Brief biographies of lukthung performers and songwriters from the 1950s to 1970s
Suraphon Sombatjaroen – Born in Suphanburi in Central Thailand (also the birthplace of Phumphuang Duangjan and Sayan Sanya), his father worked for the government and he had a better education than most singers. After studying at technical college he became a teacher before joining first the Navy, then the Army, and finally the Air Force. He established his own ramwong band while in the Air Force and gradually changed to the emerging genre of lukthung . By the time he was murdered in 1968, reportedly at the behest of a jealous husband, he was the biggest music star in Thailand (Siriphon, 2004: 242-247). After his death some of his fans committed suicide because they could not imagine life without him (Anek, 1986: 62).
Benjamin – Tumthong Chokchana, otherwise known as ‘Benjamin', was born in Ubon Ratchathani in 1927 and rose to become the acknowledged king of ramwong . He was one of many Isan people to benefit from Phibunsongkhram's patronage of ramwong and ramthon as a new Thai art form. As a Catholic he took his performance name from his high school in Ubon. In 1945 and 1946 he produced his first set of songs which were purchased for the equivalent of 500 baht per song by ‘Khru Jaeo' Sanga Aramphi on behalf of the recording company Kamol Sukosol (Waeng, 2002: 191). One of these songs, ‘Mekkhala lo kaeo', was a retelling of an episode from the Ramakian . 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: 193). 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'). Fellow Northeasterner, Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, convinced Benjamin to take up a position in the army and in 1956 he volunteered for a six month posting in Korea. While there he gathered lyrical and musical material producing songs such as ‘Kaoli haeng khwam lang' and ‘Aridang' (the name of the Korean village where he was posted). He also borrowed from Western sources, using the tune of Hank Williams ‘Jambalaya' for ‘Jamdai mai la'.
In the early years of the 1960s Benjamin was confronted by the growing reputation of Suraphon Sombatjaroen and his subsequent efforts to compete with the younger man proved futile (Waeng, 2002: 199-201). Benjamin could create trends but Suraphon was always able to produce songs that were more commercially appealing. In 1964 Benjamin formed a new band called Benjamin Lae Sahai (‘Benjamin and friends') but within a year he transferred leadership to his only disciple Kuson Kamonsing and withdrew from the music industry (Waeng, 2002: 202). He continued to act, his last role being in 1977's Thongphun Khokpho: Rassadon Tem Khan directed by Prince Chatrichaloem Yukhon. An event titled Khitthueng Benjamin (‘thinking of Benjamin‘) was organised by Jenphop Jobkrabuanwan and the Bangkok Bank's Centre for Arts in 1993 with a view to reviving public interest in Benjamin's achievements (Loetchai, 1995: 62-64), but he died in relative obscurity in 1994.
Chaloemchai Sriruecha , was a ramwong singer and song writer and contemporary of Benjamin who eventually became part of Suraphon Sombatjaroen's band. According to fellow performers Nakhon Thanomsap and Pong Prida, Chaloemchai was born in Roi-et in 1927 and studied up to Year 8 (a reasonably good education at that time) before moving to Bangkok to become a monk (quoted in Waeng, 2002: 208, 209). He wrote famous lukthung songs for Samson Na Mueangsri (‘Jep Jai Jing') and Sangthong Sisai (‘Nong Neng') and ramwong -style songs for Latda Sriworanan (‘Huajai im rak' and ‘Jakrawan jai'). Like Benjamin, Chaloemchai loved to write about traveling and he wrote a number of songs that made use of Khmer language such as ‘Khamen tam ram phan'.
From 1946 to 1957 he performed with groups such as Wayubut, the Air Force Orchestra (where he would have met Suraphon) and the Bangkok Cha Cha Cha band of Somphong Wongrakthai and Chutima Suwannarat. Waeng believes that Suraphon was only able to produce Isan-style songs that used Lao words because of his friendship with Chaloemchai, who had extensive knowledge of molam and Isan ramthon (2002: 217). Thus Chaloemchai's major contribution to the history of lukthung was in facilitating the rise of Suraphon and enabling Suraphon to write in styles that Benjamin had already popularised. After Suraphon's death Chaloemchai disintegrated into alcoholism and he eventually committed suicide at the age of sixty by jumping out of the hospital where he was being treated (Waeng, 2002: 221).
Pong Prida – According to Waeng the first songwriter to popularise the use of Isan in lukthung songs was Pong Prida (2002: 164). Pong, born in Khon Kaen in 1930, worked in factories and as a boxer and bus conductor while waiting for his break in the music industry. He gained work playing the khaen and providing sound effects for other singer's recordings and when, in 1958, he was finally given the chance to record his own song (‘Klap Ban' – ‘go back home') it was banned for supposedly criticising the government (Waeng, 2002: 230-231):
I live in Isan
I have never been lazy
Nature did not provide for me
So I turned my face to the city
I hope I will be able to work
I leave my home like other Isan people
I walk around and look in the city
I'm worried that I will be hit by a car
Oh the city
All the shops are beautiful like they said
Whoever enters will not want to leave
My home only has forests and rice fields
I only heard what they said
Those Isan are very lazy
They leave the rice fields, leave home, come into the city
Don't talk like that.
We never thought to live in the city
We are Isan, we still care about our home and rice fields.
We are coming to look for a job
Don't say we are lazy.
When it's time to plant rice all of the Isan people will go home.
Not only does this song use Isan signature words such as khoi and ai (‘I') but the main lyrical elements of modern lukthung are evident: poverty, urban migration, the attraction and dangers of the big city, rural romanticism and Isan ethno-regional pride. Following the popularity of Chaloemchai's hit song ‘Boeng Khong' (Isan for ‘see the Mekong') Pong was given a second chance and ‘Sao fang Khong' (‘girl by the Mekong') became a huge hit. He worked as a singer in the Jularat band from 1958 to 1963 and then in Khru Samniang Muangthong's Ruam Dao Krajai band until 1968. Pong's temper was the reason he left each of these bands and it became his downfall when a mysterious incident in Khon Kaen caused him to stop singing for many years (Waeng, 2002: 233). In 1977 Sonchai Mekwichian found him farming in Lopburi and asked him for permission to rerecord ‘Sao fang Khong' and ‘Sao yu ban dai'. The popularity of these releases convinced Pong to return to singing and he performed until he died in January 2011.
Sanya Julaphon – Sawat Singprasit was born in Khon Kaen in 1933 and became famous under the names of San Silaprasit and Sanya Julaphon. At the age of seven he was taken by his mother to the south of Thailand and recalls that travelling was important in shaping his character. After a two year stint of boxing as a teenager he moved to Bangkok and struggled to break into the music industry. He eventually became a disciple of Luan Khwantham (of Suntharaphon fame), who only taught fellow Southerners – San remembers that he was accepted into Luan's stable because he had grown up in Songkhla, the hometown of Luan's wife (Surin et al., 2004: 133) . His first song to be recorded was ‘Nammon namta' (‘sacred tears') sung by Somyot Thasonphan. Under the name San Silaprasit, he also sang and toured with bands such as Chanai Saengthongsuk, Kaikam and Nian Wichitnan in the same era as Phayong Mukda, Suraphon Sombatjaroen, Phiphat Boribun and Saksri Sriakson.
After this period he took a break from singing and returned to live in Isan (Pakchong). When the Jularat Band came through town he approached the leader Mongkol Amathayakul and showed him some of his songs. Mongkol took him on as a singer and song writer under the new stage name Sanya Julaphon. In a glittering career thereafter some of his most famous songs included the iconic Mother's day song ‘Phra khun mae' sung by Chinakon Krailat, ‘La kon Bangkok' (‘goodbye Bangkok') sung by Waiphot Phetsuphan, ‘Soeng swing' and ‘Num Mueang Loei' (‘boy from Loei') for Phanom Nopphon and ‘Fakfa sanglom' for Phongsri Woranut.
Sombat Bunsiri – Sombat was born in 1937 in Prajinburi (Eastern Thailand) but his ancestry was Lao. In 1958 he went to live in Vientiane, Laos, and worked in advertising for several years before returning to try his luck as a song writer in Bangkok. He became one of the students of Khru Ko Kaeoprasoet, an all Isan group which included Loet Srichok, Wichian Sitthisong, Samson Na Mueangsri, Samran Arom, Cho Khamcha-I, Den Buriram and Surin Phaksiri. His experience with advertising art was put to good use producing collections of the group's songs, which sold for between two and five baht. Sombat's career as a songwriter and singer was launched by a 78 featuring ‘Bo luem Isan' sung by Phongsri Woranut and ‘Ya luem Isan' (‘don't forget Isan') sung by himself. Waiphot Phetsuphan re-recorded the latter song and it became a hit. Another notable song by Sombat was ‘Nirat rak Vietnam' (‘travel poem love Vietnam'), which followed Benjamin's example, by using foreign words and musical style. Sombat never actually went to Vietnam but he asked a Vietnamese boy in his neighborhood how to say certain phrases. Between 1961 and 1963 Sombat had his own band and then he sang with the Bangkok Blues band of Nopharat Thiphayosot until it disbanded in 1965. Later his songs were performed by singers such as his protégé Kongphet Kaennakhon, who became better known as Somyot Sakunthai, Waeo Mayura and Santi Duangsawang (Waeng, 2002: 250-254).
Cho Khamcha-i – A member of the Phuthai minority, Cho grew up in Khamcha-i in Nakhon Phanom province, near Mukdahan. He worked as a roadie for the bands of Ko Kaewprasoet and Saksri Sriakson before becoming a joker and singer with Samai Onwong's Samai Silabin band along with Kan Karunwong, Wichian Sitthisong and Narong Kosaphon (otherwise known as Lung (‘uncle') Naep). After they met at Khru Ko's house Surin Phaksiri encouraged Cho to make use of his Isan heritage in his song writing. Having grown up in the Mukdahan area, Cho was able to draw on molam styles from southern Laos ( lam Doendong and lam Sithandon ) to write songs such as ‘Khao niao tit mue' (‘sticky rice sticks to your hand') for Phanom Nopphon (Waeng, 2002: 257-258).
Phet Phanomrung – Phet, born in 1939, learned to play a wide variety of Western music in his hometown of Buriram, and became a successful singer and actor in Bangkok. Through the patronage of songwriter Phayong Mukda, Phet became the king of phleng ho or yodelling songs, a Thai version of 1960s American country and western (Jenphop, 2007: 86-87) . Although his music is best classified as lukkrung or even phleng sakon , his most famous song, ‘Lukthung siang thong' (‘golden sound of the country'), written by Phayong Mukda, has encouraged the idea that lukthung is Thailand's version of American country and western. At the age of 72 Phet is still performing with his band The Blue Mountain Boys.
Saksri Sriakson – Saksri was born in 1937 in Ubon Ratchathani and is unusual in that she kept her own name throughout her career. After she graduated from high school she won a beauty contest and trained as an Isan dancer. Wishing to pursue a career in entertainment she responded to a magazine advertisement for a singer which mentioned Phaibun Butkhan and Phiphat Boribun. However, when she auditioned both Phaibun and Phiphat thought that her voice was weird and Phaibun said that all she was good for her was to be a wife. Soon after that audition she became Phiphat's wife and in 1957 he launched her career with ‘Nuea fa fang Khong' and ‘Sao fang Khong' and Phaibun's ‘Krathin bon krathang'. She toured with the Phiphat Boribun band that included Chaloemchai Sriruecha, Phongsri Woranut and her husband Rachen Rueangnet and Samanmit Koetkamphaeng (Waeng, 2002: 529-532).
One night in 1959 Saksri and Phiphat went to watch a molam performance in Ubon about Phuyai Li (‘village head Li'), a hilarious archetype of local officials in Isan, who were not used to Central Thai language and were easily confused by government edicts. Soon thereafter Phiphat wrote ‘Phuyai Li' under the penname Ing Chao-isan. The band performed the song in concert for two years before it was recorded with vocals by Saksri. Thinking that the song would not be a hit Phiphat had only a small run of 300 78s made and deposited them with a shop in Bangkok before embarking on a tour of Northern Thailand. On the way home the band stopped over in Phetchabun and Phiphat was amazed to hear a young girl tending buffalos singing the song. When they reached Bangkok they found that ‘Phuyai Li' was all the rage and Saksri had become the most famous female singer in Thailand (Waeng, 2002: 534-538).
For the next decade and beyond ‘Phuyai Li' was an unparalleled phenomenon in Thai music. The Phiphat Boribun band became the Saksri Sriakson band and there were numerous spin-off songs such as ‘Mialuang Phuyai Li' (‘major wife of PYL') sung by Chaichana Bunnachot, ‘Phuyai Li ti khong' (‘PYL strikes a gong') sung by Srisa-ang Trinet, ‘Phuyai Li taeng ngan' (‘PYL gets married') sung by Phongsri Woranut and ‘Siang khruan jak Phuyai Li' (‘the sweet sound of PYL') sung by Yongyut Chiaochanchai. Saksri was booked to appear in Bangkok night clubs for 12,000 baht per month, an unheard of amount, especially for lukthung singers, and in 1964 she appeared opposite Dokdin Kanyaman in the film Luksao Phuyai Li (‘PYL's daughter') (see figure 2.1). Throughout the 1960s Phiphat created other versions of the song including ‘Phuyai Li Wathusi' which capitalised on the 1962 - 1963 Watusi dance craze. There were also numerous lawsuits and even cases of murder attributed to the misuse of the song by those wishing to insult individuals named Li (Waeng, 2002: 538-541).
Surin Phaksiri - Chanon Phaksiri was born in 1942 and adopted the stage name Surin even though he was born in Ubon Ratchathani. From 1963 to 1965 he worked as a hospital wardsman before gaining permanent employment with the Government Prisons Department. In 1967 Khru Ko Kaeoprasoet introduced him to Phraiwan Lukphet but Phraiwan was only interested in cha cha-style songs. Surin had no experience writing in cha cha rhythm but after a short period of practice he produced four songs including ‘Khon khi ngon' for Phraiwan and ‘Lam kiao sao' (sung by Kabin Mueangubon) , which, according to the songwriter, was the first song to alternate verses of molam phloen with lukthung (Surin, 2004: 9). Soon he was writing for performers of the calibre of Saksri Sriakson, Waiphot Phetsuphan, Samai Onwong, and Dam Daensuphan. He launched the career of Banjop Jaroenphon with the song ‘Ya doen show' and in 1971 was awarded a Phaen siang thong kham for ‘Ngan Nakrong' sung by Phonphrai Phetdamnoen.
Surin worked as the musical director on several Rangsi Thasanaphayak films including Monrak lukthung and Monrak maenam Mun (‘magic of the Mun River'). In this role he distributed opportunities to other Isan song writers, such as Phongsak Jantharukkha, Thinakon Thiphamat and Sanya Julaphon, and also introduced sounds from other cultures, most notably the Indian influence in Monrak lukthung (Waeng, 2002: 342-343). Surin's specialty became adapting melodies from other cultures and he now calculates that he has written more than fifty songs using melodies from the West, Japan, India, Malaysia, Korea, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia (Surin et al., 2004: 28).
In the 1970s he became a key figure in the development of the lukthung Isan genre beginning with the song ‘Isan lam phloen', which was written for the film Bua Lamphu in 1971 and performed by Isan-born Angkanang Khunachai. The success of this song emboldened Surin and, with his friend Phongsak Jantharukkha, he began a radio program that featured lukthung and molam and was defiantly Lao in character. If a fan rang up with a request, but refused to speak Isan, Surin would refuse to play the song. He played molam by artists such as Ken Dalao, Bunpheng Faiphiuchai and Khampun Fangsuk and took trips to Laos to purchase additional recordings. The program was so popular that the station was soon playing lukthung twenty four hours per day and cassettes of the show were distributed to Northeastern radio networks (Waeng, 2002: 338).
Working on Rangsi Thasanaphayak 's 1976 film Mon Rak Nak Rop (‘magic of warriors'), in which the government supports Isan villagers to start a band, gave Surin the idea to organise his own lukthung band. Building on the fame of his radio personality, Thitso Sutsanaen, the Thitso Lam Phloen band became a kind of Isan all stars group featuring Surin's disciples Santi Sammat, Phairin Phonphibun, Sonthaya Kalasin and Rungnakhon Phonamnat, with Thinakon Thiphamat as an announcer, Sanya Julaphon in the ticket room and Phongsak Jantharukkha as manager. In 1977 the band performed for five days and five nights at the Phuttha Phisek fair beating the previous record of Phloen Phromdaen. In 1984 the group disbanded and, with lukthung increasing in popularity after the post-insurgency phleng phuea chiwit craze (c1980-1983) had abated, Surin devoted himself to song writing once again (Waeng, 2002: 344-347).
Saksayam Phetchomphu – was born Bunchuen Senarat in Mahasarakham province in 1952 and only completed up to fourth class at primary school. Even at that time Bunchuen had his heart set on being a singer and over the next decade he worked as a musician in a variety of ramwong and molam bands. He received his big break in 1972 when Jira Jiraphan (born in Nakhon Ratchasima), the headline singer for one of the bands of promoter Thephabut Satirodchomphu, came late for a performance and threw a music stand near his boss. Thephabut sacked Jira and gave his next recording session to Bunchuen. In that session Bunchuen recorded six songs written by Thepphon Sirimokun, including Jira Jiraphan's signature song ‘Setthi khai khi krabong' (‘millionaire selling Isan torches') (Waeng, 2002: 401-405) . Saksayam became a star literally overnight and ‘Tam nong klap Sarakham' (‘bring the girl back to Mahasarakham'), written by Thawin Thitibutta (a school teacher from Mahasarakham) became a banner song for Isan people because it catalogued the names of the provinces in Isan so that “all Isan people felt that this was their song” (Waeng, 2002: 317).
At that time the most popular band was that led by Sayan Sanya, who had come out of the shadow of the legendary Phongsri Woranut. However by 1973 Sayan's popularity was rivaled by Saksayam's Lukthung Isan band, the name of which was coined by Surin Phaksiri in the first recorded use of the term (Waeng, 2002: 323). Sayan and Saksayam joined forces to become the top grossing show at the Lumphini boxing stage. Surin named their show: “Lukthung Isan phata lukthung phak klang” (‘competition between Northeast and Central Thai country song'). Saksayam was thereafter known by the title ‘Khunphon phleng lukthung haeng khwaen daen Isan' (‘ lukthung genius of the Isan region'). Saksayam reached the height of his fame from 1974 to 1976 when his band was renowned for its lavish production, featuring troupes of dancing girls, amplified instruments and huge sound and lighting systems.
Thepphon Phetubon was born Thepphon Bunsuk in Ubon Ratchathani in 1947. After finishing secondary school in 1966 he went to Bangkok to study at the same technical college as Chai Mueangsing, although they did not meet. After less than two years he returned to Ubon Ratchathani and began a radio show and band with Narong Phongphap, but when fellow Ubon native Saksri Sriakson's band toured the city they both applied to join. Thepphon sang with Saksri's band for a short time under the name Jadet Phetubon and published songs under the name Thepphon Sirimokun before the group finally disbanded. He then worked for the US Army in Ubon for six years.
After a singer named Jadet Mueangsuwan died, Thepphon reverted to his own name out of superstition, and he soon had a sleeper hit with the self composed ‘Khit hot ai nae doe' (Isan for ‘please think of me'). Although it was originally an unplayed B side to Dao Bandon's ‘Lam phloen jaroenjai' Thanom Kittikachorn's 1971 coup resulted in a ban on radio announcers even speaking. Many announcers decided to resign in protest and they played ‘Khit hot ai nae doe' as a farewell to their fans (Waeng, 2002: 455). Later Thepphon wrote many songs about the Isan urban migratory experience. From 1973 to 1975 Thepphon performed in the Saksayam Phetchomphu band and then had his own successful band until 1981. After that he experienced health problems due to the over-consumption of alcohol but continued to write songs for performers such as Monsit Khamsoi, Fon Thanasunthon and Jintara Phunlap.