MUSIC, DANCE AND THEATER IN LAOS

MUSIC IN LAOS

Live performances of Laotian music are featured at temple fairs during Buddhist holidays. The music industry is very primitive in Laos. Many Laotian artists record in northeastern Thailand and for a long time most recordings were sold on cassettes. [Sources: Rough Guide to World Music]

Styles of music found in Laos include classical court music, hill tribe music, mor lam (see Thailand), Thai luk thung (see Thailand), sakorn (syrupy sentimental pop music). Music from Thailand is also popular. Laos is dominated by the Lao but includes minorities of Hmong, Mien, Kmhmu, among many others.

Traditional Lao classical musical instrumental include khawng wong (a set of gongs), ranyaat (xylophone-like instrument), the khui (bamboo lfute) and pii (a double reed instrument that sounds somewhat like an oboe).

The main instrument used in Lao folk music is the khaen (also spelled khene)—a bamboo and reed mouth organ made from a double row of bamboo-like reeds fit into a hardwood soundbox sealed shut with beeswax). A khaen can be as short as two centimeters or as long as 80 centimeters and have four to 16 pipes. As is the case with a harmonica sound is produced by both breathing in and out and pitch is determined by covering and uncovering small holes. The kahbe is often accompanied by a saw (a bowed string instrument). Larger musical groups in Laos feature classical Lao or Western instruments and various kinds of hand drums.

Lao folk music, known as Lam, is extemporaneous singing accompanied by the khene. The khaen was supposedly invented by a woman trying to imitate the calls of the garawek bird. The woman took the new instrument to her king, and he told her it was fair, but that he wanted more. She modified the instrument and he replied "Tia nee khaen dee" (this time it was better). [Source: Wikipedia]

Mor Lam

Mor lam is a kind of folk music popular in Laos, Thailand and Cambodia that combines music, poetry, jokes, talking, debate, and performing. Its name roughly means “master of verse.” It is featured at temple fairs and heard on the radio and seen on television.

Laotian mor lam (also spelled maw lam) is considered purer and more traditional than the forms found in Thailand. It often features the khaen (bamboo and reed mouth organ) and jousting pairs of singers, backed by colorful troupes, who improvise stories and courting duels. The material is often topical, colloquial, sexual and bawdy and is tolerated by the government even when sometimes it is the the object of some of the jokes.

There are four main tyes of mor lam: 1) story maw am, often with costumed performers; 2) couple maw lam, with a man and women, flirting and the woman playing hard to get; 3) dueling maw lam, with two members of the same sex battling one another by answering a question or finishing a story presented as a challenge; and 4) solo maw lam. Each region has its own mor lam style. The southern style is popular in Thailand as well as Laos. Sometimes accordions are used instead of the khaen, a result of cultural influence of Eastern bloc counties.

Popular mor lam artists include the woman singers Malawan Duengpoomee and Laos-born and California-based Swanthong Chaisombat, the male singers Taoboangern (Silver Lily) Chapoowong, and Acharn Professor Sanaaan

Luk Thung and Mor Lam Music

Luk thung, or Thai country music, developed in the mid-20th century to reflect daily trials and tribulations of rural Thais. It has traditionally been regarded as rural, peasant music while luk grung has traditionally been regarded as urban, rich people music. Luk thung means “child of the field.” It is often the music you hear blaring from tinny speakers in taxis in Thailand. It recent years luk thung has been embraced by a wide audience and is particularly popular among the middle class. [Sources: Rough Guide to World Music]

Luk thung features thumping drums and pulsating organ riffs. It developed in the 1940s as a fusion of pleng chiwat (“songs of life”) folk music, Hollywood and Broadway show music, and Malay pop music and Afro-Cuban rhythms. Over the years luk thung has been influenced by mambo and Latin music, yodeling-style American country-western, Japanese enka, and electronic music.

Early luk thung celebrated romantic love in a rural setting and focused on the lives of ordinary country people and their poverty and hard lives. The lyrics often tell the hard-luck stories of peasant farmers, prostitutes, truck drivers, railway workers, day laborers and street vendors. The words and singing style in luk thung are often very sexually suggestive.

Mor lam is the dominant folk music of Thailand's northeastern Isan region, which has a mainly Lao population. It has much in common with luk thung, such as its focus on the life of the rural poor. It is characterized by rapid-fire, rhythmic vocals and a funk feel to the percussion. The lead singer, also called a mor lam, is most often accompanied by the khaen, also known as khene.

Mor Lam develop out of all-night festival music that features singing battles between men and women. Similar to music from Laos, it played by small groups of musicians singing and playing the khaen (bambo mouth organ), chin (temple-style bells) and phin (2-4 string guitar). Popular mor lam artists include Banyen Rakgan, Jintara Poonlarp and Chalerphol Malaikahm.

Mor Lam Music and Hypnotic Storytelling

A mor lam ensemble typically includes two singers (mor lam, the same term referring to the genre of music) — one male and one female —, a khene player (mor khaen), and other instruments including fiddles, flutes and bells. Music varies widely across Laos, with the lam saravane style being most popular, while the city of Luang Prabang is known for a slow form called khaplam wai. An extremely popular form developed in Thailand is called mor lam sing, and is faster and electrified. [Source: Wikipedia]

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “Laos received most of its court-related “classical” theatre traditions from its more powerful neighbours, first from the Khmers and later from the Thais. One indigenous feature is a reed organ called khen, the national instrument of Laos, which is used to accompany a type of troubadour singing. This style is known as mohlam, and it developed from an old solo form into a duet, where male and female singers present love songs to a khen accompaniment. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki |~| ]

There are three types of khen: the six-hole, the 14-hole, and the 16-hole instrument. A khen can be regarded as sacred and it can receive blessings and offerings. The warm sound of the khen supports and elaborates the ornamentation of the lam singing style, which focuses on verbally elaborate verses. |~|

The stories conveyed by this type of music are often love stories, but mohlam has also been a way to spread news around the villages. It may have its roots in animistic spirit belief as is indicated by its hypnotic quality, which seems to easily lead the listener, and perhaps the performers too, into a trance-like state. The mohlam or 'courts of love' folk songs are still extremely popular in Laos, and also among Lao speakers in neighbouring countries. |~|

Traditional Music of Laos

The traditional music of Laos has similarities with the traditional music of Thailand and Cambodia, including the names of the instruments and influences and developments. Ingo Stoevesandt wrote in his blog The Music of Southeast Asia: In Laos, three kinds of population are considered, namely the "Lao Lum" (lowland Lao), the "Lao Theung" (Tai and Mon-Khmer people) and the "Lao Sung" (upland Lao, mainly Khmu, Hmong and Yao people). The traditional music of the latter, which still shows impacts on the actual Lao music as many performers come from the mountain areas, still remains unresearched. [Source: Ingo Stoevesandt, The Music of Southeast Asia <>]

To categorize Lao music, it seems helpful to distinguish between the 1) nonclassical folk traditions (which are presented through the ensembles and instruments used within), 2) the classical music traditions and its basic ensembles and 3) the huge vocal traditions. Each of this traditions is influenced by regional playing styles, which can be separated in three different areas: 1) Luang Prabang in the north; 2) Vientiane in the center and 3) Champassak in the south. <>

In Luang Prabang, classical Lao court music developed to high estate and vanished. Unfortunately, most of the instruments are actually just catching dust in the royal museum, but showpieces like bronze drums of the DongSon age show the influence of ethnic minorities which were often required from the mountainous areas to perform the instruments. In Vientiane, the actual regional styles show a lot of Thai influences. The governmental school "Natasin" which was closed 1975 was reopened 1990 and educates and provides some ensembles for festivals, marriages and other purposes. The southern region of Champassak is not only influenced by Khmer traditions, here we face a typical mixture of Khmer, Thai and indigenous Lao traditions. People perform mostly Thai style music on Thai instruments but call the ensemble with the Khmer term "Pin Peat". <>

Based on the main instrument Khene of the Lao, we find a diatonic scale A-B-c-d-e-f-g as the main core for the different five scales called "lai". All melodies are separated through a consideration equally to western major ("san") and minor ("yao"). If we take a look at two of these scales, "po sai" (left, belonging to "san") and "soi / noi" (right, belonging to both), we see that these and the other scales rise from the same tonal material in a modal way SAN: "sutsanaen" (on G) - "po sai" (on C) - "soi" (on D); YAO: "yai" ("great", on A, performed on higher pitch) - "noi" ("small", on D, performed on lower pitch) . What seems to be modal music is represented in the term "lai" which replaces the Thai "thang" and means the style, matter, technique and occasion to use a scale. This is different from the modal music one can find in Vietnam or Burma. <>

Lao Classical Music

Ingo Stoevesandt wrote in his blog The Music of Southeast Asia: The Lao term "peng Lao deum" (traditional Lao pieces") tries to separate the court music (mainly of Luang Prabang) from the nonclassical folk traditions, but the historical traces do indicate an indigenous classical tradition which is mainly influenced by the ancient Khmer traditions and upland people from the area. King Fa Ngum (14th century) was raised and educated in Angkor Wat, so the Khmer traditions were the first center for the court music, which changed in 1828 when the Siamese sacked Vientiane and slowly infiltrated the musical traditions of the court as well. [Source: Ingo Stoevesandt, The Music of Southeast Asia <>]

Today, the court music has vanished. It was considered as "elitist, bourgeoisie" and forbidden by the communist government, and the last performers in Tennessee, USA tried to rebuild the court music in diaspora but failed due to a lack of members. The classical ensemble and its instruments still get used in many Lao traditions today, basically for the "lam" traditions and the only "theater" like traditions "li-ke" (or "lam poem", from 1940) which immigrated from northern Siam, gets performed with acting, story telling in "lam" singing styles and a Khene motuhorgan , thus remaining the only theater tradition in Laos today. <>

Lao Vocal Traditions

Ingo Stoevesandt wrote in his blog The Music of Southeast Asia: The vocal styles are in the center of most performed music in Laos today. The two terms "lam" and "khap" refer to these singing traditions:"Lam" stands for vocal traditions of the North, mostly dealing with 7 syllables per line, while "khap" stands for the singing style in the south with 4 to 5 syllables per line. Different to northern Thailand, each "khap" and "lam" only knows one melodical pattern per genre (three in Thailand). This is one of many indicators for a different development of "Lao music", so we should always keep in mind that the "Lao" music we find in Thailand mostly refers to the mainly Thai influenced music of the Lao people living within the borders of Thailand. [Source: Ingo Stoevesandt, The Music of Southeast Asia <>]

All professional performers are called "mo" or "mor", this way a vocalist is a "mo lam" or "mo khap". She/he performs seated, with a Khene player in the back, performing dance movements very slow only from the waist up ("fon dance"). Vocalists are respected for their special knowledge about the musical traditions, but this means no monetary improvement or a pop star like status like singers in Thailand know. <>

From the breakup in 1975, radio stations from Thailand were stronger than the local stations, so even the pop music market was overflown with Thai influences. As many Lao people flew into the regions of northern Thailand (mainly around Chiang Mai), the "Lao" music from Thailand is still claimed by all Lao People to be their "own", but differs slightly from the local pop music and vocal traditions. Many performers also flew to Europe and USA but never managed to reinstall a renaissance of their traditions in diaspora. Today, most of the musical instruments are manufactured in Thailand, and poverty prevents most of the Lao people to earn, learn and practice a traditional instrument or to decide to choose a musical career. <>

The singing traditions are found in several occasions, of which the religious and liturgical aspects slightly overweight: In southern Laos we find the healing rituals "lam phi" or "lam soen", including a mostly female singer evocating ghosts and a Khene player. This rituals, as well as other rituals like the rocket firing festival "pong fai" (where a vocalist gets supported by the "kong yao" drums) and the buffalo sacrifices (including gong ensembles and ensembles of the court music) also mix their melodies with melodies of entertainment purposes (like the rare "lam som" from Pakse). Even more, the "lam" and "khap" traditions could be reflected as differing genres with different local, regional and thematic aspects. <>

Khap and Lam Traditions

Ingo Stoevesandt wrote in his blog The Music of Southeast Asia: Unlike the southern traditions, the northern "khap" singing differs from those in the fact that the singer only performs in one style with not so many descending melodies, which are basic for the southern style. [Source: Ingo Stoevesandt, The Music of Southeast Asia <>]

Here we find two genres that avoid the Khene mouthorgan, the "khap thai dam" (which is mostly performed in USA today, replacing the Khene with a "pi" flute that is tuned different from the "yao" scales of the vocalist, both perform along with no rhythmical correspondence) and the "khap thum" (which is basically the main relic of the former court music, including instruments of the "Maholi" and "Pi Phat" ensembles and engage the audience to clapping and tonic responses, ending on a coda called "luk mot" like it can be found in classical Thai court music).

Other "khap" traditions reflect the styles of the ethnic influence by the performer, like in the "khap phuan" (of the Phuan people, Khen plays "yai" or "noi" scales , female vocalists perform solo in double tempo), the "khap sam neua" (of the "real" Thai people living at the Vietnamese border who speak a different language, where the 10-14 pipe Khene follows the singer without drones in "yao" scales) and the "khap ngeum" (around Vientiane, where the vocalist performs without rhythm freely and uses long pauses in which the Khene plays on in "noi" scales, also including interaction with the audience). <>

All "lam" traditions from southern Laos focus on the Khene mouthorgan, which might be one reason why the descending melody lines dominate the music. The only two traditions without descending melodies are the "lam sithadone" (comparable to the "lam klum" in Thailand and using only "san" melodies) and the rare "lam som" (from Pakse region, using cadences on A and D). <>

Again, names indicate a geographical style, like with the famous "lam salavane" (from Salavane where many Mon-Khmer live, accompanied by a small ensemble consisting of a Khene, fiddle, a lute and percussion instruments) or the "lam tang vay" (named after the "rattan chair" village, using a likewise ensemble and easily remarked by their basic melody aa-gg-f_-d_). Other names indicate an ethnic origin, like the "lam phu thai" (genre of the upland Thai people, preferring "noi" scales) or the "lam ban xok" (which is a version of the Thai "lam phanya loi" from the other side of the Mekong, featuring a vocalist with cymbals, a Khene and percussion instruments). The latter maybe somehow related to the "lam khon savan" (a famous duet between instrumentalist and singer from Savannaketh province) and the only slightly different "lam mahaxay" (Mahaxay is a town near the Vietnamese border). <>

Lao Pop Music

In the 1960s, Thai lam nu and lam ploen contributed to the development of lam luang, which is a form of song (and dance) which often has narrative lyrics.

Thai pop music is very popular in Laos. For a long time to Western pop music was banned by the Communist government. Even Thai and Vietnamese pop were frowned upon. In 1997, the mayor of Vientiane decreed that no more than 30 percent of the songs played in nightclubs could be foreign.

L-pop (an abbreviation for Lao popular music) is a musical genre consisting of pop, rock, hip hop, electronic, and R&B music. L-pop today embraces a wide variety of styles that are mainly based in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. There are also a number of Lao artists from Luang Prabang, Laos. L-pop is popular in Laos and has recently penetrated neighboring markets. There is also a growing fan base in the United States, France, and Canada. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Lao pop gained international spotlight through Alexandra Bounxouei, who is considered to be the first Lao pop princess. Other Lao artists popular with the younger generation include Cells, L.O.G, Overdance, Princess, Caramel, Pull-T Club, Super One, Genii, Xtreme, Dozo, Tik Keoprasert, MAY, Annita, and Aluna. +

Websites: http://laopop4u.blogspot.jp/ ; http://laomusic.la/ ; http://www.laopress.com/ ;

Lao Music Awards

Lao Music Awards is organised by the Ministry of Information and Culture of Laos to honor major achievements in the local music industry, collaborating with Sengdara Communications Ltd., a Vientiane-based advertising and marketing agency. It has been held since 2008 and never fail to receive wide media attention every year, with many prominent artists performing at the show. [Source: Singapore Management University +++]

This event has a formal website with various links to headlines, videos, photos and sponsors. On the LMA website, there is a clear call of action to the public with how to participate in the voting process. Laotians are also able to tweet and comment (illegible font) about a specific headline. As of 31 March 2012, their Facebook page has 2,909 likes (a respectable number given its humble establishment in September 2010) and is kept active with an average of over 40 people talking about the event each month (March has 30 people and February has 62 people talking in 2012). The most recent post was a youtube video posted by a Laotian. The Facebook pages features a timeline with highlights and posts of photographs (such as The LMA Red Carpet and the Vientiane Road Show). +++

The Facebook platform has facilitated a two-way dialogue between the Laotians and the LMA, with the Laotians posting enquires about the event and the LMA responding in a matter of days, it also uses the FB page to urge the public to click on likes and to show their appreciation for their participation. +++

Alexandra Bounxouei: The Lao Princess of Pop

Alexandra Bounxouei, who is known as the Lao Princess of Pop, is the biggest pop star in Laos. One fan wrote in the Hub Pages: “Chances are, unless you are Lao (like me) or Bulgarian, you've never heard of Alexandra Bounxouei (pronounced boon-soo). As her title indicates, Alexandra or Sandra for short, is currently the reigning Pop Princess of Laos. Ask any citizen of Laos and he or she will tell you that Alexandra is, "the Jewel of Laos." She is multi-talented in all aspects of music, as she can sing, dance and can also play guitar, piano, and violin with some of the best. [Source: Hub Pages +=+]

Alexandra Thidavanh Bounxouei was born on May 28, 1987. She was born and raised in her native Laos. Her father is Lao and her mother is Bulgarian which explains why she speaks both Lao and Bulgarian. Music is literally in her blood, as both her parents graduated from the Music Academy in Bulgaria and both work for the Ministry of Information and Culture. In addition to speaking Lao and Bulgarian she also speaks English and Thai (Lao and Thai are very similar) and is currently in Japan where she is studying for a graduate degree in media design while learning Japanese—typical pop star! +=+

Alexandra Bounxouei started playing the piano at 3, and the violin at 9. She lived in Hokkaido as an exchange student and began her singing career at an early age and released her debut album “Dream” when she was just 16. In addition to her music, she is also well known for acting in popular drama series in Thailand and has performed in Japan. She made here musical debut in Laos in 2002. Alexandra has been actively engaged in educational projects for development organization as well as for her own foundation for children with the Down syndrome. She is currently pursuing a PHD in Media Design at Keio University, Japan, as well as writing songs for the next album. [Source: Asahi Shimbun]

"Dream" was produced by Lao Art Media. On the day her album was in fact released, she truly believed that she was living a dream, because all through out her life, she aspired to one day become a singer. The trusted source of news and information site VOANEWS.COM (Voice of America) claimed her as being the "New phenomenon in the entertainment scene in Laos. The website, Laopress.com says this about Laos' jewel: "The most well known, young, beautiful, poignant, articulated, talented diplomat of Laos is Alexandra Bounxouei. She has toured across continents - Europe, America, and Asia – Laos, Thailand, Korea, Japan, China [while] representing her country as well as herself [while] performing her music. Thus she puts her country on the world map [and] people are noticing." +=+

In addition to being a singer, she is an all-around musician as she can also play piano, guitar, and in the majority of her songs, she plays violin; she usually does her own solos. She’s also known to write her own songs too. Alexandra also starred in a Thai television comedy series titled, Pleng Ruk Rim Fung Khong, in which she is the lead female in the show and Weir Sukollawat Kanarot, a Thai actor and singer is her male counterpart. A few of her songs and videos are posted here, titled, Bor Luem Sun Ya and Bor Hoo Pen Yung. I've posted two versions of Bor Luem Sun Ya: One live and one that was made into a video. +=+

Moreover, it's important to note that while Alexandra is not in school studying, recording, writing music, or practicing music, she is raising money throughout the world. As Laopress.com had pointed out, she has traveled throughout the world not only to tour, but also to raise money for children back in her native Laos. Even now with Laos' growing popularity, it's still considered a very poor country and is in much need. She gives back just as much as she receives. Alexandra wholeheartedly believes in her cause and so continues to raise money for it--no wonder she is loved by millions. She's relentless in her charity. +=+

Although with all of her fame and fortune, she still considers herself "confident but shy." She still holds true to herself and tries to live a normal life. Alexandra's hobbies include dancing, skating, swimming, reading mysteries, shopping, watching TV and listening to music of all genres, including and not up to classical music, namely Vivaldi and Mozart. Her message to her fans is, “Do what satisfies you and do it your best.” To leave stress or anger she told the Asahi Shimbin she sleeps or eats chocolate.

Alexandra Bounxouei Named United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for Laos

In April 2013, the United Nations announced: The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has appointed Ms. Alexandra Bounxouei as its first National Goodwill Ambassador for Lao PDR. The announcement was made today at a press conference held in the UN House. Alexandra Bounxouei is a 25-year old Lao national who is well known in Lao PDR and Thailand for her successful singing career as well as her acting roles in Thai television. [Source: UNDP, April 9, 2013 \+\]

UNDP resident Representative Minh Pham told the media that in her role as UNDP’s Goodwill Ambassador, Ms. Bounxouei will focus her advocacy work on unexploded bombs issues. “With less than 1000 days remaining until the MDGs deadline, it is more important than ever to accelerate our efforts in working towards achieving the targets”, he said, referring to Laos’ Millennium Development Goal 9 - to reduce the impact of unexploded bombs by 2015. “I trust Ms. Bounxouei will be a compelling and eloquent advocate in focusing attention on the development issues UNDP in Lao PDR works on”, Mr. Pham said. \+\

Ms. Bounxouei has previously been involved in various educational projects, including a campaign to reduce the number of young casualties from traffic accidents, as well as establishing her own foundation to support families with children who have Down syndrome. As UNDP Goodwill Ambassador, she will be expected to support UNDP’s efforts to engage with youth. With 50 percent of the Lao population under 24-years of age, reaching out to the young people in the country is considered of critical importance. “It is an honor to be appointed as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNDP. It is a role that comes with great responsibility, and I hope that this will enable me to make a contribution to the development of my country”, said Ms. Bounxouei. \+\

Lao Dance

The national folk dance is the Lamvong, a circle dance in which people dance circles around each other so that ultimately there are three circles: a circle danced by the individual, another one by the couple, and a third one danced by the whole party. The lamvong (also spelled “lam wong or ramwong) can be done by individuals, couples or groups.

Classical dance drama is virtually extinct in Laos. Occasionally there are performances of the Pha Lak Pha Lam , a dance drama based on the Hindu Ramayana . Lao people do traditional dances to contemporary music, such as traditional lamvong dancing to Thai-style disco. For a while Lao people were into dancing to Latin music.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “Ram wong is characterised by simple undulating dance movements, while the hands repeat curvy movement patterns. Ram wong is part of temple fares and other communal festivities, but it is also performed by the Royal Ballet Theatre. Courtly group dances combine ram wong with the gestures and poses of the classical dance of Thailand and Cambodia. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki |~| ]

“One of the few urban ritual performances with clear animistic origins that are still practised is the dance of Pu Nheu Na Nheu, the tutelary sprits of the city of Luang Prabang. These fantastic creatures perform their dance during communal festivities, such as the Lao New Year. The dance techniques of the demon and monkey characters generally follow the style of Thai khon. The technique of the noble male and female characters is more relaxed compared with khon. Finger movements are not so backward bent as in khon and, as a whole, the dance seems to be based on ram wong, a kind of group folk dance, popular around Laos as well as in Thailand. |~|

Book: International Encyclopedia of Dance , editor Jeane Cohen, six volumes, 3,959 pages, $1,250, Oxford University Press, New York. It took 24 years to prepare.

Royal Ballet Theatre

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “Ram wong is characterised by simple undulating dance movements, while the hands repeat curvy movement patterns. Ram wong is part of temple fares and other communal festivities, but it is also performed by the Royal Ballet Theatre. Courtly group dances combine ram wong with the gestures and poses of the classical dance of Thailand and Cambodia. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki |~| ]

Until 1975, when the Lao People’s Republic was founded, the Phra Lak Phra Lam was performed regularly at the court of Luang Prabang. The communist regime abolished the royal rituals and dance, and theatre training was carried on by the Natasin School of Music and Dance (University of Fine Arts) in Vientiane. Annual performances were, however, also held during the Lao New Year Festival in Luang Parabang. Since 2002 a local dance troupe in Luang Prabang has been allowed to call itself the Royal Ballet Theatre again. Laotian masters and a Singaporean producer lead the company, while several national and international institutions support the project. |~|

The group has some 190, mainly young, dancers and it holds regular performances in the former Assembly Building in the palace grounds. Nine episodes of the Phra Lak Phra Lam form the nucleus of the group’s repertory. One episode is usually staged together with separate dance numbers. They include, for example, the dance of the monkeys and the dance of the demons, both choreographed for the characters of Phra Lak Phra Lam and employing the different movement techniques of the characters. |~|

Lao Theater and Puppet Theater

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “Mohlam luong or “story mohlam” is a form of sung drama specialising in local historical or legendary stories. It is performed in commercial theatres around the country. It came about in the early years of the twentieth century, when the Thai likay “folk opera” was introduced into Laos. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki |~| ]

The mohlam luong performances originally followed the likay model, but in later years the thriving indigenous mohlam tradition began to dominate. The costumes and stories of this hybrid form of folk theatre may still reflect Thai influences, but the music, both the intricate singing and its accompaniment, are clearly part of the Lao arts. |~|

Laos also has a tradition of puppetry reflecting the influences from Thailand. A royal rod puppet theatre, lakhon tukata, is, in many respects, similar to the Thai hun krabok theatre. Its repertoire mainly consists of scenes from the Phra Lak Phra Lam. The tradition was broken but has now been revived by the Ee Pawk puppet theatre in Luang Prabang. |~|

During the early period of the Lao People’s Republic close contact with the eastern bloc brought, of course, influences from that direction. Completely new kinds of puppet theatre types, often didactic, were introduced to the puppet theatre world. This has led more recently to new approaches in Lao puppetry. |~|

Phra Lak Phra Lam, The Lao Ramayana

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “Like its Theravada Buddhist neighbours, Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia, Laos also has its own version of the originally Indian epic Ramayana. In fact, there exist two versions of it, Khvay Thurapi and the better-known Phra Lak Phra Lam. The title of the latter combines the names of the two epic heroes, Laksmana (Pha Lak) and Rama (Pha Lam). [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki |~| ]

It is believed that the Ramayana was gradually adopted through the Khmers and through Siam. It was quickly localised in verse form similar to the Buddhist Jataka stories. It is only loosely based on the Ramayana and there are several emphases not found, for example, in the Thai version of the epic, the Ramakien. |~|

In the Lao version, the role of Ravana (Raphanasuan) is more dominating than the roles of the main heroes, Rama or Phra Lam, and the magic monkey Hanuman assumes a human form at the end of the epic. As often in the localisation process of literary works, the Phra Lak Phra Ram has also been given a local flavour by means of setting it in the Lao milieu. |~|

Phra Lak Phra Lam as a Court Dance-Drama

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “The Lao court at Luang Prabang is believed to have adopted its classical court culture from the Khmers in the mid-fourteenth century. The small court was probably unable to afford large choruses of dancers, and the Khmer tradition was accordingly adapted to a smaller scale. Increasing Thai hegemony spread the Thai dance and drama tradition to Cambodia and Laos, and the rituals and entertainment of the small Lao courts were modelled much along Thai lines. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki |~| ]

The repertoire of the Royal Lao Ballet mainly consisted of Thai-derived dances, often solo numbers or small group compositions that were performed solely by female dancers. The main dance-drama form is Phra Lak Phra Lam, clearly a sister form of Thai khon and Cambodian lakhon khol. |~|

There are, however, clear differences between these forms. In the Lao version the main heroes, Phra Lak and Phra Lam, also wear papier maché masks, whereas in the Thai and Cambodian versions they have been dancing without masks for over a century. The old court masks are on display at the National Museum in the old Royal Palace. |~|

Like the epic itself, its staged version also has many local features. The costumes are Lao in spirit, as is the music. Among other aspects of the court culture, the music was also influenced by Siamese models. Thus a Thai phipad orchestra also accompanies Phra Lak Phra Lam although the text is sung in Lao, and local instruments, such as the mouth organ, khen, may be added to the orchestra. |~|

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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