Have you ever heard of Thai country music? No? Buckle up and tune in to some luk thung.
Generally speaking, there are two main types of country music in Thailand: mor lam (หมอลำ) and luk thung (ลูกทุ่ง).
On the one hand, pleng luk thung, meaning “song of the child of the field” and often abbreviated to luk thung (“child of the field”), emerged in the second half of the 20th century. Much like US country and blues music, the songs voice the day-to-day life and struggles of the downtrodden and poor. The tempo is relaxed and vocalists use an exaggerated vibrato singing style.
On the other hand, mor lam originated in Laos and was brought over by migrant workers in Thailand during the 18th and 19th centuries. It has a faster tempo and is generally sung in Lao rather than Thai. Typically, mor lam music includes instruments such as the khaen (bamboo mouth organ), nimp (3-string lute), ching (bells), and the pan flute.
Nowadays the two genres are increasingly indistinguishable. Luk thung and mor lam music is popular with all demographics, and encompass global sounds and trends.
Here are a few tunes you need on your playlist (or listen to WAT’s ready-made playlist at the end.)
T-REX — มักละเด้อนางน้อง
T-REX hail from the Kalasin Province in northeastern Thailand. The three-piece band (expanding to a six piece when touring) released their latest single this summer. Lead singer Teerapong Boonyabood is in full heart-throb mode as he gazes doe-eyed into the camera. The song tells the story of selling produce from the land to make ends meet and the heartache of unrequited love. Add in a syncopated bass line and some groovy saxophone, and what more do you want?
Tai Orathai (ต่าย อรทัย) — ลืมอ่านไลน์กลุ่ม
Hailing from Ubon Ratchatani in the Isan region of northern Thailand, Tai Orathai is a fixture of the country music scene. Her new single doesn’t hold back, exploding through the speakers with thrashing electric guitars, heavy brass and driving rhythms. For the music video she’s joined by an all-female dance crew for a brilliant country-music-meets-urban crossover.
Jintara Poonlarp (จินตหรา พูนลาภ) — มื้อแลงเนาะ
Mor lam and luk thung singer, Jintara Poonlarp has released a whopping 50 albums in her time, and she’s still rolling out the big hits. This song brings together Poonlarp’s quivering vibrato, funky jazz organ and a jaunty rhythm that recalls South American cumbia music. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing and the singer has been subject to controversy during her career. For instance in 2003, the Thai Ministry of Culture threatened to ban her song Tears of a Lieutenant’s Wife (Namta mia nairoi) for its content on marital infidelity.
ท้าว สมาย — เขามันวินเทจอ้ายมันเกษตรกร
University student by day, singer-songwriter Thao (ท้าว) is based in Nakhon Phanom, near the Laos border. His track centres on the simple life of a farmer. The music video has clocked up 5 million views already (it’s so precious, please watch) and we see the artist playing the phin – a type of lute typical in luk thung music. I’m genuinely obsessed with this song. The feel-good melody and Thao’s warm voice make this an endlessly repeatable hit.
DiD Kitty (ดิด คิตตี้) — Bug Samong Noi (บักสมองน้อย)
Thai music star DiD Kitty (ดิด คิตตี้) first shot to fame in 2017 after appearing as a contestant on the singing competition The Duet Thailand. The Isan-born artist is known for his quirky style often sporting a twirly moustache, ponytail and brightly-coloured outfits. Bug Samong Noi (บักสมองน้อย) combines twanging guitars, cymbal crashes and quivering vocals into a dramatic power ballad about betrayal in love.
SOURCES AND FURTHER READING
“Lukthung: Authenticity and Modernity in Thai Country Music.” Asian Music, vol. 37, no. 1 (Amporn Jirattikorn)