Performing Isan-Style Lam in Laos: an Expression of Pan-Laoism or Thai Hegemony
Terry E. Miller

Kent State University
Ohio, USA



The most typical and traditional form of Lao musical expression is embodied in the term lam, which denotes the singing of poetry, most commonly accompanied by the khaen/khene free-reed mouth organ. Lam is generated from a coordination of lexical tones and typical melodic phrases and is quite unlike the singing of a composed melody, that called hawng. Although Laos and Thailand's northeastern region (Isan) share a common musical culture, there is great variety in the styles.

In Laos there are at least twelve regional styles, mostly named after specific geographical locations (e.g., lam saravane) while in Isan the classifications are based on genre (e.g., lam klawn or lam ploen). Most forms of lam are in repartee form, that is, the alternation of male and female singers. Typically, Isan singers specialize in one genre, but some are eclectic to the point of being able to sing one or more genres as well. Lao singers in the north tend to sing one regional form alone, but those in the south can normally sing several regional styles. While Isan singers rarely sing any of the Lao styles, most southern Lao singers are adept at performing one or more of the Isan genres.

This situation raises several questions. Why do Lao singers perform Isan styles and Isan singers do not perform Lao styles? When representing Lao music in concert or on recordings, why do Lao singers usually include Isan styles? Do Lao singers fairly represent themselves and their country when they sing Isan styles in such situations? Does the inclusion of Isan styles by Lao singers indicate a power relationship between Laos and Isan (or Thailand) or is it an expression of pan-Laoism?