band, do you bring music from your ethnic background into the mix?

Pay: I sneak in the traditional So licks and melodies here and there. You wouldn’t know they were there if you’ve never heard them before, but I know they’re there. When I played the khaen for Rasmee Isaan Soul’s recordings, I put some So in there too.

IR: How did you learn these melodies? 

Pay: I learned them by playing music with the old people in the village. Sometimes I just ask them to play with me and when they play something I’ve never heard before, I get them to teach me. 

IR: It sounds like a lot of music is played in your village. Is music really important in So culture?

Pay: Music is a key part of our traditional ceremonies. We live up in the hills and mountains, we worship the trees, the nature spirits, and the spirits of our ancestors. We talk to them through our music. 

Game: I think the spirit worship goes for all the ethnic groups around here. 

IR: Can you tell me more about the role that music plays in your spirit and ancestor worship?

Pay: For example, in our kesra ceremony, we sing songs to summon the spirits of our ancestors to come and heal the sick. 

Yua: The way I see it, the music has to do with giving moral support. 

Game: Yeah, that’s right. 

Pay: But we still end up taking them to the hospital anyway! [the whole band laughs]

IR: Do you perform any ceremonies when you perform as a band?

Game: Before I go on stage, I pay my respects to the guardian spirit of the venue. I think of my parents because they’re no longer here, and I think of the spirits of my ancestors. I do this every single time. It’s a molam tradition. My grandfather taught me to do that. I take some soil from the venue grounds and let it fall out of my hand over my head. Then we pour white rice liquor out as an offering to earth spirits and guardian spirits of that venue.  

Pay: In molam-speak, we call it wai khru–paying respects to the source of our knowledge and skill, just like how boxers do a wai kru dance in the ring prior to the fight. The band leader also leads this ceremony. They lead the chanting and pour the liquor onto the ground. The band leader then asks the spirits to help ensure a smooth performance with no disruptions. 

Being indepedent 

IR: What are the pros and cons of being an independent artist without a big label behind you?

Game: We may be independent but we still work within a system. We still have elders helping us, like our manager and our agents. They deal with the venues so that we don’t have to. We just do our thing as musicians and they deal with all the business.

Yua: Junlaholaan is like a project that we started doing together just for fun, and the system surrounding it just kinda appeared as we went along. 

Game: I used to think that being with a big record label was necessary to reach a lot of people with my music. Back then, I used to dream of going onto these TV singing competitions and maybe I’ll be noticed by a big record label.

But now I don’t even need a record label any more, so long as the gigs keep coming in. We just want to play as many gigs as possible so that more people get to know us, get to know our energy. Even if we only get five new fans from this gig, another five from that gig, that’s good enough for me. I’m really not all that hot about being on a big record label anymore. 

IR: Do you think it’s better to not be under the wing of a big record label? 

Pay: I think being independent makes us more approachable to the audience. There’s nobody telling us how it’s going to be. No “do this, be like that” all the time. Being independent means that we can stay and hang out with people after a gig if we want. We’re not contractually bound to be this way or that way according to the specifications created by some corporate brand manager. For example, when there aren’t any gigs, I’m free to go back home and tend to my garden and orchards. And I like that. 

Game: You have to be smart if you’re going to be on a big label. You have to be able to keep up with all the terms and conditions. You can’t be a fool. Whatever it is that they have in mind for you might change you from being who you really are. We might not be the Junlaholaan that you see now if we’d been on a big label. 

Yua : Some people are happy with this level of success. For some people, this is already the definition of making it. 

Game: But I don’t think we’ve made it yet. We’re not there yet. 

IR: How will you know that you’ve made it? What does success look like to you? 

Game: For me it’s to have a whole album full of our own songs. I’m open minded about every other detail. Just let the songs do their job. If the songs are good then everything else will follow. 

Pay: Being able to play anywhere, to play gigs all over the world, to be able to collaborate and play music with anyone, to have listeners all over. That’d be “the limit” for me. 

Yua: For me it’s just hearing music being played on the air or through any other kind of media. 

Pay: Yeah, like walking around in Robinson’s [department store] or something and hearing our music recordings being played.

Game: Yeah that’s such a good feeling. One time I went to the market and I heard “Der Ai Der” being played loud from a stallholder’s soundsystem. I didn’t dare go near that stall but I couldn’t help looking over there and smiling to myself as I walked on. I thought to myself, “they’re playing my music…”

While session musicians are brought in to play the bass and drums, Yua remains the only guitarist on stage.

IR: How does your future look to you from where you are right now? Where do you see the band’s place in the Isaan music scene?

Game: I don’t really think much about the future. All I want at this point is to have an album with 10, 12 songs. There are only five songs in there at the moment. 

We’re still just a tiny little speck, but it’s a tiny little speck that we’re really satisfied with. We have people who listen to us. Right now, whenever we go on tour, or to any gig at all, the audience can sing our songs back to us. That really fills our hearts to the brim.