Ramwong

 

Ramwong , in which men and women dance in a circle, dates back to 1944 when Phibunsongkhram's wartime government introduced a suite of official dance songs to compete with the popularity of Western dances such as the foxtrot or waltz. Waeng claims that Phibunsongkhram and his wife La-iat observed performances of village ramthon (‘drum dance'), when they travelled up-country to inspect Phetchabun and the surrounding area with a view to building a new capital. La-iat wrote down texts and some melodies and had the Fine Arts Department produce ten ramwong matrathan (‘standard circle dances'). Waeng believes that, because of the high number of Lao-Isan people in the Phetchabun area, some of the standard ramwong melodies had a strong Lao character (2002: 113-114). This can be seen in two of the genre's key features - the use of pentatonic minor scale and ostinatos over an unchanging tonic key, which are also typical of morlam . The strong beat and lack of syncopation indicate that these ostinatos may also have been influenced to some degree by Western brass band marches.

 

What is certain is that many Isan people benefited from Phibunsongkhram's patronage of ramwong and ramthon as a new Thai art form and that there was significant Isan involvement in the ramwong music industry that flourished in Thailand between 1945 and c1955. Two of these early Isan musicians became influential in the development of lukthung .

 

Chaloemchai Sriruecha , born in Roi-et in 1927, popularised ramwong songs in Lao-Isan style using just khaen (bamboo mouth organ) and klong (‘drum'), including ‘Lao cham jai' (‘broken hearted Lao') (Philips BTC10110) and ‘Sao rim Khong' (‘girl on the banks of the Mekong') (Philips BTC10113) in 1954. During this early period he also wrote ‘Huajai im rak' (‘heart full of love') and ‘Jakrawan jai' (‘huge heart') for Latda Sriworanan, perhaps the first Muslim woman to enter the Thai entertainment industry . In the 1960s he wrote famous lukthung songs for Samson Na Mueangsri (‘Jep jai jing' – ‘heart really hurts') and Sangthong Sisai (‘Norng Neng' – ‘Miss Neng') and made use of Khmer language in a number of songs such as ‘Khamen tam ram phan' (‘lowland Khmer laments') (Waeng, 2002: 211).

 

Tumthong Chokchana , otherwise known as Benjamin, was born in Ubon Ratchathani in 1927 and rose to become the acknowledged ‘king of ramwong '. Benjamin was the main figure responsible for transforming ramwong from folksong into popular song by expanding the number of verses, adding Western instruments and by emphasising the rhythmic aspects (Waeng, 2002: 164, 193). As a songwriter he was instrumental in launching the career of the sweet voiced Thun Thongjai with songs such as ‘Nuea fan' (‘beyond dreams'). He was also an important figure in the history of Thai film, for example, producing Mai Mi Sawan Samrap Khun (‘no heaven for you') featuring Phatrawadi Michuthon and starring in films such as Suphapburut Suea Thai (‘gentleman soldier') (1949) and Phuean Tai (‘friend in need').

 

It was during the period of Phibunsongkhram's decline and eventual loss of power in 1957 that lukthung superseded ramwong and phleng chiwit as the favoured commercial genre of the working class. With the introduction of mambo and cha cha beats around 1957, and with its main proponent removed, traditional ramwong must have suddenly appeared quite out of step with the times. However, it did not disappear but was rather electrified and absorbed into lukthung . A highly significant proportion (25 percent) of lukthung songs from the 1950s and 1960s are based around a ramwong ostinato of two to four bars played monophonically by bass, piano or organ and sometimes saxophone. A typical ramwong ostinato can be heard in ‘Ram toei' (see figure 2.3), by Benjamin, the most influential figure in ramwong . Similar ostinatos can be heard in early hits of Suraphon Sombatjaroen such as ‘Nak jai' (‘heavy heart') and ‘Damnoen ja' (which is unusually slow for ramwong ) (see figure 2.3) and Khamron Sambunnanon's ‘Wao Lao' (Isan for ‘speak Lao').

 

Ramwong , as popularised by Benjamin, could almost be counted as an Isan genre and a precursor to the lukthung Isan genre of the 1970s and 1980s. Isan influence can be seen in the use of solo khaen introductions, lam klon poetry, pentatonic minor scale, fast tempo, repeated lines and answering chorus. Furthermore, most of these features can be observed in the most popular song by an Isan artist during the 1960s – Saksri Sriakson's ‘Phuyai Li' (1961). The Thai 78 rpm Discographical Framework demonstrates that a significant number of lukthung songs from the 1950s and 1960s employ what is described as ‘ ramwong beat', which is a fast rhythm, usually

 

Ram D001

Figure 2.3. Ostinatos from ‘Ram toei' (Benjamin), ‘Nak jai' and ‘Damnoen ja' (Suraphon Sombatjaroen).

 

around 140-150 bpm. However, sometimes the beat seems slow because the first and third beats are stressed.

 

Although traditional ramwong declined in popularity after Phibunsongkhram lost power in 1957, performers such as Suraphon, Kan Kaeosuphan, Phloen Phromdaen and Kuson Kamonsing followed Benjamin's example in adapting ramwong to the audience demands of the 1960s. It is not yet apparent why but audience preferences shifted from the full participation of ramwong whereby men would pay to dance with professional dancers in front of the stage to a more passive viewing of a spectacle. The Thai 78 rpm Discographical Framework shows that ramwong actually increased its market share (as it were) from 15 percent of phleng Thai sakon songs (from 1948 - 1957) to 25 percent of lukthung songs (from 1958 to 1969). This trend appears to have fed directly into the 1970s when the subgenre of Isan lukthung began. For example, Saksayam Phetchomphu's ‘Hak sao ramwong' (‘love (Isan word) ramwong girl') and Phloen Phromdaen's ‘Nueng nai laem thong' (‘one of the best') are virtually identical to the pattern established by Benjamin. The influence of ramwong can still be heard in modern lukthung . The fast tempo of ramwong appears to mix well with funk as in Nit Niranam's versions of Benjamin classics such as ‘Ram toei' and ‘Ai Jan'. The riff from Benjamin's ‘ Sat ja khong chai' is quoted in the chorus of Kratae's recent hit song ‘ Chong ya mong' (‘stir balm'). It is not unreasonable to suggest that, through ramwong, 1950s morlam and then Isan lukthung , there is an unbroken line of direct Isan influence on Thai popular music from WWII to the present.