Remixing Molam for a New Generation of Listeners

A modern take on molam music at Studio Lam bar in Bangkok's Thor Lo district. Image: Studio Lam / Facebook

BANGKOK — The explosion of tracks that fuse molam with other genres such as hip-hop and pop are exposing Bangkokian ears to the traditional folk music of Thailand’s Northeast. But are the historical and cultural underpinnings of molam being lost?

Major Bangkok-based music producers are increasingly fusing molam elements with mainstream genres to make the former palatable to younger audiences, observed Viraya Sawangchot, a music specialist and panelist at a Wednesday panel at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT).

The folk genre has been gaining popularity in Bangkok ever since a blossoming of interest in Molam in the West, further explained Arthit Mulsarn, the curator of the Jim Thompson Mobile Molam Bus Project, a touring, musical exhibition.

“Those [Bangkokians] in Thonglor learned about molam from farangs,” said Arthit, referring to the upscale area of Bangkok, where some clubs now play hybrid molam music as partygoers sip pricey drinks.

The “trending” popularity of molam marks a shift from a tendency among Bangkokians to look down on the predominantly ethnic-Lao Isaan region, said Arthit.

But the curator observes that Bangkokians largely savor molam as a “hip” musical genre detached from its historical, cultural and political significance in the Northeast.

“The new trend became how Western beats in the 1960s to 1980s influenced local music, be it molam or luk thung,” Arthit said, who regularly travels to the Northeast to both stage molam music and collect information about the genre in the hopes of one day establishing a molam museum.

Gridthiya Gaweewong, the artistic director at the Jim Thompson Art Center, urged the audience not to forget molam’s historical background, even while accepting that the genre is fluid and ever-changing like all artforms.

Molam is an intangible heritage of the Isaan people, she said, and was even used politically during the Cold War to spread both pro-US and pro-communist propaganda.

Whatever the consequences may be, Arthit doesn’t see the mainstreaming of northeastern folk music in Bangkok abating any time soon, citing the popularity of Isaan food as a mirror cultural phenomenon.

“It will definitely expand. Even [Thai] rappers now adopt molam elements,” said Arthit.

While molam is branching into fusion forms in Bangkok, another panelist noted that there remains a demand for traditional molam among diaspora populations abroad.

Jerenchai Chonpairot, a music specialist at Mahasarakham University’s College of Music in the Northeast, said molam performers are active performing for Thai and Laotian diaspora across Southeast Asia and in the West.

The khaen, a bamboo mouth organ, in particular often brings tears to those living abroad who long to hear its haunting sound, said Jarernchai.

“They miss their homeland… They compare the sound of khaen to that of a bird of paradise,” said Jarernchai, who also demonstrated the instrument to the mostly foreign audience at the FCCT.