Louie Ackelsberg, 128 YinD
This month, Sticky Rice is celebrating the music of Isan with #MolamMarch, highlighting molam from its roots to its modern day iterations.
What is molam? Molam is traditional music from Isan, the vast region of northeast Thailand. It’s folk music sung in Isan, the local dialect that resembles Laotian more than Thai. Molam is country music about rural life, courtship, pain and humor. There is molam with a female vocalist, molam directly translates to “expert singer,” and molam that alternates between a female and male singer (molam kuu).
Sometimes the singer is accompanied by only the khaen (แคน), a multi-piped, bamboo organ, while other times there are full bands that include the phin (พิณ), similar to the guitar, saw bang (ซอบั้ง), a bowed string instrument and hand drums. Together, the molam sound is psychedelic, and the rhythm is infectious.
Molam can be stories about Buddhist folklore or party music for a celebration that goes all through the night and into the early morning. There is molam that closely resembles li-gee (ลิเก), Thai opera popular in central Thailand, and molam that includes electronic instruments, scantily dressed dancers and comedians (molam siing).
There is molam from Ubon Ratchathani and another type from Khon Kaen. There is molam that draws influences from luk thung, the country music of central Thailand, and molam influenced by the soul, funk and rock albums of American GIs stationed in Isan during the Vietnam War. Molam is popular among working-class Isan migrants in Bangkok who fueled and sustained the genre throughout the years as well as hipsters and farangs in Bangkok nightclubs. Today, there is molam that doesn’t sound anything like molam, and debates about whether current pop music should be considered molam at all.
What’s clear is that it’s an integral part of Isan culture. But similar to culture, the true nature of molam is complex, fractured and constantly evolving.