Monday, March 15, 2010

Mahlam Lao Show - Ban Non Makha

Things have gotten hotter here in Isaan and it is not just the weather. Our daily weather high temperatures are now ranging from 95 to 100F (35 C to 38C) as we head for the hottest months which are April and May.

The sugar cane harvest is winding down. The next crop of sugar cane has been already planted. The limited second crop of rice, for those farmers who have access to water, is well established and it is a matter of waiting to harvest it when it matures. The same is true for the cassava crop. The water levels are very low so there is very little fishing available or going on.

This is the time of year when village women weave sahts. Sahts are woven reed mats that take the place of throw rugs and rugs in Lao Loum culture. They are also a substitute for indoor as well as outdoor furniture. The mats are placed on the concrete, tile or compacted earth floors of homes for people to sit on, and sometimes to sleep on. Sahts are placed inside of hammocks for babies to sleep upon. At concerts and shows many people bring a saht from home and place it upon the ground for sitting, drinking, and eating snacks during the show. When we went to Tahsang Village yesterday, a photographed some of the villagers dying the dried reeds in preparation for weaving - but that will be the topic of a future blog.

The rainy season will not start for another two months. With the limited amount of necessary work in the fields now, and with the coming of Thai New Years, Songkran, in a month there appears to be an upswing in the number of shows and festivals in Isaan at this time of the year. I questioned my wife about this to determine if there was a conscious effort to take advantage of the dry weather and lessened work load for the villagers to enjoy themselves more here in Isaan. She told me "No. People in Isaan like to have party all the time. People die all the time. People get married all the time. Boy become Monk all the time. People have party all the time. People in Isaan like to party all the time" It is difficult to disagree with that especially after my experiences of the past three years.

Yesterday there was a party at the Wat in Ban Non Makha. Ban Non Makha village is a neighbor to Tasang Village. The party was being held on the grounds of the local Buddhist temple. In Isaan, as well as the rest of Thailand, the Wats serve many purposes. Besides being religious and often educational centers for their communities, the Wats also are social centers for the people. The party in Non Mahka was being held to raise money to support the Wat. There was a Mahlam Lao show similar to the type that Duang's youngest brother performs at weddings, funerals, funeral anniversaries, house warmings, Monk ordination celebrations, some religious holidays, local festivals such as the recent "Mango Festival" and even sometimes "Thank You" parties sponsored by local politicians. Yes, Duang is absolutely correct in saying "People in Isaan like to party all the time". As we drove out to Non Makha village we saw several large trucks from at least two other different Mahlam Lao troupes traveling along the main road that connects the Lao border town of Nong Khai to eventually Bangkok. It still seems to me that the number of parties is increasing.

On March 30th, Duang's brother will be performing in Tahsang Village for Songpoo Day. The following two days after his show will involve shooting home made gunpowder rockets into the sky. This will be my third "Songpoo Day" in Tahsang Village and I still don't understand what it is all about. The previous two "Songpoo Days" came at the end of Songkran. I thought that because they came at the end of the extended Thai New Years celebration, it was like the official end of Songkran. That theory worked until this year when Duang told me that it was going to be held before the start of Songkran! It was being held before Songkran because the villages wanted it then. Another theory that I had was that Songpoo commemorated Thailand's most famous poet and was like a national education day. That theory was proven to be incorrect too. No matter the case, I have learned that I do not have to understand or to be able to explain everything. I know that I do not have to intimately and completely know about something to be able to enjoy it. Although I am not a Buddhist, I find comfort in the Buddhist belief that we should question everything. I, in my older age, have accepted that there may not be answers to all my questions but I should continue to question everything and seek all of the answers.

Ban Non Makha village has about 400 inhabitants and is located about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from Tahsang Village which has about 250 people and about 8 kilometers (5 miles) from Ban Non Daeng which has about 250 people. Throughout Isaan there are many of these small villages dispersed amongst the rice paddies, sugar cane fields, and cassava fields. Through word of mouth, mostly amongst relatives, word of the local shows travels far and fast. The shows are always well attended ... "People in Isaan like to have party all the time".

We arrived at the Wat around 10:00 A.M., the roadies were still setting up the stage for the show. A booth where you paid 20 baht ($0.60 USD) to get a short piece of a small diameter straw. Inside the straw, was a piece of rolled up paper with a number on it. The number on the paper corresponded to prizes on display. A young boy about 10 to 12 years old in front of me won an electric fan. Duang won a small container of scented powder. Off to the side, a man had set up a tub of water with several tiny gold fish in it with one fairly good sized black molly fish. Young children were trying to scoop the fish out of the aerated tub with a flat net about 3 inches in diameter which also had a 2 inch tear in it. The process brought into my mind the old saying "Like taking candy from a baby". I watched for awhile and never saw a fish captured however all the little children were thoroughly enjoying themselves.
Behind the fish game of "chance" (little chance?), several children were having a grand time bouncing up and down on two trampolines. I have chosen the words carefully. They were literally and figuratively bouncing up and down on TWO trampolines. Many of the children would bounce from one trampoline to the other trampoline. There were no spotters or protective padding or mats. It was groups of children absolutely enjoying themselves on a hot and sunny day.

At the far end of the grounds, small battery powered cars were available for toddlers to ride. In the center of the grounds there was a booth very similar to what we saw at the Mango Festival where children could race small battery powered remote controlled cars on an elevated plywood track. Vendors strolled around the grounds selling various creatures and objects created out of inflated balloons. As is typical at all these events, there were many booths, stalls, and push carts selling all types of food, soft drinks, and beer.

Sahts were set up to the side as well as the front of the stage. Through choice and selection, the areas were segregated unto women with young children, men heavily into drinking, mixed teenagers, young boys, and eventually Ladyboys.

We went to witness some of the villagers earn merit by offering food to the Wat Monks. We were joined by Duang's cousin and her young daughter, Kwan. At 11:00 A.M. the show commenced.

The show was excellent and followed the typical format for these performances. It started with a raucous rock and roll song (Mahlam Sing) with Go-Go dancers. That was followed by a young male singer and then a female performer who sounded very much like the famous Mahlam Morlam singer, Siriporn Ainphaipong. She was a performer because in addition to singing she also danced during many of the songs that the men sang. After the opening sets, the troupe performed several Mahlam Lao (traditional Lao music) songs. The Mahlam Lao songs are a tie to the past as well as a tribute to the Lao Loum culture that transcends the borders of Thailand and Laos.

Having paid tribute to the past and their ancestors, the troupe focused on more contemporary songs and arrangements. As the show continued on and the spectators drank more and more, many more people were moved by the music leading them to get up and dance in front of the stage. Dancing here in Isaan is more of an individual or group exercise than a couples event as shown on "Dancing With the Stars". People basically get up and start dancing. They may be alone, part of a group of same sex people, or sometimes in a mixed group. Very rarely can a single man and single woman be identified as dancing together.

As occurs at all these shows two groups dominated the area directly in front of the stage. Teenage boys, that I refer to as the "Young Bucks", many of them feeling the affects of beer as well as whiskey, form a sort of "Mosh Pit" at center stage. These guys are usually the best and definitely most energetic of the dancers. At times it appears to me that they will challenge each other to show off their best moves - sort of like the old style break dancing competitions.
Younger brothers and male cousins, 10 to 14 years old, hang around the edges of the Mosh Pit practising their moves and yearning to be part of the older group - some day, some day soon.

The second group are the Ladyboys. Today they took over stage right since the young bucks had previously set up at stage center. The Ladyboys stick pretty much to themselves and can be counted on to show some very animated dance moves along with their vamping. It all makes for some very interesting entertainment. Even out in these outlying areas, I am amazed at the number of Ladyboys. At this show, 10 Ladyboys attended. When they made their grand entrance, I heard some laughter from the other spectators but nothing derisive. The initial laughter only seemed to encourage the Ladyboys to do their thing.

Around 1:00 P.M. the show was going on in full force and swing. The Ladyboys were dancing up a storm. The Mosh Pit was hopping. The Go-Go girls were quite animated. The singers were in fine form. The band, as always, was great. The beer was cold and plentiful. The whiskey was great with coke. The local whiskey, a sort of moonshine, Lao Kao or Lao Lao, was in plentiful supply. It was a great afternoon under the hot Isaan sun. A great day without any policeman around. No police? That was strange. There usually are Police at these events.

As I was taking a break from taking photographs and showing how we used to dance in the old days, I noticed a vendor walking around gathering up and removing the empty bottles laying around the spectator areas. I thought this was very environmentally responsible and indicative of the people's sensitivity towards recycling. After my break I went to the edge of the Mosh Pit to take some close ups of the Go-Go girls. All of a sudden there was shouting, yelling, and a surge of people towards me - a fight had broken out. This was not unexpected - it happens at every show. This was the first time that I came close to being in the middle of the people surge though. I once was involved in a near panic surge of people at a soccer game in Brasil so I am very leery and familiar with the awesome power of a mob. I quickly got out of the way and immediately set about preparing my camera gear to leave the event.

Fights in Isaan are usually very short lived initial events. Typically they last no more than a total of more than 4 or 5 blows. The show immediately stops at the start of a fight. Once two people start at it, their friends separate the combatants. At the same time police, when they are in attendance get, involved to separate the people. Village Headmen and older men also help to restore order. People in general listen and pay attention to the Village Headman out of respect or perhaps due to the realization that he or she can make things difficult for you for a long time. Elderly men are also respected so they have some influence in stopping the fight(s). Since these a family events, the most effective peace making force is always in attendance - Grandmothers, Mothers, and Aunts! Grandmothers, Mothers and Aunts wage in and remove the initial battlers from the scene scolding the fighters as they lead them away.

After things calm down, the music starts up again. Typically there will be another fight. Yesterday the second fight started even before Duang and I finished our preparations to leave because of the first fight. It was during this second set of fights that I realized why the vendor had been picking up the empty glass bottles. I saw a drunk with an empty bottle prepared to throw it. Thankfully he did not. The second round of fights typically involves the first set of fighters and others who suffered some perceived slight or insult during the first go around. "Face" is very important so it leads to many confrontations during these events.

Why do people fight to begin with? It basically boils down to too much drinking and people not being able to handle their liquor. Just as else where in the world, some people get mean when they drink.

We learned today that there were actually 5 fights, 3 after we left, at yesterday's show. The show was stopped at 3:00 P.M. when the final fight broke out, the last straw - Ladyboys fighting each other!

Duang has told me that there will be Police at the 30 March show along with a big Police truck where they can lock up people.

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