The sharper edge to traveling in Asia

Morlam music: an Isaan pastiche of city and country

Written By: herbrunbridge - Apr• 23•10

Jintara Poonlarb live at Bankok's Tawan Daeng

Morlam music, an infectious, riotous urban music originally from the Isaan northeast, is one of the predominant Thai musical genres you’ll find in Bangkok today. With its raging organ ostinados, high-flying guitar riffs, and rap-like vocal phrasing, morlam can be heard in street stalls, Thai bars, and taxi radios and VCD (video CD) players. A live  morlam show may include dancers, up to dozens in number, sporting plumed headdresses, sarongs, tennis shoes, you name it, just as long as it’s festive. 

Often referred to as “Thai country music”, along with its close cousin “lukthung,” you can hear morlam live at venues such as Tawan Daeng, and all stalls selling Thai music will have morlam CDs and VCDs (labeled “karaoke”) for sale, featuring morlam stars such as Jintara Poonlarb, Banyen Rakkaen, Doakfah Phetpuphan, and  Rojaná Sarakham.  

About the music
Morlam music is also referred to as “mor-lam”, “moh-lam”, “moh-lum”, and similar spellings, as the English transliteration from Thai and Lao is inexact.  Originating in the Isaan country of northeastern Thailand, its primary instruments originally were the khaen, a multi-reed, multi-pipe mouth organ, and the phin, a stringed instrument similar to the western guitar. These were often accompanied by the sor, a bowed string instrument, a hand drum, and a circular panpipe called the wood. Today, these instruments are augmented and/or replaced by electronic keyboards, electric bass, and a western-style drum-set. The keyboard is set up to resemble the sound of the 1960’s Farfisa combo organ. The name morlam derives from two words in the Isaan dialect, “mor”, meaning expert, and “lam” meaning song. The Isaan dialect is not understood by most Thais speaking central Thai, the primary dialect in Bangkok, the north, and south, even though the written script is the same. The Isaan dialect spoken in northeastern Thailand and Lao are essentially the same language, and in fact, “morlam” exists in Laos as well, under the name “lamlao”. Although much morlam is sung in Thai, a significant amount is sung in Isaan (Lao).

Lamlao singer Monthong Sihavong

Morlam music, at its best, is fast-paced, being driven by a continual flurry of 16th notes from the khaen, booming bass, surging organ swells, and drums relying heavily on backbeat. Morlam singers are accompanied by dancers, who might either be dressed in traditional Thai costume, mod disco garb, or a stylized combination of both.  It is not uncommon for stage dancers at morlam shows to wear bikinis, which some Western observers believe indicates an encroachment of Western culture on the East.  Not so.  Bas reliefs of scantily-clad temple dancers can be found throughout Southeast Asia, and the tradition is centuries old.

There are four main components to the Morlam song vocal styles:  1)  “Talk“, in which a singer recites non-sung words, generally to slow musical accompaniment; 2) “Gern“, an introductory slow sung section that lasts approximately sixty seconds, most often accompanied by khaen; “Lam“, a rap-like chorus, which differs from western rap in being melody-based, and generally only one chorus long; “Pleng“, which is the non-lam part of the song, and also means “song” in Thai.  Often, the words “o-la-nor” (“o fate”) occur as a beginning to the “gern” section. A common and significant vocal inflection often ends a chorus, consisting of several repeated, non-word vocal inflections, sounding like “o-ey, o-ey, o-ey”.

Morlam and the Isaan culture
As much as it is a music, morlam is also a social force unifying the Isaan people of northeast Thailand, many of whom find their way to Bangkok to find fortune, far from the villages, many of which are wrought with poverty, hunger, and meager economic opportunity. Isaan workers, most of whom have at best an elementary school education, become Bangkok’s construction laborers, street vendors, cleaners, and bar girls. They are ostracized from upscale Bangkok society due to their lack of higher education, language, and skin color, which is darker than that of Sino-Thais. To a large extent, the lyrics of morlam songs tell their own story, making references to village life, village people they miss, lost loves, and exploitation by elements of city culture. Morlam music can be found in numerous karaoke bars in Bangkok where, for a few baht, Isaan people can play a video CD of a favorite morlam performer. The video CD, based on the MPEG1 format, is the preferred choice for hundreds of thousands of morlam fans, many of whom cannot afford televisions, as it allows them to experience their favorite stars on stage, in a venue close to work or home.

Non-Isaan Thais often express embarrassment at the popularity of morlam with Westerners, in much the same way that many mainstream-society people in the U.S. felt about early 1900s New Orleans jazz, which was heard primarily in bordellos. Lao people, on the other hand, generally love the music, which they’ll often claim as being originally Lao.If possible, obtain the VCD versions of morlam CDs, which show the pageantry, the musicians, and acted sequences depicting the lyrics. Some of the more popular morlam singers also sing other forms of popular Thai music. These would include Jintara Poonlarb and Siriporn Umpaipong. On the other hand, singers such as Banyen Rakkaen and Rochana Sarakham tend to sing morlam almost exclusively. Overall, the best way to buy morlam is to buy something you enjoy hearing as you’re walking by a music stall.

Banyen Rakkaen

Morlam recommendations

For more information on Isaan culture, consider reading the work of Isaan novelist Pira Sudham, whose books ‘Monsoon County’ (ISBN 974-89067-3-6), ‘People of Esarn’ (an alternate spelling of “Isaan”, ISBN 974-89123-4-5) and ‘The Force of Karma’ (ISBN 974-90079-1-3) are written in the original English.  For more on Sudham, visit:

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