Mor lam (Thai/Isan: หมอลำ) is an ancient Lao form of song in Laos and Isan. Mor lam means expert song, or expert singer, referring to the music or artist respectively. Other romanisations used include mo lam, maw lam, maw lum, moh lam and mhor lum. In Laos, the music is known simply as lam (ລຳ); mor lam (ໝໍລຳ) refers to the singer.
The characteristic feature of lam singing is the use of a flexible melody which is tailored to the tones of the words in the text. Traditionally, the tune was developed by the singer as an interpretation of glawn poems and accompanied primarily by the khene, a free reed mouth organ, but the modern form is most often composed and uses electrified instruments. Contemporary forms of the music are also characterised by quick tempi and rapid delivery, while tempi tend to be slower in traditional forms and in some Lao genres. Some consistent characteristics include strong rhythmic accompaniment, vocal leaps, and a conversational style of singing that can be compared to American rap.
Typically featuring a theme of unrequited love, mor lam also reflects the difficulties of life in rural Isan and Laos, leavened with wry humour. In its heartland performances are an essential part of festivals and ceremonies, while the music has gained a profile outside its native regions thanks to the spread of migrant workers, for whom it remains an important cultural link with home.
After Siam extended its influence over Laos in the 18th and 19th centuries, the music of Laos began to spread into the Thai heartlands; even King Mongkut's vice-king Pinklao becoming enamoured of it. But in 1865, following the vice-king's death, Mongkut banned public performances, citing the threat it posed to Thai culture and its role in causing drought. Performance of mor lam thereafter was a largely local affair, confined to events such as festivals in Isan and Laos. However, as Isan people began to migrate to the rest of the country, the music spread with them. The first major mor lam performance of the 20th century in Bangkok took place at the Rajdamnoen Boxing Stadium in 1946. Even then, the number of migrant workers from Isan remained fairly small, and mor lam was paid little attention by the outside world.
In the 1950s and 1960s, there were efforts in both Thailand and Laos to put the educational aspect of lam to political use. The USIS in Thailand and both sides in the Lao civil war recruited mor lam singers to include propaganda in their performances, in the hope of persuading the rural population to support the cause. The Thai attempt was unsuccessful, taking insufficient account of performers' practices and audiences' demands, but more success was had in Laos; the victorious Communists continued to maintain a propaganda troupe even after the revolution.
Mor lam started to spread in Thailand in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when more and more people left Isan in search of work. Mor lam performers began to appear on television, led by Banyen Rakgaen, and the genre soon gained a national profile. The music remains an important link to home for Isan people in the capital, where mor lam clubs and karaoke bars act as meeting places for migrants.
Contemporary mor lam is very different from that of previous generations. None of the traditional Isan genres is commonly performed today: instead singers perform three-minute songs combining lam segments with luk thung or pop style sections, while comedians perform skits in between blocks of songs. Mor lam sing performances typically consist of medleys of luk thung and lam songs, with electric instruments dominant and extremely bawdy presentation. Sing comes from the English word "racing" (a reference to the music's origin among Isan's biker fraternity—by sing means to go racing about on motorbikes).
Lam in Laos is much more traditional, having been much less exposed to Central Thai and western influences. Even there, however, the music is beginning to change under the influence of Thai culture: instrumentation, topics and music are all increasingly similar to the modern Isan style.
There are many forms of mor lam. There can be no definitive list as they are not mutually exclusive, while some forms are confined to particular localities or have different names in different regions. Typically the categorisation is by region in Laos and by genre in Isan. The traditional forms of Isan are historically important, but are now rarely heard:
Isan has regional styles, but these are styles of performance rather than separate genres. The most important of the styles were Khon Kaen and Ubon, each taking their cue from the dominant form of lam glawn in their area: the lam jotgae of Khon Kaen, with its role of displaying and passing on knowledge in various fields, led to a choppy, recitative-style delivery, while the love stories of Ubon promoted a slower and more fluent style. In the latter half of the 20th century the Ubon style came to dominate; the adaptation of Khon Kaen material to imitate the Ubon style was sometimes called the Chaiyaphum style.
The Lao regional styles are divided into the southern and central styles (lam) and the northern styles (khap). The northern styles are more distinct as the terrain of northern Laos has made communications there particularly difficult, while in southern and central Laos cross-fertilisation has been much easier. Northern Lao singers typically perform only one style, but those in the south can often perform several regional styles as well as some genres imported from Isan.
The main Lao styles are:
Traditionally, young mor lam were taught by established artists, paying them for their teaching with money or in kind. The education focussed on memorising the texts of the verses to be sung; these texts could be passed on orally or in writing, but they always came from a written source. Since only men had access to education, it was only men who wrote the texts. The musical education was solely by imitation. Khaen-players typically had no formal training, learning the basics of playing from friends or relatives and thereafter again relying on imitation. With the decline of the traditional genres this system has fallen into disuse; the emphasis on singing ability (or looks) is greater, while the lyrics of a brief modern song present no particular challenge of memorisation.
The social status of mor lam is ambiguous. Even in the Isan heartland, Miller notes a clear division between the attitudes of rural and urban people: the former see mor lam as, "teacher, entertainer, moral force, and preserver of tradition", while the latter, "hold mawlum singers in low esteem, calling them country bumpkins, reactionaries, and relegating them to among the lower classes since they make their money by singing and dancing".
In Laos, lam may be performed standing (lam yuen) or sitting (lam nang). Northern lam is typically lam yuen and southern lam is typically lam nang. In Isan lam was traditionally performed seated, with a small audience surrounding the singer, but over the latter half of the 20th century the introduction of stages and amplification allowed a shift to standing performances in front of a larger audience.
Live performances are now often large-scale events, involving several singers, a dance troupe and comedians. The dancers (or hang khreuang) in particular often wear spectacular costumes, while the singers may go through several costume changes in the course of a performance. Additionally, smaller-scale, informal performances are common at festivals, temple fairs and ceremonies such as funerals and weddings. These performances often include improvised material between songs and passages of teasing dialogue (Isan สอย, soi) between the singer and members of the audience.
Many genres (including the khap of northern Laos and lam glawn and lam phuen in Isan) were traditionally accompanied only by the khene, but ensembles have become more common. Most commercial artists now use at least some electric instruments, most often a keyboard set up to sound like a 1960s Farfisa-style organ; electric guitars are also common. Other western instruments are also becoming popular, such as the saxophone and the drum kit.
Because Thai and Lao do not include phonemic stress, the rhythm used in their poetry is demarcative, i.e. based on the number of syllables rather than on the number of stresses. In glawn verse (the most common form of traditional lam text) there are seven basic syllables in each line, divided into three and four syllable hemistiches. When combined with the musical beat, this produces a natural rhythm of four on-beat syllables, three off-beat syllables, and a final one beat rest:
In actual practice this pattern is complicated by the subdivision of beats into even or dotted two-syllable pairs and the addition of prefix syllables which occupy the rest at the end of the previous line; each line may therefore include eleven or twelve actual syllables. In the modern form, there are sudden tempo changes from the slow introduction to the faster main section of the song. Almost every contemporary mor lam song features the following bass rhythm, which is often ornamented melodically or rhythmically, such as by dividing the crotchets into quavers:
Mor lam was traditionally sung in the Lao or Isan language. The subject matter varied according to the genre: love in the lam glawn of Ubon; general knowledge in the lam jot of Khon Kaen; or Jataka stories in lam phun. The most common verse form was the four-line glawn stanza with seven main syllables per line, although in Khon Kaen the technical subject matter led to the use of a free-form series of individual lines, called glawn gap. In Laos, it is the regional styles which determine the form of the text. Each style may use a metrical or a speech-rhythm form, or both; where the lines are metrical, the lam styles typically use seven syllables, as in Isan, while the khap styles use four or five syllables per line. The slower pace of some Lao styles allows the singer to improvise the verse, but otherwise the text is memorised.
In recent decades the Ubon style has come to dominate lam in Isan, while the Central Thai influence has led to most songs being written in a mix of Isan and Thai. Unrequited love is a prominent theme, although this is laced with a considerable amount of humour. Many songs feature a loyal boy or girl who stays at home in Isan, while his or her partner goes to work as a migrant labourer in Bangkok and finds a new, richer lover.
The glawn verses in lam tang san were typically preceded by a slower, speech-rhythm introduction, which included the words o la naw ("oh my dear", an exhortation to the listeners to pay attention) and often a summary of the content of the poem. From this derives the gern (Thai เกริ่น) used in many modern songs: a slow, sung introduction, generally accompanied by the khene, introducing the subject of the song, and often including the o la naw. The plaeng (Thai เพลง) is a sung verse, often in Central Thai. while the actual lam (Thai ลำ) appears as a chorus between plaeng sections. ()
As few mor lam artists write all their own material, many of them are extremely prolific, producing several albums each year. Major singers release their recordings on audio tape, CD and VCD formats. The album may take its name from a title track, but others are simply given a series number.
Mor lam VCDs can also often be used for karaoke. A typical VCD song video consists of a performance, a narrative film, or both intercut. The narrative depicts the subject matter of the song; in some cases, the lead role in the film is played by the singer. In the performance, the singer performs the song in front of a static group of dancers, typically female. There may be a number of these recordings in different costumes, and costumes may be modern or traditional dress; the singer often wears the same costume in different videos on the same album. The performance may be outdoors or in a studio; studio performances are often given a psychedelic animated backdrop. Videos from Laos tend to be much more basic, with lower production values.
Some of the most popular current artists are Banyen Rakgan, Chalermphol Malaikham, Jintara Poonlarp, Siriporn Ampaipong, and Pornsack Songsaeng. In 2001, the first album by Dutch singer Christy Gibson was released.
See also Lao music