Virtually every time we are in Thailand together, Khwantippa and I spend a night at a Tawan Daeng club with her friends. Always heaps of fun, it made me curious about the style of music that is played there, which is Luk Thung. Extremely popular throughout Thai society, why is this considered as country music and what is its history? Turns out it is a very interesting story. Let me tell you all about it.
poster for Monrak Luk Thung, famous for its country music soundtrack
Phleng Luk Thung (abbreviated Luk Thung) was derived from Phleng Thai Sakon, which can be translated to ‘international-style Thai music’. This blend of traditional Thai music and Western instruments was popularized in the first half of the twentieth century. In the 1950s, the style was split into the rural Luk Thung and the urban Luk Krung. Luk Krung, meaning ‘Child of the City’ has a polished sound and complex lyrical meaning.
The folksy counterpart Luk Thung (‘Child of the Field’) emerged after World War II in the central part of Thailand and quickly gained popularity in Isan, the northeastern region, where it borrowed elements of the existing Mor Lam musical tradition, which I will elaborate on in a future post.
Its popularity growing at temple markets and festivities, the music was initially called Phleng Talat (‘Market Music’). Popular in the agricultural heart of Thailand (Isan) and reflecting the way of life of that region, the name shifted to Phleng Luk Thung in 1964 because of a show that featured this musical tradition on television.
In the Sixties, many popular artists looked up to American culture and wanted to get rid of the perception of Thai people as simple farmers. They were heavily influenced by Hollywood movie soundtracks and considered that sound to be the path to stardom.
The playlist below features vintage Luk Thung from the 50s, 60s and 70s, which are my personal favorites. It is heavily infused with Western musical elements from these periods and some of them can even be considered to be psychedelic, others jazzy. In my imagination, this is the music that an American G.I., on R&R leave from Vietnam, would hear when he entered a dark smokey bar on the shores of Pattaya.
The colorful and upbeat nature of contemporary Luk Thung music, which I will feature in another future playlist, hides a dark and slightly rebellious spell in its history. Its predecessor, Phleng Thai Sakon, was used by the government in the late thirties and early forties as a form of propaganda to broadcast the political ideology of modernization in Thailand. During the economic hardship of World War II the prime minister introduced an accompanying dance called Ramwong that was meant to counter-act the influence of Western dance music and help people forget the troubles of every day life. The influence of the slow round dance with males and females dancing in a circular manner and incorporating graceful hand gestures and simple footwork still survives in Thai society. Ramwong brought many northeastern performers into the Thai music industry, paved the way for Isan influence on Luk Thung and was a stepping stone for the colorful Haang Krueng back-up dancers in contemporary Luk Thung shows.
During the Eighties, when Luk Thung took off big time, large numbers of Isan people migrated to central Thailand, looking for work and taking their preference for countrystyle music with them. They started making more money and moving up in society. Luk Thung worked its way up the ladder alongside its enthusiasts.
Culturally speaking, Thailand’s Isan region is quite different from the rest of Thailand, a topic I will elaborate on in the future. Successive Thai governments, going back to the 19th century, have tried to stamp out its heritage and customs, causing the Isan people to be seen as poor rural labourers. With Luk Thung’s historical fanbase in (and many artists from) that region, slight themes of rebellion and protest have found their way into the genre.
Even though the mainstream popularity and the extravagant ways of Luk Thung performers have largely covered over the rebellious streak, in a way it will always be the music of the working class and the poor.
But so was disco, and wasn’t that great fun?