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V/A - Molam: Thai Country Groove from Isan

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Artist: V/A

Album: Molam: Thai Country Groove from Isan

Label: Sublime Frequencies

Review date: Feb. 8, 2005

The music of Southeast Asia may sound alien to some Western listeners, but its textures and tonalities are incredibly rich in nuance. With repeat exposure, what sounds bizarre becomes perfectly natural – the ears recalibrate and a kind of naturalization occurs. It’s important to remember that American roots styles such as bluegrass and honky-tonk might sound pretty odd to residents of Laos and Thailand – the countries from which the Molam style originates.

Molam: Thai Country Groove From Isan, is a collection of “folk” songs culled from recordings made in the ’70s and ’80s in the northeastern region of Thailand. A multiplicity of ethnic groups and provincial customs inform Molam, which translates literally as “master singer.” This disc presents a wide array of musical traditions, many of which are in danger of becoming extinct due to the culture’s increasing fascination with keyboard workstations and drum machines.

Molam is hard to pin down to a singular style; the term has become a sort of catch all for dozens of particular musical practices. What these styles have in common though, are their connection to the villages and communities from which they originate. Molam is not of urban character, and is considered embarrassingly unsophisticated, even vulgar, by residents of cities such as Bangkok.

Comedy routines, torch songs and tragic balladry all play their part in this music, as does a blend of traditional instrumentation including bamboo mouth organ, indigenous lutes and the fiddle-like sor. Occasionally an effected electric guitar or bass will find its way into the mix, and the resulting juxtapositions are as charming as anything found on Cambodian Rocks. Subject matter ranges from aching tales of lost love to confessions of perpetual poverty, with levity provided in the form of zany skits.

Often achingly beautiful, the music contained on Molam transcends barriers of language and culture – it’s easy to identify with each singer’s joys and laments. Our lack of linguistic awareness is no hindrance to appreciation; the anguished crooning and emphatic romps on this disc would be affecting in any tongue.

Every culture has a soul, and that soul is most often found in the music of it’s impoverished people. America isn’t so different – from Appalachia to the Delta, the music of the folk remains incredibly potent. This disc grants us a glimpse of a society that in many ways remains mysterious. At its heart, however, the music of Isan is surprisingly familiar.

By Casey Rae-Hunter

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