Perhaps the most ubiquitous musical experience in Thailand is the lukthung concert. Every night in Bangkok and Thailand's other major cities concerts attract large crowds to temple fairs, funerals, product promotions and night clubs. In the past audiences would consist only of the poor and working class but today lukthung fans are increasingly drawn from the complete spectrum of Thai society. A full scale lukthung concert is an exciting and visceral experience, with an amplified band, sound and light show, troupes of dancers wearing fabulous costumes and singers who actively seek to engage with the crowd. Performances are a mixture of sorrowful stories of ordinary Thais confronted by hardship and humorous, up-beat numbers designed to have audiences laughing and dancing.
Phleng lukthung , literally ‘children of the field' but usually translated as ‘Thai country music' or more accurately ‘Thai country song', is a hybrid genre which has been popular in Thailand since the late 1950s. The songs describe the impact of urban development on rural Thais and, although usually sung in Thai, many Isan words and phrases are used. Lukthung originally blended 1940s and 1950s Western/Latin American dance rhythms such as the bolero or cha cha with traditional melodies, but has since borrowed from Thai folk music genres such as lae and morlam , Western genres such as funk and disco and other Asian genres such as Bollywood film songs. I nstrumental melodies are highly ornamented and vocals are embellished, nasalised and combined with heavy vibrato. The basic lukthung band is drums, bass, organ and electric guitar, with a brass section and traditional Thai instruments often added.
The lukthung industry provides a wide range of opportunities for creative participation possibly resulting in paid employment and careers. Singers are the main focus of adulation within the lukthung world, while established songwriters are regarded as honoured teachers ( khru ) in the tradition of masters of Thai classical arts. The career practitioners of lukthung are highly skilled artists who, similar to blues performers, write, perform and distribute their music for the duration of their lives. It should be noted that, within the lukthung industry, there is a definite division of labour along gender lines. The professions of songwriter and musician are very much male domains, whereas females dominate the professions of dancer and, to a lesser extent, singer. This convention often results in male songwriters devising the lyrics and personas for female singers, a phenomenon that is deserving of further study.
Apart from singers and songwriters, musicians, dancers, emcees and comedians are vital ingredients in any lukthung show. Dancers wear elaborate costumes, very much in the style of South American carnival or Las Vegas stage shows, and use a curious mixture of moves derived from myriad sources. Many female singers begin their careers as dancers, and for some of the high energy routines of modern female singers such as Mangpor Chonthicha and Kratae considerable dancing skill is required.
Kratae performs with male dancers. (Peter Garrity, Bangkok, 20/3/2009)
Known in Thai as phithikon or khosok, emcees are minor celebrities who introduce singers and comedians and warm up the crowd for the main singers by performing one or two songs (usually covers). Often second tier singers and songwriters end up as DJs and some gain cult followings. Since many concerts are organised by radio stations, DJs often serve as emcees. Lukthung audiences love witty (and often crude) banter so concerts will feature long sections of talking involving the emcees, singers and comedians. Comedians may pick on conspicuous crowd members (as I have experienced personally) or allude to local customs or current events.
The presenters of Chum Thang Siang Thong , a television program produced by lukthung company Nopphon Silver Gold, perform a duet before the main acts appear. (James Mitchell, Bangkok, 16/1/2011)