Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Tamboon Roi Wan

Family Members Launching Khom Fai - Fire Lanterns
This week has been very busy for us with a combination of personal, religious, family, and cultural activities.

Saturday night, the 27th, we attended a Tamboon Roi Wan Party that my wife's youngest brother was performing at in a small village northeast of our home in Udonthani.

It had been 100 days from the funeral of a man and in the Lao Loum culture time for a unique ritual called "Tamboon Roi Wan" sometimes referred to as "Bone Party".  Duang's brother had been contracted to provide the entertainment on the final night of the two day event.

"Tamboon Roi Wan" is the funeral anniversary party. Tamboon Roi Wan is a merit making ritual that is held 100 days after the cremation of the body.  If for some reason, typically financial, that the ritual can not be held 100 days after the cremation, the ritual can be held at a later date and is called "Tamboon Jaak Khao". Whether 100 days or many years after the cremation, the ritual is identical and the merit is the same.

The two day ritual is a time for family, friends, and neighbors to eat, drink, socialize, and participate in religious ritual.  It is a grand party. Previously these two day events also had a great deal of gambling.  However since the latest military coup, there has been a crackdown on gambling.  Gambling, other than the national lottery, has long been illegal in Thailand. Local law enforcement officials used to turn a blind eye to family gambling during funerals and tamboon roi wan events.  For gambling at other times, "accommodations" had to be arranged to avoid being arrested.  Local officials no longer have that "flexibility".

The first day of Tamboon Roi Wan or Tamboon Jaak Khao is spent eating and drinking.  The host family has the responsibility of feeding and supplying drinks to all the guests.  Pavilions are set up in the front yard or if there is insufficient room in the yard, pavilions are set up in the street in front of the home.  Round tables covered with fabric and rented plastic chairs are set up underneath the pavilions. Bottles of beer, whiskey, drinking water, and soft drinks along with a small metal bucket of ice are placed on each table.

The first day of the ritual in addition to eating, drinking and gambling is spent in decorating the main pavilion as well as constructing Ban Phii (spirit houses) for the deceased person.  In the main pavilion where the ritual takes place, a raised  platform is placed.  The Ban Phii is placed on the platform.  In front of the Ban Phii a large photo of the deceased person is placed.  Food offerings and glasses of drink are also placed in front of the photograph.  Stalks of bananas are typically hung from the pavilion framing.  Offerings to be made to the Monks at the conclusion of the ritual are displayed around the Ban Phii.  The offerings typically include nested metal food containers, toiletries for the Monks, towels, electric fans, religious decorations, blankets, small square pillows (mons), woven reed mats (sahts).
The special merit making ritual involving Monks, for this week's tamboon roi wan ended around 6:30 P.M. when the people returned to socializing, and drinking followed by a catered formal meal.  The caterer had set up a field kitchen in the street outside of the deceased person's home.

From our arrival at 5:00 P.M. until the start of the night's entertainment starting at 7:00 P.M., several men were feverishly setting up the stage, installing the lighting for the show, and setting up the sound system.  Backstage, the performers were occupied putting on their makeup and costumes.

As is typical when hiring entertainers, the host is responsible for feeding and providing drinks to the performers, roadies, and groupies such as Duang and me.  The hosts provide the same food to the "hired" help as they do to their guests.  Hosts are very accepting of our presence and show genuine concern that we have plenty to eat and drink.  We drink water or coke since I have to drive home from these events.  Here in Thailand there are unannounced roadblocks at night to check for DUIs.  I don't want that hanging over my head - besides I am a guest here and I do not want to give anyone an excuse to throw me out of the country.

At 8:00 P.M. the next element of the "Bone Party" commenced.  Duang's brother had been hired to put on one of his "Molam Lao" shows.  The show was scheduled to run until around 3:00 A.M. but we left at 10:00 P.M. because we had our 5 year old grandson with us and a busy day planned for the next day.

The entertainment commenced with classic ethnic dancing performed by two young women.  The women wore traditional Lao Loum clothing for their dances.  Here in southeast Asia the various minorities retain their unique clothing as well as dance.  You know what ethnic group, an individual, especially a woman, belongs to by their clothing.  The various minorities also retain their unique music and dance.  Children are taught to perform to their music in schools.  Entertainment troupes are formed in high schools and universities to continue and celebrate their cultures.  These troupes perform at cultural events as well as at private functions such as weddings, retirement parties and religious festivals.  These performances are an aspect of life here that I really appreciate and enjoy.
Young Woman Performing A Traditional Isaan Dance
The two young women performed three distinctive dances with one single change of costume.
Traditional Dance Hand Gesture
Following the dance performance, my brother-in-law's show started.  Shows for Tamboon Roi Wan parties start with what I call "respect to the past and elders".  This portion of the show involves the playing and singing traditional Lao music.  The traditional Lao musical instrument, the khene, sets the rhythm and melody for the singing.  The singing is free verse, with the singer making up the lyrics, appropriate lyrics for the specific event, as they go alone.  The singing style from event to event is standardized but the lyrics are determined at the moment by the performer.  The performer is evaluated just as much for their selection of words as how well they sing them.
Khene Player and Singer Performing
 Duang's father was a singer and well known in the area.  The man performing at this party was her father's first student.  I know that Duang was pleased, "happy inside", to see a link to her father continuing on with his tradition and celebration of their shared culture.

After the men had finished their set, there was an event that I had not anticipated or observed at previous bone parties.  Several members of the deceased man's family gathered off to the side of the stage to launch khom fai - fire lanterns.  Khom Fai are large special paper bags that have a large candle suspended below their open end.  The candles are ignited and as they burn, the interior is filled with soft glowing light and hot air.  The hot air fills the bag, and because the hot air is less dense than the surrounding atmosphere, the khom fai gently rises into the night sky, rising ever higher as the candle continues burning - the flight of the fire lantern determined by the ever shifting night breezes.

As the last of the Kohm Fai rose and disappeared into the dark sky, the next part of the show commenced.  This portion of the show involved electrified instruments - keyboard, bass guitar, lead guitar, khene, and drum set.  The music is updated and modern Isaan music - driving beats, rapid tempo, and elaborate guitar rifts.  The genre of music is referred to as "Malam Sing"

Malam Sing also involves Go-Go dancers with all the moves from the 60s and quite a few that we were too shy to perform back in the 60s or should not do now that we are in our 60's!  I love this spectacles - every time I attend one I think about the USO show scene from the film "Apocalypse Now"
The show is more than just go-go dancing, singing, and playing instruments.  The show involves a great deal of drama, and humor - much of it bawdy as well as risqué.

When a singer is ready to perform their first song, it is not a simple matter of climbing the three rung ladder from the ground to the top of the performing stage.  It is more complicated and theatrical entrance.  The first song is typically a slow melancholy type song.  Standing either underneath the stage or off to the side on the ground out of sight of the audience, the performer will sing about 50% of the song before appearing before the crowd.  As they are singing, the performer will give a wai, the Thai greeting and gesture of respect, to the audience.

During their performance on stage, people will approach the stage to give the performers money, garlands of flowers, to touch their hand, to flirt or to give them their cell phone number.  The performers work this drama into their act ... acknowledging and thanking the people as well as making some jokes about the ubiquitous drunks that make a spectacle of themselves.  The audience loves the give and take with the performers.  They especially enjoy the flirting and overt sexual overtures between the performers - typically between the lead male singer, female lead singer, go-go girls, and khene player - but all combinations and permutations are exploited to the delight of the crowd.

I have written that some of the best parties that I have attended have been bone parties.  It is completely different from my experiences back in America but to paraphrase Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz .. "Toto, I have a feeling that we are not in America anymore"- many times that is not such a bad thing.  Living here in Isaan is always interesting to say the least.

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