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Jin 'N' Juice: Jintara Poonlarp's tribute to 9/11 featured gyrating girls in front of an American flag.

The Morlam, The Merrier

The Academic Film Archive brings folk music from northeastern Thailand to San Jose. Beyonce better watch her back.

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IN JINTARA POONLARP's video Arlai World Trade, which translates as Mourning World Trade, the reigning Morlam superstar of Thailand laments the attacks of Sept. 11 while young, bare-midriffed Thai girls gyrate in front of a surging American flag.

During an untitled video from her Skylight VCD, Laotian singer Monthong Sihavong appears in a stunning rural setting 20 miles south of Vientiane, Laos, along the Mekong River, while two elliptical half-circles of musicians and dancers provide provocative movements for the roving camera operators. Rock Slaang's "Yahk Mee Mia" ("I Want to Have a Wife") features a tormented young man drinking, vomiting and continually being rejected by women before a restaurant owner gives him a rope to hang himself.

These are only three of the 21 Morlam videos being screened at the film program "Make Mine Morlam: Cutting-Edge Culture From the Rice Paddies of Roi-Et to the Back Streets of Bangkok." The show, presented by Geoff Alexander of the Academic Film Archive and ciné16, takes place at San Jose's Stop Art Gallery on Santana Row on Friday (Feb. 28).

Morlam, also spelled "Mohlam"--transliteration from Thai and Laotian into English isn't always exact--is a brand of folk music from the Isaan region of northeastern Thailand. The word itself derives from two words in the Isaan dialect, "mor," meaning "expert," and "lam," meaning "song." In Laotian, the music is called "lamlao."

In Thailand, Morlam music is normally used as a social force, uniting the Isaan people, who often leave their villages to find work in Bangkok as laborers, street vendors, cleaners or bar girls. To a large extent, the lyrics tell their singers' own stories, making references to village life, people they miss, lost loves and cultural exploitation.

Originally, the instrumentation for this music included the khaen, a multireed, multipipe mouth organ; the guitarlike phin; a bowed string instrument called a sor; a hand drum; and a circular panpipe. In the more urban forms of Morlam, the traditional instruments are augmented by and sometimes replaced by synthesizers, electric bass and a Western drum set. The keyboard usually emulates the sound of a 1960s Farfisa organ.

There's just nothing quite like watching a Thai band crank out a driving backbeat while a woman wails on the lead, accompanied by dancers in a stylized combo of traditional dress and Western disco garb--all out in the jungle somewhere. It makes no difference whether you understand the language or not. Morlam is beautifully odd stuff to Western ears, and Morlam music videos have never been publicly screened anywhere outside Southeast Asia--until now. Yes, there are indeed firsts in San Jose.

It all began when Alexander was tromping through Bangkok bars with his Thai girlfriend. "We'd go to places where, typically, a lot of other Western guys wouldn't go," he explains. "There was a karaoke jukebox in one place, and I flipped when I saw 'Motocy Hang' by Rock Slaang. And I started asking [my girlfriend] questions, and then we started going to places where this music is played. And they're only Isaan places."

Alexander now has a monumental collection of Morlam video CDs. A few San Jose arts venues dismissed his proposal for a video screening. Watching all the gyrating Thai disco babes in many of these videos, one might write them off as crass imports designed to titillate American consumers, but Alexander explains that the influence comes not from the West but from ancient Southeast Asia itself.

"I actually went back to some photographs I had taken of relics at Angkor Wat in Cambodia and My Son in Vietnam," he says. "And we see these scantily clad dancers doing public stuff dating back to the 12th century. So actually, these dancers are more Eastern than they are Western. This is an old part of their culture; it really is very Thai in its conception."


The Make Mine Morlam video exhibit shows Friday (Feb. 28) at 8pm at the Stop Art Gallery, 333 Santana Row, San Jose. (408.615.8825; www.afana.org/morlam.htm)


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From the February 27-March 5, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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