Laotian Music

Musical tradition: "Moh Lam" folk tradition of Laos

Musician(s): Souphine Phathsoungneune

Instruments: Vocals accompanied by melodies played on the Khene flute

Souphine Phathsoungneune was born in Soungneune, Thailand in the late 1920s. After establishing himself as a folk opera singer, director and writer, he traveled throughout northeastern Thailand teaching, directing and training young opera troupes and selling his scripts.

As a young man, he crossed the border into Laos and is credited with introducing and establishing the Lam Leung Opera form there.  In addition to operas, Souphine was a famous folk singer (moh lam) and has written and performed countless story songs in the lam tradition. These songs are accompanied by the khene, a traditional bamboo reed instrument played in both Laos and northeastern Thailand.

There are many distinct, regional styles of this singing form (lam gawn, lam long, lam si phan don) and Souphine was able to move seamlessly between them.  The two songs in this collection are sung in the lam long style which is known for its slow “drawn out” quality.   In a country without electricity in many regions, these songs provided not only entertainment, but also information and education. Songs were about nature, love, history, day-to-day aspects of life, life stories and religion.

While the translations of Souphine’s songs provide a general road map to his singing of them, in reality the song form is very dynamic, and master musicians are known for their ability to innovate spontaneously within a very tight song structure in response to the mood and desire of the audience. Songs are relished for their content but also for the way the singer plays with words and sounds (often very humorously). Souphine was known far and wide for his agility with the language, for his poetry and for his disarming sense of humor.

During the war, Souphine and his wife, Phady, fled Laos to Thailand and eventually resettled in Vermont in the early 1980s with their four daughters. He has continued to write and sing songs andto train new singers (including his wife) and opera performers in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Vermont. Carol Compton,  an authority on lam singing in southern Laos, wrote, “Lam is an on-going art form, part of the living culture of the Lao and Tai. A specific point of origin in history for lam can no more be discovered, than can the origin of any wave in the ocean” (in Turpin, 2004, page 383). The songs in this collection, written after leaving Laos, are a testament to the way in which the song form has adapted to give voice tothe “living” and changing nature of his life and memory.  Terry Miller, a leading authority on lam singing in Northeastern Thailand, interviewed Souphine in 2003 and, upon piecing together his tremendous contribution to the development and spread of this art form, proclaimed him“The Jonny Appleseed of Lam Leung Opera.”

Souphine and Phady have received Apprenticeship Grants from the Vermont Folklife Center and a Creation Grant from the Vermont Arts Council. They have performed with Phayvanh Leukhaman in an inter-generational collaboration, I Think of This Every Time I think of Mountains(at SIT Graduate Institute in Brattleboro, Sandglass Theater in Putney, Middlebury College in Middlebury and the Champlain Valley Folklife Festival).  In 2003, he wrote and directed an opera, “The Tears of the First Wife,” which was performed in Westminster West and Guilford). In 2009, he was awarded the Governor’s Heritage Award for Traditional Artist.

– biography written by Leslie Turpin, professor, School of International Training

This song was written in 1995 by Souphine Phathsoungneune; he is drawing on his experience of escaping from Laos in the aftermath of the Laotian Civil War.

Souphine was born in Soungneune, Thailand in the late 1920s. After establishing himself as a folk opera singer, director and writer, he traveled throughout northeastern, Thailand teaching and training young opera troupes. As a young man, he crossed the border into Laos and is credited with introducing and establishing the Lam Leung Opera form there.

During the war, Souphine and his wife, Phady, fled Laos and eventually resettled in Vermont in the early 1980s with their four daughters. He has continued to write and sing songs and to train new singers and opera performers in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Vermont.  Pictured above is Souphine playing on the Laos ‘Phi’ flute.

ESCAPE SONG - TRANSLATION

Now I will describe when Laos fell apart.

Everyone had to escape and had no home.

We had to move out from our old land.

Aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers

float in the Mae Khong River

Float across to Thailand.

All the sisters and brothers had to separate from each other.

Everybody had to go by themselves and will not see each other again.

Everybody had to escape from death and had nowhere to go…

Ubon refugee camp had millions of refugees

Laos’ people still floated over the Mae Khong River,

It took a long time before they could take a boat.

Some people died before the middle of the way.

A lot of people found that their families died in the river.

Brothers left sisters,

The sound of people crying, was everywhere.

Husbands and wives separated from each other.

What bad Karma.

It separated the children from their parents;

The girls separated from their partners

And far away from the flowers they used to smell.

Those days are many years from today;

Maybe they will have to marry another man or woman.

Already, now Oh!

My old girlfriend

I wonder if you went back to our old homeland or not.