Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Beat of a Different Drum

Two nights ago, we attended a a traditional Mahlam Lao show in Nongdaeng Village located here in Isaan, the Northeast of Thailand.  The show which started at 21:00 would run until 03:00 or 04:00 - that it is the way it is here in the Lao Loum culture.  The people work hard and when they decide to party, it is an all out, no holds barred event.  I experienced the same spirit the two times that I lived and worked in Brasil.

The show was part of the merit making event to mark the death of one one Duang's relatives some twenty years ago.  In the Lao Loum culture here in Isaan, there is a merit making ritual after a person has been cremated.  This ritual which can and is often viewed as a party is typically about one year after the cremation but the real determining factor is when the family is capable of paying for the event.

The event is very much like the celebrations for a son becoming a Monk, or a couple getting married.  Canopies are erected in the front yard or if the front yard is not large enough - in the street in front of the family home.  Round tables and plastic chairs are set up beneath the canopies at which guests can eat and drink.  Underneath one of the canopies accommodations are made for the visit from the Monks - do to their status, Monks are seated at a higher level than the laypeople.  This most typically accomplished by erecting an elevated wood platform reserved for the Monks.  The platform in covered in cloth and sahts (woven reed mats).  Small squares of higher value fabrics or decorated textiles designate the area for each Monk to sit.

Sometimes if a special merit making service is to be conducted, such as a sermon, or what I refer to as a "morality play", the participating Monks are seated in an ornate gold colored raised throne like chair where they can sit with their legs crossed.

Off to the side and in back of the home there are canopies for preparing and cooking food for all the guests. People typically arrive around 08:00 and will stay until 20:00 or even much later if there is a show associated with the celebration.  For the entire time, people are eating and drinking.  Each table, at a minimum, typically has a 1.5 liter bottle of Coke, 1.5 liter bottle of Sprite, a couple bottles of drinking water, a couple bottles of Leo Beer, and perhaps a bottle of whiskey with "Lao Lao" being the type of choice.  Young girls ensure that there is plenty of ice at each table for the soft drinks, and beer.  People here drink their beer "on the rocks" and their whiskey "neat" or "straight up".  Empty bottles are quickly replaced.

As new guests arrive, they are quickly ushered to a table to be start eating and drinking.  The food is ethnic cuisine and typical consists of 7 or 8 dishes or rather different items.  There is a difference between "dishes" and 'items"  many of the foods are eaten with the hand so there may not be an individual dish for each guest. The guests will make a small ball of sticky rice in their hand and dip the ball in a common bowl of whatever at the center of the table.  Often soups are consumed from a common bowl at the table with each guest having their own spoon.

The celebration that we attended on the 12th was a grand event.   After the day events we returned to our home to freshen up and get some rest for the night's activities.  We returned for the night show.

The night show was a more traditional Lao music event.  The music was based upon the ubiquitous Lao musical instrument, the khene.  The singing was a sort of Lao rap except that for the most part there were no set lyrics.  The performer made up or rather adlibbed the words to suit the occasion or moment.  The singing style is also long and drawn out with a great deal of warbling as well as tonal range - again very Lao.

Besides the khene, the music is performed by conga type drums, and cymbals.  This is the accompaniment that you would find in traditional Lao villages.  In a concession to evolving times and mores, the group also had a couple of electric guitars, keyboard, and drum set for some of their songs. There were also four go-go dancers.

I was most impressed by the traditional drummer playing the two conga style drummers.  He was a show  unto himself.  I almost took as many pictures of him as I did of the go-go dancers.

The drummer had a distinctive face.  His age and face reflected a life of many experiences and I suspect more than a few adventures.  He performed on the drums with a zest and confidence that a lifetime of experience allows - confidence, uniqueness, and individuality.

I have written most recently twice about little "Eat" from Tahsang Village marching to the beat of a different drummer.  I had also mentioned that as a person who has marched and sometimes danced to the beat of a different drum, I had appreciation for little "Eat".  Well at the night show I found a man who marched, danced, and even played a beat to a different drum.  What could be better than that?  Imagine being comfortable and confident enough to march and dance enthusiastically to your beat on your own drum.  That truly must be a component of being "free".

Kissing the Drums In Appreciation
The drummer danced around his drums playing them with his hand and striking their sides with a drum stick.  The drums bore the scars of many a performance.

Playing the Drum With His Forehead
As part of his performance the drummer also would strike the drums with his forehead.  At other times he would "dry hump" his drums.

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He would also, on occasion, direct a pelvic thrust towards one of go-go dancers, perhaps all four of them.

Mahlam Lao shows are akin to vaudeville shows - singing, dancing, stand up comedy, music, and always a definite bawdy element.  Many of the jokes at best are double entendre and many times risque.  Many of the lyrics song between the male and female singers have to do with things of a sexual nature.  Sometimes the  female singer will try to grab the male singer by his genitals but seems to always not to succeed much to the delight of the crowd.  The male will sing about what he would like to do and can do to the female singer.  He will sometimes bend down to try to get a better glimpse of her but she always manages to foil his efforts - again the amusement of the crowd.  The antics are never obscene and often remind me of how close friends and family after a few drinks might joke and tease each other.

The Audience Loving the Show

The drummer was demonstrating his freedom to be himself.  It was comforting as well as reassuring to me to see that such diversity in culture still exists and to know that in areas such as Isaan are thriving.

There seems to be pressure in these modern times to develop a more homogeneous mankind perhaps in the belief that the more people are alike, the less conflict there will be. That scares me for it is the diversity of mankind and especially their culture that adds to the richness of living - for everyone.

There is no one culture that has the optimal solutions or even answers for all peoples.

There is no culture, let alone any society, that can best meet the needs and wishes of all peoples.

Seeing the drummer the other night - marching, dancing, and playing to the different beat of his own drum, gave me optimism that we hopefully will never get to "One World"

In "Allen's World" I am free to be me but even more importantly, you are free to be you.

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