Mor lam (Thai/Isan: หมอลำ [mɔ̌ː lam]) is a traditional Lao form of song in Laos and Isan. Mor lam means expert song, or expert singer, referring to the music or artist respectively. Other romanisations used include mor lum, maw lam, maw lum, moh lam and mhor lum. In Laos, the music is known simply as lam (ລຳ); mor lam (ໝໍລຳ) refers to the singer.
The characteristic feature of lam singing is the use of a flexible melody which is tailored to the tones of the words in the text. Traditionally, the tune was developed by the singer as an interpretation of glawn poems and accompanied primarily by the khene, a free reed mouth organ, but the modern form is most often composed and uses electrified instruments. Contemporary forms of the music are also characterised by quick tempi and rapid delivery, while tempi tend to be slower in traditional forms and in some Lao genres. Some consistent characteristics include strong rhythmic accompaniment, vocal leaps, and a conversational style of singing that can be compared to American rap.
Typically featuring a theme of unrequited love, mor lam also reflects the difficulties of life in rural Isan and Laos, leavened with wry humour. In its heartland, performances are an essential part of festivals and ceremonies, while the music has gained a profile outside its native regions thanks to the spread of migrant workers, for whom it remains an important cultural link with home.
Morlam had its birth in the Lao heartlands of Laos and Isan, where it remains a popular art form. Although its precursors probably lie in the musical traditions of the historical Tai tribes that migrated south from China and northern Vietnam, much cross-pollination with indigenous music of the region as well as importation of Chinese, Mon-Khmer, Indian and Malay influences has also had a pronounced affect on the dances, instrumentation and melodies of morlam.
In his Traditional Music of the Lao, Terry Miller identifies five factors which helped to produce the various genres of lam in Isan: animism, Buddhism, story telling, ritual courtship and male-female competitive folksongs; these are exemplified by lam phi fa, an nangsue, lam phuen and lam gon (for the last two factors) respectively. Of these, lam phi fa and lam phuen are probably the oldest, while it was mor lam gon which was the main ancestor of the commercial mor lam performed today.
After Siam extended its influence over Laos in the 18th and 19th centuries, the music of Laos began to spread into the Thai heartlands. Forced population transfers from Laos into the newly acquired region of Isan and what is now Central Thailand accelerated the rapid adoption of morlam. Even King Mongkut's vice-king Pinklao becoming enamoured of it. But in 1865, following the vice-king's death, Mongkut banned public performances, citing the threat it posed to Thai culture and its alleged role in causing a drought. Performance of mor lam thereafter was a largely local affair, confined to events such as festivals in Isan and Laos. However, as Isan people began to migrate throughout the rest of the country, the music came with them. The first major mor lam performance of the 20th century in Bangkok took place at the Rajdamnoen Boxing Stadium in 1946. Even then, the number of migrant workers from Isan was fairly small, and mor lam was paid little attention by the outside world.
In the 1950s and 1960s, there were attempts in both Thailand and Laos to put the educational aspect of lam to political use. The USIS in Thailand and both sides in the Laotian Civil War (the Secret War) recruited mor lam singers to include propaganda in their performances, in hopes persuading the rural population to support their cause. The Thai attempt was unsuccessful, taking insufficient account of performers' practices and the audiences' demands, but it was more successful in Laos. The victorious Communists continued to maintain a propaganda troupe even after seizing power in 1975.
Mor lam started to spread in Thailand in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when more and more people left rural Isan to seek work. Mor lam performers began to appear on television, led by Banyen Rakgaen, and the music soon gained a national profile. It remains an important link to home for Isan migrants in the capital city, where mor lam clubs and karaoke bars act as meeting places for newcomers.
Contemporary mor lam is very different from that of previous generations. None of the traditional Isan genres is commonly performed today; instead singers perform three-minute songs combining lam segments withluk thung or pop style sections, while comedians perform skits in between blocks of songs. Mor lam sing performances typically consist of medleys of luk thung and lam songs, with electric instruments dominant and an extremely bawdy presentation. Sing comes from the English word "racing" (a reference to the music's origin among Isan's biker fraternity — by sing means to go racing about on motorbikes).
Lam in Laos has remained more conservative, and the traditional styles are maintained, but massive exposure to Thai media and culture has led to increasing influence and the adoption of the more modern and popular Isan styles.
Thai academic Prayut Wannaudom has argued that modern mor lam is increasingly sexualised and lacking in the moral teachings which it traditionally conveyed, and that commercial pressures encourage rapid production and imitation rather than quality and originality. On the other hand, these adaptations have allowed mor lam not only to survive, but itself spread into the rest of Thailand and internationally, validating Isan and Lao culture and providing role-models for the young.
Professor Charles F. Keyes argues for the value of the ancient forms as geomythology: "The Thai-Lao people of northeastern Thailand have a well-developed tradition of 'legends' (nithān) which has been perpetuated in past through the media of folk opera ... known as mō lam mū ... no small number record[ing] events which happened 'long ago' on the Khorat Plateau... [N]ot historical accounts, they are not totally lacking in historical value. A number ... make reference to places which can be identified as being the sites of the ancient towns.... [T]he literature of the region has yet to be fully inventoried, much less analyzed," and adds in a footnote: "Unfortunately, most of these publications have had little circulation outside of the folk opera troupes for which they were intended." He next comments on five toponyms mentioned in the myth of Phadaeng and Nang Ai, and compares these with those in the "Accounts of Fā Dāēet-Song Yāng".