Sunday, October 25, 2009

Isaan Funeral - 24 October 2009 (2552)


Saturday, 24 October, we went to see Duang's younger brother perform in a small village north of here towards the Lao border. He is an entertainer and puts on Mahlam Lao shows in the area. He is carrying on the family tradition from his father who used to perform shows and later taught many of the current local performers.

Mahlam Lao shows are performed to celebrate many events an occasions. We have attended shows that celebrated engagements, weddings, New Years, fund raisers for Wats, the start of the Rainy Season, the end of the Rainy Season, handicraft fairs, Monk Ordinations, "Thank You" from local politician, one year anniversary of a wife's death, - just about any and all reasons, justifications, or excuses to get together and have a party. Yesterday's event was a new reason for us - a funeral.

A village man had died three days ago. He was cremated at the local Wat earlier in the morning before our arrival at 10:00 A. M. Breaking from tradition, his family was having a party to celebrate his death rather than waiting a year. Many Lao Loum people wait for the first anniversary of the decease's death to have the party. This wait gives them time to earn and save money to pay for the celebration. The man's children had the money readily available so the celebration was held on the same day as his cremation.

The stage for the show was set up on a vacant lot across the street from the man's home. Three large awnings were set up in the man's yard and two awnings set up in the next door neighbor's yard. I suspect that the neighbor was also a relative as is pretty much the case throughout Isaan - families live close to each other. The village street between the two houses and stage was filled with vendors selling ice cream, soft drinks, and cooked foods. Further down the street and off to the side there was a "Jolly Jumper" type amusement for the children to enjoy.

The show started off pretty much as typical - some rocking music and go-go girls dancing. After about 5 songs, the show entered into what I call the traditional phase. During the "traditional phase" of the shows, the music is old time Lao. The rhythm is supplied by a wind bamboo mouth organ called a "khene". The khene makes a sound similar to harmonica and accordion and in my opinion - a little bit of bag pipe thrown into the mix. There is not much a melody to the songs but a definite hypnotic beat and rhythm from the khen. A singer accompanies the khene and sings traditional Lao music - folk music. the music is sung in a long drawn out style with many single words song out across a wide range of tones somewhat like yodeling. The music is definitely not for everyone's tastes. I enjoy its primitive tribal nature as well as its sense of linking to the past.

The songs appear to fall into two basic categories - laments of a dispossessed people living far from their family, a lost kingdom and culture, or lost love, the struggles of day to day living off of a poor land; the second category is free verse between a male and female singer with sexual intonations.

Today, apparently due to the reason for the celebration, there was not any free verse bet wen a male and female singer. The traditional music was limited to the laments sung by the female singer of the show. During one of the sadder songs, the youngest daughter of the deceased man, danced in her grief with a framed photograph of her father.


She had come back to Isaan from Bangkok where she works. This is very often the case in Isaan. To earn a living and to help support their family, young men and women leave Isaan to perform menial labor, heavy labor or to service the adult entertainment industry in the big cities outside of Isaan. This daughter had not seen her father everyday and had not taken care of him all the time so in her grief there was most likely some remorse as well as guilt. In Isaan, the youngest daughter is expected to care for her parents. In return for this burden and obligation, it is the youngest daughter who inherits the parent's property when they die. There are strong social pressures for the youngest daughter to "take care of her parents".

The deceased man loved to dance and particularly liked the song that his daughter was dancing to. The song was requested and dedicated to his memory so that she could make a personal goodbye. The song was about dying and all the people being sad at death but wishing him well so that he could rise and care for the people who had died before him. As the youngest daughter danced some relatives came up to join her for a while. They were giving her emotional support and telling her not to be sad because all people die. In Buddhism, death is seen as much as a beginning as an end. With the end of this life, there is the opportunity to start of a new life - hopefully a better life. It is the optimism of a possible better new life that the people celebrate and focus on. She was the only person that I observed to be noticeably grieving.

After the traditional phase ended, the show was like any other mahlam lao or mahlam lao sing performance - rocking music, go-go dancing, heavy drinking, and people dancing up a storm. Everyone was enjoying themselves immensely. People of all ages participated in the event. It was a family event.

After awhile, I ended up at the dead man's home. Underneath one of the erected awnings, men were assembling "basahts". Basahts are like spirit houses. These were made out of bamboo and banana stalks. Men had taken large banana stalks and peeled them to create strips of material that could be cut into decorative and ornate pieces to adorn the houses that are made out of woven fresh bamboo strips.


There were two of these "houses". One was for the dead man and the other was for his wife who had died prior to him. Inside of each of the basahts, sticky rice and other food items were placed for "Phii" (spirits, ghosts). On the table alongside of the bashats were offerings to the Monks such as sahts, tea kettles, candles, soap, matches, and pillows. Offering these to the Monks along with money would earn merit for the deceased people to help them on their journey to the next life. Merit will also be earned by the people who contribute to the offerings. Later in the afternoon the basahts as well as offerings were carried on the men's shoulders in a procession to the Wat. The procession was typical for Isaan - loud music, dancing, and drinking whiskey or beer. It was a celebration like any other more traditional recognized in the West as for happier events.

The basahts will remain at the Wat outside of the buildings for about a month. The offers will facilitate the acceptance of the departed into the spirit world. After the basahts have decayed to some point, the Monks will take care of disposing of them.

It may appear intrusive for a stranger who is the only foreigner at this type of event, who is a Christian and not a Buddhist let alone an Animist, to be walking around taking photographs. It may appear to us that way but not to the Lao Loum people. The man's family took me by the elbow and brought me closer to take photographs of anything that I wanted to. They were concerned about me having something to eat. People kept offering me beer and whiskey. I did not feel like a stranger or any bit uncomfortable for long. They readily and willingly answered all questions that I had - of course Duang had to do a great deal of translating! I am constantly amazed and surprised at the openness and friendliness of the Lao Loum people.



Towards the end of the afternoon, there was another religious ritual. The deceased man's family went up on stage and kneeled down facing the people. Two large photographs of the man and his wife were held so that the people could see. A large metal tray of food and drink as well as candles and some plant offerings were also on the tray. These were to help the man on his journey up. The relatives were praying as the female singer and khene player performed a traditional Lao funeral song. Once in a while, some of the people in the audience went up to the stage to offer condolences and money. It was a very touching and fitting tribute.

My brother-in-law then performed a requested song dedicated to the deceased man.

After what we thought was going to be a typical show but turned out to be another insight into the rich tapestry of Lao Loum culture and life, we returned home. Today as I finish this blog, I will go out and wash the new truck. After driving out to Tahsang Village the other day, the truck needs cleaning however according to Duang, the truck could not be cleaned for three days after it was blessed. I can't complain - it wasn't like when we moved into our house and had to wait for it to be blessed before we could ...

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