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Joyful Khaen, Joyful Dance - An Exhibition of Morlam Music and Performances from Isan, Northeastern Thailand

18 October 2014 - 31 March 2015
Time: Open Daily: 9:00 am - 8:00 pm
At The Jim Thompson Art Center

Curated by Gridthiya Gaweewong Somsuda Piamsumrit with guest curators Arthit Mulsarn and Sarawut Sihakhot

Participating Artists: Songwit Pimpakan, Piyarat Piyapongwiwat, John Clewley AKA DJ Poryai and DJ Maft Sai, ZudRangMa Records

Venue: The Jim Thompson Art Center
Date: 18 October 2014 - 31 March 2015
Time: Open Daily: 9:00 am - 8:00 pm

The Jim Thompson Art Center is pleased to present Joyful Khaen, Joyful Dance, an exhibition of Morlam Music and Performance, from Isan, Northeastern Thailand.

In 2012 the Jim Thompson Farm began a unique project to preserve and promote Isan culture by organizing a Morlam (traditional Isan folk music) competition entitled “ Sud Sanan Dan Isan ” . Students of high school level or higher were invited to participate in the competition. The Jim Thompson Farm will now continue this initiative by undertaking a long-term project to set up a Morlam Museum. Working towards this initiative, the present exhibition has been organized to collect valuable knowledge about the rich cultural heritage of Isan and to collaborate with artists and institutions related to the genre. The goal is to build an artistic and cultural network amidst the Isan community, and to collaborate with those who wish to maintain, promote and preserve the Isan heritage, a shared culture with Laos and the Mekong sub-region.

Following World War II, the American Jim Thompson decided to return to Thailand to work on a project to restore the Oriental Hotel. Although he ceased to be involved with this project and later establish his now famous silk company, he remained in Thailand, unofficially working for the Ambassador of the United States Embassy in Bangkok. He served as a consultant, which led to his keen understanding of the complexity of the political situation in this region. He became close friends with various Indochinese military leaders, especially with leaders from Laos. Consequently, during the 1950s and 1960s, he frequently travelled across the border to experience the Isan culture and Laotian way of life which he considered to be still underdeveloped.*

During these visits to Laos, Jim Thompson encountered silk weaving and silk worm rearing. Based on this connection between Jim Thompson and his interest in Lao and Isan culture, Curator Gridthiya Gaweewong developed the concept of the Morlam exhibition. W illiam Warren's book, Jim Thompson: The U nsolved Mystery , notes that Jim Thompson was infatuated with both the sights and sounds of Lao and Isan culture. On many occasions when Jim Thompson organized receptions for special guests of honor, he would invite a Khaen Master to perform. Charles Baskerville, a fashionable painter wrote about his Bangkok trip, “ He gave a birthday party for me (at the Oriental) on the edge of the river where the swimming pool is now. Mr and Mrs. Peng, gave a dinner in their garden on my last evening and we danced the ramwong, with music on those tall reed pipes played by the husband, a samloh (rickshaw driver) of one of the weavers. ” ** According to Curator Gridthiya, “ This exhibition shows another side of Jim Thompson, revealing his musical taste and showing his relationship with Lao and Isan culture. This demonstrates his appreciation for the region that is the center of sericulture and the location where our weaving factory and staff are located. ”

Morlam is considered to be the heart and soul of the Isan people. This music and song tradition reveals the Isan identity and knowledge, teachings and beliefs inherited from ancient times. It is also a record of a changing society. Morlam played a role in shaping the thoughts of the local people and connecting the different groups within their society. The songs also served as a tool to bridge the gap between the Isan and national identities in the social world. People from other cultures, who are not of Isan or Lao origin, might only perceive the joyfulness of Morlam music, this tradition reflects deep feelings and knowledge.

The Jim Thompson Art Center in collaboration with the Jim Thompson Farm has initiated the Morlam exhibition with aim of initiating a project to investigate and reconsider the development   of Morlam culture and its relationship to Thai social history. The intention is to consider the changing social, cultural, political and economic dimensions of rural society.

This exhibition will be held at The Jim Thompson Art Center, Bangkok from the 18 th October 2014 through 31 st March 2015. After the exhibition in Bangkok and in collaboration with various local organizations and educational institutions, a touring exhibition will be sent to other provinces in Northeast Thailand, including Khon Kaen and Ubon Ratchathani. The traveling exhibition will include the participation of many additional Morlam performers and experts in Isan communities. All this will be included, in a future permanent exhibition, at the Morlam Museum at the Jim Thompson Farm, Pak Thong Chai, Nakhon Ratchasima.

This exhibition features the instruments and other materials used for Morlam performances from the past up until the present such as Khaen (mouth organ), phin (Isan lute), drums, text or lyrics by the singer , photographs, videos and also music, cassette tapes, compact discs and vinyl records. The narration of the exhibition is divided into three parts and will include the history of Morlam , its Thai social context and how it has been influenced by global, social and political trends.

Part I: The Birth of Morlam
The origin of Morlam is presented through artifacts in relation to Buddhism and rituals, such as the Jieng Book and Pouk Book. The Pouk Book, a literary work which includes Buddhist teachings was read during funerals. This work bears a close relationship with Buddhism in Lao culture and developed into the Morlam of the present day. The tone of reading the Pouk Book was influenced by the rhythm of the monks chanting in Isan and Lao areas. Apart from the books, artifacts used in rituals such as a pulpit and the shelf shrine dedicated to the Pee Fa spirit will be displayed. Morlam Pee Fah is the style which helps to heal illness and also reflects the Isan people ’ s past beliefs about cosmology.

Part II: A horse with horn and the pole with flower
A horse with a horn and a pole with flower is a local phrase that appeared during the modern period in Isan region, in 1950s. This is about how the motorcycle (a horse with a horn) replaced the cart, and electric poles (a pole with flower) spread across the Isan landscape. This section focuses on the timeline of the development of Morlam as presented through the development of its music and performances such as found in the lyrics, musical instruments, costumes and photographs of the different types of Morlam entertainers. Morlam evolved from repartee style and was later influenced by cultural changes occurring in the Isan region during the Cold War. New forms of entertainment and modern music further influenced the Morlam folk tradition; and later adaptions became Lam-Plern and Lam-Moo and finally Lam-Sing which is very popular today. Apart from the artifacts, musical instruments, costumes and photographs, a video work by Songwit Pimpakan will show the development and the changes to Morlam during the different periods, together with photographs of Morlam performances by John Clewley are featured in this section.

Part III: Saraburi turn left
“ Saraburi turn left ” , was an Isan-centric notion of migration to Bangkok during the end of the Cold War. Most Isan people travelled from their region to Bangkok by passing through Saraburi, one of the provinces in the center of Thailand that connects the central Thai region with the Isan region. This part of the exhibition shows the dynamic aspect of Morlam and the consequences of rural Isan becoming part of Thailand, through its migration and when Isan gained more exposure to the outside world. During this period Isan ’ s identity developed and become independent from Laos. Morlam notably played an important role in promoting this new identity. This section will show how Morlam music became popular in Thai society and beyond. It will show the commercialization of this music, how it was distributed and perceived in the urban society. The objects include vinyl records, cassette tapes, compact discs and photographs of various Morlam bands during the time that this music became a popular and was mixed with Luktoong music. As a result this turned into a commercially successful entertainment business. Numerous recordings have been made and many Morlam groups emerged. The performing Morlam groups normally travelled to different big cities where Isan people had moved to work, thus serving social consumerism. This can be seen in a video work called Liminal Zone by Piyarat Piyapongwiwat. The dynamics of Morlam are still changing following globalization and appear to have become stronger now that people yearn for past trends. This can be seen in a video document of a live Morlam performance by Bangkok Paradise Group led by DJ Maft Sai. With this development Morlam changed from the status of “ outsider ” music, moving beyond being popular in just the Bangkok capital to international acclaim.

In conjunction with the exhibition, there will be various events and activities related to Morlam with participation by Morlam artists, experts and other participants every month throughout the exhibition. Please follow us on Facebook: The Jim Thompson Art Center.

For further information and reservation please contact the Jim Thompson Art Center Tel.02 612 6741  

Email: education@jimthompsonhouse.com  

Note : * and ** William Warren, Jim Thompson: The Unsolved Mystery, Archipelago Press, 1970, 1998