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Mor lam sing | Khene

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A khene player in Isan A khene player in Isan

Mor lam (Thai/Isan: หมอลำ) is an ancient Lao form of song in Laos and Isan (Northeastern Thailand). 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 rythmic 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.



In his Traditional Music of the Lao, Terry Miller identifies five factors which helped to produce the various genres of lam in Isan: animism, Buddhism, story telling, ritual courtship and male-female competitive folksongs; these are exemplified by lam phi fa, an nangsue, lam phuen and lam glawn (for the last two factors) respectively.[1] Of these, lam phi fa and lam phuen are probably the oldest, while it was mor lam glawn which was the main ancestor of the commercial mor lam performed today.

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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4]

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. 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.

Thai academic Prayut Wannaudom has argued that modern mor lam is increasingly sexualised and lacking in the moral teachings which it traditionally conveyed, and that commercial pressures encourage rapid production and imitation rather than quality and originality. On the other hand, these adaptations have allowed mor lam not only to survive, but itself spread into the rest of Thailand and internationally, validating Isan and Lao culture and providing role-models for the young. [5]


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:

  • lam phi fah (ลำผีฟ้า) — a ritual to propitiate spirits in cases of possession. Musically it derived from lam tang yao; however, it was performed not by trained musicians but by those (most commonly old women) who were thought themselves to have been cured by the ritual.[6]
  • mor lam glawn (หมอลำกลอน) — a vocal "battle" between the sexes. In Laos it is known as lam tat. Performances traditionally lasted all night, and consisted of first two, then three parts:
    • lam tang san (ลำทางสั้น) — ("short form") took up the bulk of the time, with the singers delivering glawn poems a few minutes in length, performing alternately for about half an hour each from evening until about an hour before dawn. They would pretend gradually to fall in love, sometimes with rather explicit sexual banter.
    • lam tang yao (ลำทางยาว) — ("long form"), a representation of the lovers' parting performed slowly and in a speech rhythm for about a quarter of an hour.
    • lam toei (ลำเต้ย) — was introduced in the mid-20th century. Similar in length to the lam tang yao, it is fast and light-hearted, with metrical texts falling into three categories: toei tamada ("normal toei"), using glawn texts in Isan; toei Pama ("Burmese toei"), using central or northern Thai texts and forms; and toei Kong ("Mekong toei"), again central or northern Thai in origin. It uses the same scale as lam yao.[7]
  • lam jotgae or lam jot (ลำโจทย์แก้ or ลำโจทย์) is a variant of lam glawn formerly popular in the Khon Kaen area, in which the singers (often both male) asked one another questions on general knowledge topics — religion, geography, history etc. — trying to catch out their opponent.
  • mor lam mu (หมอลำหมู่) — folk opera, developed in the mid-20th century. Lam mu is visually similar to Central Thai likay, but the subject matter (mainly Jataka stories) derived from lam rueang (the subgenre of lam phuen) and the music from lam tang yao. It was originally more serious than lam plern and required more skilled performers, but in the late 20th century the two converged to a style strongly influenced by Central Thai and western popular music and dance. Both have now declined in popularity and are now rare.[8]
  • mor lam plern (หมอลำเพลิน) — a celebratory narrative, performed by a group. It originated around the same time as lam mu, but used a more populist blend of song and dance. The material consisted of metrical verses sung in the yao scale, often with a speech-rhythm introduction.[9]
  • lam phuen (ลำพื้น) — recital of local legends or Jataka stories, usually by a male singer, with khene accompaniment. In the subgenre of lam rueang (ลำเรื่อง), sometimes performed by women, the singer acts out the various characters in costume. Performance of one complete story can last for one or two whole nights. This genre is now extremely rare, and may be extinct.[10]

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.[11]

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.[12]

The main Lao styles are:[13]

  • Lam Sithandone (also called Lam Si Pan Don), from Champassak is similar in style to the lam glawn of Ubon. It is.accompanied by a solo khene, playing in a san mode, while the vocal line shifts between san and yao scales. The rhythm of the vocal line is also indeterminate, beginning in speech rhythm and shifting to a metrical rhythm.
  • Lam Som is rarely performed and may now be extinct. From Champassak, the style is hexatonic, using the yao scale plus a supertonic C, making a scale of A-B-C-D-E-G. It uses speech rhythm in the vocal line, with a slow solo khene accompaniment in meter. It is similar to Isan's lam phuen. Both Lam Som and Lam Sithandone lack the descending shape of the vocal line used in the other southern Lao styles.
  • Lam Khon Savane from Savannakhet is one of the most widespread genres. It uses the san scale, with a descending vocal line over a more rigidly metrical ensemble accompaniment. Ban Xoc and Mahaxay are musically very similar, but Ban Xoc is usually performed only on ceremonial occasions while Mahaxay is distinguished by a long high note preceding each descent of the vocal line.
  • Lam Phu Thai uses the yao scale, with a descending vocal line and ensemble accompaniment in meter.
  • Lam Tang Vay is a Lao version of Mon-Khmer music, with a descending ensemble accompaniment.
  • Lam Saravane is also of Mon-Khmer orign. It uses the yao scale. The descending vocal line is in speech rhythm, while the khene and drum accompaniment is in meter.
  • Khap Thum Luang Phrabang is related to the court music of Luang Phrabang, but transformed into a folk-song style. The singer and audience alternately sing lines to a set melody, accompanied by an ensemble.
  • Khap Xieng Khouang (also called Khap Phuan) uses the yao scale and is typically sung metrically by male singers and non-metrically by women.
  • Khap Ngeum uses the yao scale. It alternates declaimed line from the singer and non-metrical khene passages, at a pace slow enough to allow improvisation.
  • Khap Sam Neua uses the yao scale. Singers are accompanied by a solo khene, declaiming lines each ending in a cadence.
  • Khap Thai Dam


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.[14] 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".[15]


A live performance of mor lam sing. A live performance of mor lam sing.

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.[16]

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.



The traditional instruments of mor lam are:

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.


Lam singing is characterised by the adaptation of the [vocal line to fit the tones of the words used.[17] It also features staccato articulation and rapid shifting between the limited number of notes in the scale being used, commonly delivering around four syllables per second.[18] There are two pentatonic scales, each of which roughly corresponds to intervals of a western diatonic major scale as follows:

The san and yao scales.

The actual pitches used vary according to the particular khene accompanying the singer.[19] The khene itself is played in one of six modes based on the scale being used.[20]

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.[21] 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:

The basic rhythm of traditional mor lam.

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.[22] 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:


The ching normally play a syncopated rhythm on the off-beat, giving the music a characteristically quick rhythm and tinny sound.


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.[23] 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.[24] The slower pace of some Lao styles allows the singer to improvise the verse, but otherwise the text is memorised.[25]

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.[26] 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. (sample) The plaeng (Thai เพลง) is a sung verse, often in Central Thai. (sample), while the actual lam (Thai ลำ) appears as a chorus between plaeng sections. (sample)


A mor lam VCD featuring Jintara; the karaoke text, the dancers and the backdrop are typical of the genre. A mor lam VCD featuring Jintara; the karaoke text, the dancers and the backdrop are typical of the genre.

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.


  1. ^ Terry E. Miller, Traditional Music of the Lao p. 295.
  2. ^ Miller pp. 38-39.
  3. ^ Miller p. 40.
  4. ^ Miller p. 56.
  5. ^ Prayut Wannaudom, The Collision between Local Performing Arts and Global Communication, in case Mawlum
  6. ^ Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, p. 329.
  7. ^ Miller p. 24.
  8. ^ Garland p. 328.
  9. ^ Garland p. 328.
  10. ^ Miller p. 40.
  11. ^ Miller p. 133.
  12. ^ Garland p. 341.
  13. ^ Garland pp. 341-352.
  14. ^ Miller pp. 43-46.
  15. ^ Miller p. 61.
  16. ^ Miller p. 42.
  17. ^ Miller p. 23.
  18. ^ Miller p. 142.
  19. ^ Garland p. 322.
  20. ^ Garland p. 323
  21. ^ James N Mosel, Sound and Rhythm in Thai and English Verse, Pasa lae Nangsue. Bangkok (1959). p. 31-32.
  22. ^ Miller p. 104.
  23. ^ Miller p. 133.
  24. ^ Garland p. 340.
  25. ^ Garland p. 342.
  26. ^ Miller p. 107.


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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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