Both educational and endearing.
The French label Akuphone taps a musical curiosity similar to that of Sublime Frequencies, releasing faraway folk-pop from Japan, China and Sri Lanka, for starters. While the label’s previous collections focus on commercially-released recordings, its latest project seems even closer to Sublime imprint, with field recordings made by ethnologist Laurent Jeanneau of ethnic minorities in Laos. Yet this raw music has a rhythmic propulsion and drama. If that doesn’t exactly translate to conventional hooks, the music still transcends mere scholarly interest.
The two discs are just 36 minutes each, and could well have fit on a single CD that would make a fascinating mix tape of Lao folk. Music of Southern Laos begins with gong music performed by a group of men from the Brao in South Laos/Northeastern Cambodia. The festive percussion generates a mild drone. “Nyaheun ‘Jeu Phawn Peng Gawng Ploung Ken’” features the voices of elder men accompanied by khene, a mouth organ that makes a reverberating harmonica-like sound, and a small gong. A rooster crowing in the background adds a startling timbre to a melancholy lament.
From a one-minute fragment performed on a series of single-note bamboo tubes to a pulsing six-minute piece performed by a vocalist backed by khene and a two-string viol, these concise tracks are the voices of people from diminishing communities-there are only 25,000 Alak, for instance, and the Oi number only 12,000. Jeanneau explains that the ethnic minorities in Laos tend to live in the mountains, and are considered inferior to valley-dwelling people.
But like everywhere, people sing of love. A courting song is performed in dialogue between a 32-year old Katang man who plays khene and the vocal convictions of a 50-year old Ta Oy woman. There’s no translation provided, but it’s such a compelling performance that it’s hard not to lean in, though one wonders about the historical dynamic between the two peoples.
There are or course larger concern s in these communities. A Katu woman sings mournfully about life in Kalum, an ancestral region in Sekong province that’s threatened by deforestation.
The performers on Music from Northern Laos use their own regional mouth organ that produces a slightly less rich drone than the varieties of khene. This disc begins with a five-minute solo by qeej player Va Yang Li, of the Hmong people. Two older women of the Lantene people, also known as Moon, sing of an ancient Taoist text, and while again, their song is not translated, its fragile melody is enchanting, and the regional birds seem to accompany the women. A 62-year old woman named Kwmjur from the Khmu Ou people plays the tot, a bamboo tube with holes for the fingers and mouth. She sings and blows through the instrument, and the woodwind ballad suggests a folk-music Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
Jeanneau takes care to note the age of these performers, whom he recorded between 2006-2013. And for the most part, they are in their 40s and 50s, which suggests that these traditions are not being taken up by younger generations. These two volumes of music from Laos are both educational and endearing, and preserve sounds that may not be long for this world.