Monday, March 4, 2013

A Rare Day

Dancers Make Final Adjustments Prior to Climbing On Stage

Yesterday was a rare day for my wife and me.  We attended one of my brother-in-law's Morlam Shows.  That in itself is not so rare in that we attend most of his shows.  This show was held during the day while most of his shows are held at night typically starting at 9:00 P.M..  This show being in the daytime did not make for our rare day.  We attended the entire show which is a rare occurrence for us.  We never stay for the entire show at night for two main reasons.

The first reason that we do not stay for the entire show at night is that the shows are 6 to 7 hours long!  The show does not end until 3:00 or 4:00 A.M.  It was not all that long ago that I would party in Brasil or Vietnam until 6:00 A.M. or 7:00 A.M. but I was not driving then either.  Here in Thailand you can run into unannounced night roadblocks where all drivers have to blow into a device for alcohol.  I do not want to complicate my stay here by getting a DUI either rightfully or wrongfully.  In my opinion it is easier and best to just avoid the entire situation.

The second reason that we never stay for an entire show is that we leave when the fights start.  For a night show the fights typically start about three hours into the show.

Yesterday was rare in that there were no fights.  The show was conducted on the grounds of a neighborhood Wat northwest of Udonthani.  The Wat was having its annual festival and my brother-in-law was hired to put on the official entertainment.  I use the term "official entertainment" because the entire event is entertaining at least to me.  With it being daylight and my decision to not drink, there was very little that went on that I did not observe - and it was all very entertaining,

The purpose of the festival is to raise money for the Wat and I also suspect for the people to have some fun. Perhaps even an effort to build or to maintain a sense of community for the villagers and other local communities.  The head Monk of the Wat spoke with the village Headman and the Headman collected 100 baht from each household to help pay for the Mohlam show. Mohlam?  Yes and it is also spelled as  Yes, that is a problem in Thailand of anglecizing Thai words; there are many different English spellings for the same Thai word.   Several different spellings for the same type of ethnic music is not all that big of deal if you are not obsessed with "proper" spelling.  However different spellings can be a serious problem and definite source of frustration in reading street signs and maps.

Inside the Bot, Villagers Offer A "Money Tree" to the Monks
We arrived at the Wat around 10:00 A.M.  A small group of people were marching around the Bot, worship hall, carrying "money trees". We all know that money does not grow on trees, perhaps it grows on a certain weed, but not on trees.  But in Thailand money is placed on trees as offerings to the Monks.  Typically the "tree" is a banana stalk that has holes poked into it. Pieces of split bamboo are stuck into the holes.  Each "branch" of split bamboo has a baht note in between the two pieces of the bamboo.  Sometimes a tree is fashioned out of rice straw.  Banknote offerings are placed on the trees and after a procession the festooned trees are brought to the Bot to be offered to the Monks as part of a merit making ritual.

Villager Offers Money Tree to Monk
Monks Performing Merit Making Ritual
The show started around 11:00 A.M.  I was pleased to see a familiar face, the khene player that I had photographed in Si That last month.  Since it was a day show, he had brought his wife and young daughter. The dancers that my brother-in-law had hired for the day were new people.  My brother-in-law lives on a small street in the center of Udonthani, a street populated by singers, dancers, and musicians.  When my brother-in-law has been booked for a show, he, sort of like in a pick up game of basketball, contacts the people that he knows to put the show together.  If they are unavailable, they most certainly know others who are available for the performance.  He contracts with specialty companies for the scaffolding, stage, sound system, and sometimes, the band.

The Khene Player Backstage
As always, I had access backstage of the show.  Backstage is far from glamorous.  Backstage is a series of woven reed mats placed upon the rough ground.  The performers apply their make-up, eat their provided meal, and change their costumes upon these mats amongst the the scaffolding bents that support the stage, lighting, and large speakers.  A large tarp is strung between scaffolding and other objects to restrict access to the area.  The roadies during the show rest in hammocks strong in or beneath the large truck that carries the gear.

The performers change their costumes underneath large pieces of cloth that they wrap around themselves.  As provocative as their dance movements, song lyrics, and dialogue on stage are, the performers are very modest.  At a vast majority of the shows, the dancers wear a beige leotard, pantyhose, and either panties or short shorts underneath their dance costumes.

Prior to the start of the show offerings are made to the spirits backstage.  Prior to climbing up to the stage for their first dance, the dancers kneel and offer their respect to the spirits.

Lead Female Performer Sings Backstage Prior to Her Grand Entrance
There is also another ritual to these shows that I find fascinating   For their first song of the show, the singer will sing the song hidden from the sight of the audience - sort of setting the stage for a grand entrance.  After completing about 3/4 of the song, the singer will climb the stairs up to the stage to the applause of the crowd.  It is all great theater and quite entertaining.

One of Many Policemen In Attendance Yesterday
Yesterday there was a large contingent of Police on hand along with a large "paddy wagon" conspicuously placed for everyone to see.  Surprisingly there were no fights for the entire day.  It was not because people were on their best behavior or that they were not drunk.  As always is the case at these shows, there was a great deal of drinking at the festival.  People were constantly drinking beer, whiskey and Lao Lao (moonshine type whiskey).  As the day wore on the people became more and more vocal as well as demonstrative of their good feelings for each other. here in Isaan it is common to see people hugging each other and trying to help each other walk as they get drunker and drunker. It is in these situations that the fights typically break out.

Besides the rare occurrence of watching the entire show and not witnessing any fights, yesterday also had a rare occurrence  it rained.  It actually rained for about two and one-half hours - very rare for March.  It was not a heavy rain.  It was more like a heavy drizzle.  It was enough to stop the live performance for one-half hour while people grabbed a pavilion from elsewhere on the Wat grounds and install it over the stage to shelter the performers and musicians.  The pause did not affect the audience in the least.  They kept dancing to the prerecorded music that was blared over the sound system.

One of the dangers at these events, is people throwing empty bottles during fights.  Yesterday there was a system in place to minimize that risk.  A man and his son spent the day wandering around collecting the empty bottles.  Well the boy spent the day collecting the bottles while his father split his time between collecting bottles, dancing, and emptying some bottles.

The boy was around 10 years old and rather rare for a Thai child - obese.  He resembled the television character "Pugsley Adams" form the 1960s series The Adams Family. I suspect that one reason that he is over weight is attributable to the way that he collects the bottles.  He gathers the bottles in a white plastic bag  and brings them to his father's somlaw (three wheeled motorcycle with attached wagon).  He would then inspect every bottle.  When he found a bottle that still had a little liquid in it, he carefully poured the contents into a large plastic cup.  He would then stir the contents of the cup with great gusto and gleefully drink his cocktail of beer, whiskey, and Lao Lao. He then would set about to find some more bottles, often dancing a little jig along his way.

Like all the shows that we attend, there were people of all ages there.  The children seem to especially enjoy these events.  They wander about eating ice cream, fruit, and other foods.  They also exert some independence by exploring the venue albeit still under the watchful eyes of their family. They make friends with other children and end up playing with balloons and other toys that are sold by vendors at the event.

As the afternoon wore on, the audience became more and more entertaining.  One man was dancing with his shirt off.  He used his shirt pretty much like a majorette uses a twirling baton - twirling it around in the air above his head, passing it from one hand to the other hand between his legs and the piece de resistance - throwing it high up into the air and catching it with one hand.  It was very entertaining for my wife and me.  I believe that it was very embarrassing for his family or friend.  Another man. not much more sober, attempted to remove the dancing majorette.  After about 10 minutes of struggling and stumbling, he finally succeeded in removing the dancing majorette.  Both of the men were not seen again.

This by no means ended the off stage entertainment.  The lady boys who had been drinking all day long along with their female friends were putting on quite a dancing demonstration.  By this time the onstage performance had reached a fevered pitch - one song after another song with no interruption   The go-go girls danced for at least an hour and one-half without interruption   Their pelvic thrusts along with the animated movements of the khene player only seemed to whip up energy and mania of the audience more.  It was truly amazing. The cool weather and moisture in the air did nothing to dampen anyone's spirits.  From our sheltered position underneath the head Monk's cabin, Duang and I had a great viewing vantage.

I did not drink any alcohol - not that I do every time that I go out or especially when I am not driving.  It just wasn't proper for me yesterday.  The head Monk and I had hit it off.  He brought me a container of soy milk for me to drink earlier in the day.  When it started to rain, he invited us to sit on his porch. Later he brought me a large bottle of orange Fanta to drink.  Still later, he brought me a large bottle of Coke, ice, and drinking water.  He was very friendly and I felt very bad that I could not understand most of what he was saying.  I kept trying to get Duang to translate but it was very difficult for her- logistically.  Monks are a higher status than other Buddhist people and are always to be at a higher level than the common people.  The Monk insisted that I sit next to him on the bench.  As a devout Buddhist, Duang could not bring herself to sit next to me to translate or to stand next to me. Sitting on the floor at our feet was not a very good option because of the sounds of the show made it very difficult for her to hear what we were saying.  It was also difficult for her to find a spot to sit on the floor because of the children that I had invited up to share the Coke with.  For many children, a soft drink is a rare treat.  No matter the case, we managed to show our appreciation and give thanks to the Monk for his kindness as well as to answer many of his questions.

The show concluded at 5:00 P.M. and after paying off his performers, my brother-in-law joined us for the trip back to Udonthani.

Although it had been a rare day in the sense of seeing an entire show without any fights on a rainy March day, our day had been no more interesting than any other day here in Isaan. Without a job now, our priorities remain the same everyday - to enjoy ourselves.

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