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V/A - ISAN: Folk and Pop Music of Northeast Thailand DVD

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Artist: V/A

Album: ISAN: Folk and Pop Music of Northeast Thailand DVD

Label: Sublime Frequencies

Review date: Nov. 10, 2004

Isan, in northeast Thailand, is a relatively rural region whose people and cultures carry strong roots and connections with those of bordering Cambodia and Laos. The unique ethos of the Sublime Frequencies label is put to good effect on this refreshingly straight-forward DVD documenting the region’s music and dance. By way of simple, intimate camera work by Hisham Mayet, and with the absence of narration or subtitles, the viewer is allowed to experience the sights and sounds as though at first-hand, choosing to bring – or leave behind – whatever musicological, theoretical, or aesthetic considerations he or she might choose.

The journey begins at a huge pan-cultural festival: folkloric traditional dancers and musicians, fire eaters, and acrobats display their skills in nocturnal light. There are times when, close-up, the camera finds nervous smiles or proud faces – young and old alike – in the procession of performers. The effect strips away any perception of exoticism: these people could be your neighbors, a block party, or perhaps marching in your hometown’s July 4th parade.

The next segment takes in some semi-rural neighborhoods, and features informal backyard recitals by local masters of three instruments: Khaen, Wod, and Phin. These are visceral and accomplished performances – the viewer can feel the intensity of the effort involved in the blowing and fingering of the Khaen ( a reed mouth-organ that is the region’s signature instrument.)

The guitar-like Phin shows up again in the next segment, when a soccer-jersey wearing orchestra of teenage boys rocks out on electric bass, arrayed barrel drums and xylophones, and the young Phin virtuoso wails on his piercing-toned axe with utter abandon while traditionally-garbed women dance with slow grace at the front of the stage.

The scene shifts next to slicker, more packaged pop productions, starting with a medley of electric bands performing in a dark, smoky nightclub. In this somewhat voyeuristic footage, distorted rock guitar and seductive, short-skirted go-go dancers mix with traditional vocals and song forms.

We see a better-lit, sanitized version of something similar in the next scene: an outdoor extravaganza that combines funk, traditional, rock, and Europop in a nearly-overwhelming spectacle of costumes and fashions and dances, old and new. It seems almost like a Thai version of a Bollywood set-piece, what with all the free-wheeling influences and juxtapositions. There’s a particularly stunning moment when the lead guitarist slips into a note-for-note version of Carlos Santana’s impassioned solo from “Black Magic Woman.”

The journey ends with an amazing virtuoso solo Khaen performance on a crowded late-night street corner in Bangkok. Just when it seems that the intensity of the music might become unbearable, a singer joins in, and the raw, husky quality of her voice is electrifying and intimate. The stark and joyous beauty of her performance ends the film’s journey on one of many high points.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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