Music and Dance

Lao saying

As in literature, Lao folk songs are passed on by word of mouth and are rarely written down. The basis of Laotian music is placed on the Khene: a series of bamboo sticks of different lengths. It can be described as a mouth pipe organ, consisting of around fourteen bamboo tubes (which in fact resemble the arrangement seen in western pipe organs, or the pipes in a bagpipe) connected to a mouthpiece. Other traditional Lao instruments are the: Khouy, which is a Bamboo Flute, the Saw, also known as the Saw-Oh or Saw-Ai, a violin consisting of two cords, The Nang Nat or Nat Row, a bamboo xylophone, and the Khong Vong, a series of sixteen cymbals struck by a cloth covered mallet.

Traditional folk music, invariably associated with either dancing, or a drama, is most commonly referred to as Lam, which is the same term for various dances. Sometimes, it is called Maw Lam, where Maw is the word for doctor, or expert, and should more correctly apply to a singer of Lam. The oldest and most well-known dance is the Lam Vong, the Circle Dance. However, Lam continues to evolve, and modern forms are the current fashion. Lam Salavan is a style that has appeared in the last decade (hear sample below). Most commercial artists now use at least some electric instruments, most often a keyboard set up to sound like a 1960s Farfisa-style organ; electric guitars are also common. Other western instruments are also becoming popular, such as the saxophone and the drum kit. Ethnic Laotians in Thailand have developed an internationally-best selling form called maw lam sing.

Traditional Lao music can be divided into classical and folk forms. The classical form is closely related to that of the Siamese, from which it borrows. Classical dance is also called court dance because it was performed for the royal family of Laos, and can be compared to Western classical ballet in that the dancers act out classical stories from famous Lao legends, as well as the Ramayana epic (brought by the Khmers from India). Classical performances often involve hundreds of dancers with elaborate costumes and stage settings.

Some ethnomusicologists also believe that Laos is a country where the ancient art music of the Khmers has been best preserved -- as well as diverse forms of folk music related to the oldest types of Indian music, music that has largely disappeared in India itself.

Folk music, on the other hand, maintains a distinctly Lao flavor, bawdy and informal, either down to earth pelvis-gyrating, foot-stomping music, or sad ballads of rural life. In general, Laotian music has a happy and energetic sound and most people absolutely love to dance to it. Dancing to Lao music involves rotating your hand in a circular motion to the beat of the music while also keeping rhythmic time with your feet. Laotian music generally speaks about rice farming, flirting with each other while farming rice, and falling in love

Being landlocked, new influences did not come easily to the hills of the central Indochinese peninsula, and thus the musical traditions of the villages found there were preserved and refined throughout the centuries.

The Khene is by far the hallmark of Laotian country music, and is used in many different musical contexts throughout Laos: it is played as a solo instrument, or in groups of two, three or more, it is an integral part of the traditional Laotian orchestra and smaller instrumental ensembles, and it is also often used for shamanic or magical music.

There are various sizes, and numbers of pipes, which always come in parallel pairs, usually 7 to 9 pairs, and are varying lengths. The largest pair can be anywhere from 90 cm. up to 3.5 metres! Quite naturally, the larger instruments are more difficult to play, as they need more breathing power, and thus most instruments are made no larger than 130 cm (although I bought a smaller sized instrument, made for children). The Khene is played by both exhaling and inhaling into it. In this way, the player can play continuously without having to take a quick breath in-between the notes. The instrument's pipes each have a hole which, when covered by a finger, change the pitch of the pipe, allowing melodies to be played alongside the natural harmonic drone of the instrument.

Lao Deum and Lao Lam are examples of two musical forms that use the khene. Lao Deum means "Lao tradition.

Quite often the songs are extracted from a recent event in the performer's life, which he or she temporarily relates to the music. Lao Lam music is poetry that is sung to the accompaniment of the khene. The most popular lam songs are love poems sung by a woman and man to each other. Through the songs, the singers test each other's knowledge of stories from Lao Buddhism, literature, and other traditional teachings. The Lam is perhaps the greatest, and certainly the most highly developed, traditional musical form in Laos. It is structured as a singing "competition" or "joust" alternating between a man and a woman.

To hear samples of music stored on this site, click twice on the play buttons of the links below:

Traditional Mawlam with Khaene - woman

Traditional Mawlam with Khaene - man

Folk music

Lam Salavan
Modern Mawlam - woman
Modern Mawlam - man

For more on Lao Music, visit the sites below, although you may need Real Player to hear and download some of the songs

Download Real Player

SE Asian Languages and Cultures - Center of Southeast Asian Studies at Northern Illinois University

LaoMusic.nu  - (At the bottom of the page, there are links to hear music)