Molam 2000: Southeast Asia’s Psychedelic Folk in the New Millennium

For a genre with such an interesting past, molam doesn’t get enough coverage. While it’s had a minuscule boost in Western popularity over the last few years, molam deserves far more acclaim.

The genre, originating in Laos and Thailand’s northeastern Isan region, developed in the 17th century as a mixture indigenous music from countries including China, India, Vietnam, and Malaysia.

The main features of the genre have traditionally been lam, a style of flexible melodic singing, and the khene, a bamboo mouth organ used as accompaniment.

A man playing khene in Laos
(via Creative Commons)

After being blamed for a drought, as well as threatening Thai culture, public molam performances were banned in 1865. The genre survived, although it was mostly confined to festivals.

Molam did not have another major public performance until 1946.

Both sides of the Laotian Civil War, as well as the USIS in Thailand, used molam singers to spread political propaganda during the 1960s and 70s. After the victory of communism in Laos, political molam continued.

By the 1980s, molam had spread throughout the rest of Thailand and into other southeast Asian countries.. The geographical expansion of the genre lead to a variety of regional styles cropping up. One popular style incorporated elements of Western psychedelic rock.

Then, the year 2000 came.

In America, acts like NSYNC and Destiny’s Child were topping the charts, but on the other side of the globe, molam was experiencing some extremely challenging and mysterious releases.

Khana Rung Thawi – “แห่สดดนตรีพื้นบ้านหนองโก ชุดที่ 8 + 9”

(via Murky Recess, 2010)

Released on an unknown label in 2000, this album was unheard by Western ears until a blogger picked up a copy in Isan in 2010.

This Thai psychedelic freak-out of molam record falls within the lam sing subgenre, one which is denoted by a drastic increase in tempo and association with outlaw biker culture.

It omits a good portion of the traditional idiosyncrasies of molam. Only two tracks long, this album is comprised of two 25-minute-long electronic jam sessions that are so gloriously cheesy it’s near impossible to not find some enjoyment out of them.

Both tracks are absolutely relentless. As soon as the record starts with the track “แห่สดดนตรีพื้นบ้านหนองโก ชุดที่ 8” the overblown drum machine immediately kicks. The remaining 50 minutes feature endless soloing from a guitar, cheap Casio (or Casio-knockoff) keyboards, and one of the most awful-yet-endearing synth saxophone sounds ever recorded.

Nothing is known about who the artist, (or artists), behind this record are. Attempts to track down parts 1-7 and anything beyond have largely been fruitless, aside from one unconfirmed discovery in 2017.

Siamese Temple Bell – “Siamese Temple Bell”

(via Forced Exposure, 2000)

Was this recorded in Thailand? Allegedly.

When was this recorded? Forced Exposure, the first label to officially release, (or rerelease) this record seems to think it was 2000, although Discogs says it was in the 1970s.

Who recorded this? No one really knows.

Tracking down a decent copy of this online is a little bit of a hassle, but it’s definitely worth a listen.

Some of the track sounds undeniably modern, with a punk-like edge and drum rhythms that sound heavily influenced by hip-hop. Both are featured prominently on the second “Untitled” track.

However, “Siamese Temple Ball” also has a super genuine spirit to it. All of the commotion of the record feels very real, from seemingly random hollering to booming drums and clanging metallophones.

The record, like great deal of field recordings, was captured by what sounds like only one stereo microphone. Having that field recording quality increases not only the credibility of this being a real, unadulterated Thai album, but also a sense of space. It feels immediately present while listening.

Jah Wobble & The Invaders of the Heart – “Molam Dub”

(via 30 Hertz Records, 2000)

“Molam Dub” is the result of Public Image Ltd bassist and noted world music fan Jah Wobble discovering molam. Noting similarities between molam and reggae, a genre he had a great appreciation for, Wobble set out to record a record incorporating both styles.

In order to get a genuine molam sound for his record, he recruited Molam Lao, a group of musicians who had escaped a communist re-education camp in Laos at the end of the Vietnamese War.

For the most part, the album is fairly traditional, using Laotian percussion, flutes, strings, khene, and lam vocals. What Wobble brings to the record is what sets it apart.

His use of drum machines  and repetitive reggae basslines underneath the molam melodies above, on tracks like “Lam Siphandone,” gives the album an intensely hypnotic feeling that just isn’t present on a lot of other releases in the genre.

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