If there’s one instrument that defines Lao music, it would be the khene (pronounced “ken”). It looks like a set of pan pipes, except unlike its more familiar Andean variety, the khene has much longer pipes. They’re usually made of bamboo and use a free reed that is typically made of brass or silver. Because of this, it’s closer to being related to a harmonica rather than Andean pan flutes and has a sound like a violin. According to folklore, the khene was created by a woman who was trying to imitate the sound of a type of local bird called the garawek. Other instruments you’ll hear in Lao music are fiddles, bells, oboes, gongs, xylophones, drums, cymbals, and flutes.
Lao folk music is known as lam, and the singers are called morlam. These songs can be either quick or slow and is centered around the lyrics. The melody lines are created around the natural pitches of the language, making it more of a conversational/lyrical style. Common themes include humor and love (often unrequited love), and there is also a kind of moral message behind it. Some critics of modern lam claim that these songs have become more sexualized than moral. The khene is often used as accompaniment to lam songs. There are also many regional varieties that vary in form, meter, make up of singers, and which type of scale/mode is used. Lam music is also popular in neighboring Thailand as well.
Folk dancing is also tied to the lam style of music, and dancing is often associated with theatre traditions as well. Several dance-theatre styles are often stemmed from telling stories, such as from many of the epic tales and folklore of the region. The most popular dance—and often considered the national dance—is the lam vong. It’s characterized by a circle of men dancers on the inside surrounded by a circle of women dancers on the outside moving in slow, graceful movements. It’s often performed at important life events like weddings and births as well as festivals. Shadow puppetry (less dance, more theatre) is another art form used to tell their folklore stories that shaped their literary foundation.
Modern Lao music varies in style, and even though there are (or may be) some restrictions based on the fact that it’s a communist country, their musicians are influenced by American, Canadian, and French music. There are several rock bands and pop musicians who have become popular as well as hip-hop musicians.
I listened to Aluna’s self-titled album from 2005. For a Lao pop album, I thought it was pretty catchy. Some songs, like the song “Stand” was sung pretty much entirely in English, while other songs on the album were sung in Lao. At times, it reminded me a little of J-pop music from Japan, and other songs kind of reminded me of 1990s US pop music. But she has a good voice for pop music.
There were several Lao musicians who moved abroad and became known in their circles there. Several of these musicians gravitated toward hip-hop when they got to the US. One musician, Supasang, raps in both English and in Lao on a few of his tracks. I kind of liked his music; it was very “American” in his style. Another Lao-American rapper goes by the name of Gumby. I watched his video for their song “Shut Em Down.” It was a pretty good representation of a merge of cultures. Willy Denzey is a Lao rapper who is based out of France. I listened to several of his songs, and pretty much all of them are in French. His style is more on the side of R&B rather than rap. I liked several of his songs, and I think overall, he (and Supasang to a degree) had the most complete package as far as singing, style, and presentation. I’ve seen several videos for various Lao rappers, and it always seems like the women in the give me the impression that they didn’t feel comfortable with what they’re doing at all. And maybe they don’t. I don’t know. Maybe they just need to relax and flow with it.
Spotify only had a few musicians available that I could listen to. There were several listings I found but couldn’t be 100% sure that it was the same Lao musician or not. YouTube has far more choices to be able to find examples of Lao music.
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