Jonas & Christy and Thailand’s ลูกทุ่ง (lôok tôong)…
In WLT’s Successful Thai Language Learners series, those interviewed began studying the Thai language in their twenties and older.
Jonas and Christy came into the Thai language scene quite a bit younger.
Jonas Anderson (Swedish-British) moved to Thailand when he was 9 years old. Christy Gibson (Dutch-British) arrived at the age of 6 years. Since then, they’ve been busy integrating into the Thai culture.
Early on, both Jonas and Christy discovered a passion for singing. By their teens, they were performing together. Then, when a friend requested a ลูกทุ่ง (lôok tôong) song, the response from the audience was so appreciative that they decided to learn the intricacies of Thailand’s country music.
Christy: As I grew to understand lookthung better, I realized just how deep-rooted the music is in the context of Thai culture. The sense of the Thai heritage is so strong. It’s so totally Thai, and I believe that for every Thai, whether they know it or not, this music flows through their veins. It is very beautiful and it must be preserved. Lookthung comes from the heart. To sing it well, you have to feel it.
I went through a Country Western stage in my late teens, so I slid easily into the rhythm of Thailand’s ลูกทุ่ง. But as ลูกทุ่ง was a total mystery to me, I needed to know more …
Rough Guide: According to luk thung DJ Jenpope Jobkrabunwan, the term was first coined by Jamnong Rangsitkuhn in 1962, but the first song in the style was Oh Jow Sow Chao Rai (Oh, the Vegetable Grower’s Bride), recorded in 1937, and the genre’s first big singer, Kamrot Samboonanon, emerged in the mid-1940s.
Originally called pleng talat (market songs) or pleng chiwit (songs of life), the style blended together folk songs (pleng phuan bahn เพลง พื้น บ้าน), central Thai classical music and Thai folk dances (ram wong).
Malay strings and fiddles were added in the 1950s, as were Latin brass and rhythms like the cha-cha-cha and mambo (Asian tours by Xavier Cugat influenced many Asian pop styles during the 1950s), as well as elements from Hollywood movie music and “yodelling” country and western vocal styles from the likes of Gene Autry and Hank Williams.
And while Wikipedia does have its ups and downs, this snippet adds to the history of it all…
Wikipedia: Luk Thung (Thai: ลูกทุ่ง; lit. “child/children of the fields”) refers to the most popular form of a style of music found in Thailand. The term is short for pleng luk thung (Thai: เพลงลูกทุ่ง; lit. “song of a child of the fields”). Luk Thung songs typically reflect the hardship of everyday life among the rural poor. Tempos tend to be slow, and singers use an expressive singing style with a lot of vibrato.
It was the mention of vibrato that caught my interest because in order to warble, you need total control of your voice for extended periods. And that is more than I’ve been able to master, for sure.
Rough Guide to the Music of Thailand: It takes a special voice and talent to fully exploit the depth of feeling in a lukthung song. Notes are held, wavered and ornamentation added to drain every last drop of emotion.
And if you’ve been to Thailand, then you too have had the pleasure…
Very Thai: In August 1997, life improved for Bangkok taxi drivers. Cherished cassettes of luuk thung folk music wore thin, they could suddenly tune in round the clock to Luuk Thung FM90. They haven’t yet tuned out. While liquid petroleum gas powers the engine, luuk thung powers the driver.
So the next time you are in a Bangkok taxi, perhaps try some name dropping? โจนัส! คริสตี้! ลูกทุ่ง!
Questions for Jonas and Christy: ลูกทุ่ง and more…
When Jonas and Christy agreed to this interview, I started asking questions of the Thais I met:
Do you know Jonas and Christy? How about their music?
Shop girls, secretaries, pharmacists, and even delivery boys all beamed back…
We love Jonas and Christy! They are great!
And it’s not just the Thais who admire the two performers. I also came across a reference to ลูกทุ่ง on Hugh Leong’s site, Retire to Thailand. When I contacted Hugh about Jonas and Christy, he was chuffed to give me a quote:
I absolutely love Christy. I think she is one of the best Luk Thung singers, including all the Thais. Her Thai is really good and she normally sings in Issan Thai, since that is where Luk Thung music comes from. I know Jonas’s music also and he has a very good pleasant voice. He usually sings humorous, sexy type songs. Both are very well respected. Both my wife and I love their music.
I find Luk Thung the most accessible Thai music for foreigners. The musicians are quite good, the music is very similar to American country music in theme, adultery, getting drunk, etc. And the shows that they put on are lots of fun.
My Thai teacher was also thrilled to hear of the interview…
Thais LOVE them both! Christy is so beautiful! To the Thai people, Jonas and Christy are Thai. The Thai people love them so much, they even held a contest to give Jonas a Thai name.
Jonas & Christy, the interview…
So my first question goes to Jonas – What is your given Thai name? Does it have a special meaning to the Thai people?
Jonas: Soon after launching my first album, the radio station “Wetee Thai” organized an activity with their listeners of picking a Thai name for me. Typically Thai lookthung singers have artist names—names that are catchy and/or rhyming or send a certain message from the artist—usually of endearment.
Fans of the radio station responded by sending in thousands of name proposals. It was fascinating to read through all these names, many of which were very imaginative indeed, so it was hard to pick one name. There were simple names and more elaborate ones, old fashioned and traditional names, and more modern ones. Some interesting entries were for example, “Kwanjai Thailand”, “Sawatdee Sweden”, “Rakthai Jaideow” and so on.
In the end I opted to pick a simple name that sounded somewhat similar to Jonas and is typically Thai—the name “Manas” (Or Manat) which means sincere and truthful—rather than choosing a whole new artist name for myself.
It didn’t stick so well though, and more commonly I am called by an Issan nickname of “Baknat”, other than “Jonat” itself of course.
Christy, you mentioned that there are techniques involved in singing lookthung. Could you please describe them for us?
Christy: I had studied singing and taken formal voice training throughout my childhood and teen years especially and so had a pretty good foundation as far as the basics at least. Most of those general or basic techniques are the same in lookthung as well, but there are also some distinct differences. A key for me has always been respecting the Thai lukthoong singers and looking to them as my teachers and mentors and always striving to learn from them as much as possible.
I do not consider myself an expert by any means and I’m still constantly discovering new things, so this will be my meager attempt at describing some of the basic techniques that I have learned and am learning still.
One thing about lukthoong is that the singing style is extremely expressive. My first lukthoong teacher said to me frequently in the beginning that “ต้องได้อารมณ์ของเนื้อเพลง (dtong dai arom kohng neua pleng)”… “you must capture the feeling of the lyrics of the song”. Of course that’s true of all singing in pretty much any language, but as a foreigner I found this much more difficult to do when singing in Thai, as it’s not my first language.
The lyrics of lukthoong songs, particularly the older and more classic ones, are very beautiful and poetic and are often not in what you would call “spoken Thai”. Thus it was a challenge for me to be able to really capture the essence and feeling of what was being said.
Many Thai lukthoong singers are incredibly good at this, and listening to their recordings and live singing, as well as asking them to help teach me and correct my singing helped me a great deal. Also I’d had the unique opportunity of spending a number of years growing up as a child in upcountry Thailand and being in a very distinctly Thai environment—the rice fields, the markets, the rural villages and country life, our Thai neighbors and friends, all the things that are typically part of those surroundings. This was the time to draw upon those experiences and translate them into the feelings that are carried in this beautiful music genre.
The tones of the words in the songs also direct the melody to a very large degree (and this applies to all Thai singing, but especially Lukthoong and Mohlum because of the fact that it is quite traditional in nature and thus the Kru Pleng (teachers) are, thankfully, generally very strict in regards to using correct pronunciation). Naturally, that is the case as Thai is a tonal language, but it is, obviously, very different from singing in English where you can improvise quite a bit so long as you are singing on key and within the chords, etc. That only works in Thai so long as you are improvising within the tones of a given word.
Vibrato or ลูกคอ (look-koh) is also used differently in lukthoong; often slower and much more pronounced. Proper and skillful usage of the ลูกคอ is a major characteristic of the vocals in lukthoong.
Another important feature of singing lukthoong is the ลูกเอื้อน (look-euan). It’s the lukthoong vocal improvisation and inflections, or what I like to call “vocal acrobatics”, usually using the legato technique, and can be used in various ways all throughout a song, particularly at—though not limited to—the end of a line or sentence. This is another thing that Thai lukthoong singers do so very beautifully (sigh).
With mohlum particularly, you also have to learn to move pretty quickly between the notes within the mohlum scale and you have to be able to sing a number of syllables in a row very quickly. I had to really work on my staccato when I started singing mohlum. Thai Mohlum singers can do incredible things with their voices and there are some sounds I never knew were possible to make with the human voice until I started learning mohlum!
There’s a lot more to both lukthoong and mohlum than that, of course, and they are both pretty big subjects in themselves, but these are just a few of the perhaps more prominent examples. Again, let me reiterate that I’m not an expert by any stretch of the imagination, and I’m also much more used to talking about this particular subject matter in Thai. Describing it in English is always fun, but a bit of a challenge.☺
When I was growing up, I was sent to voice lessons where I was put through the grueling (and slightly embarrassing) mo mo mo me me me’s. While the lessons were meant to prepare my voice for singing ordinary songs, ลูกทุ่ง is known as being extremely difficult to master. So, what special training did you both go through?
Jonas: I had previous voice training under an Australian teacher/musician for basic technique and control (which included standard voice warm-ups as well). That basic training helps with any form of singing because it strengthens your voice and improves tone and pitch, but yes, learning lookthung was entirely different in terms of style and delivery.
In basic terms a principle with lookthung is to sing with a full voice and not in the breathy style often popular with pop songs. But being able to truly sing lookthung is of course much more complex than that. We were particularly lucky to receive training under a lookthung teacher who is himself an excellent singer and contemporary of some of the masters of lookthung such as “Sayan Sanya” (sometimes referred to as the “King of Lookthung”).
Despite having grown up in Thailand, I would say my musical influences growing up were much more Western than Thai, so going into lookthung involved quite a shift conceptually as well as in practice. Coming from that different frame of reference musically made having techniques explained to me hard to understand versus actually hearing the singing and trying to copy it. Being trained under Kru Wilai Panom or “Kru Pod” was like a vocal apprenticeship program of learning by doing, and a lot of trial and error. I had an intensive musical course with Kru Pod for a full month before actually going in to the studio to record my first album.
Christy: Yes, I was put through the mo mo mo me me me’s as well…so I feel for you, Catherine, ☺ but again, I really believe that all that basic training helped me a great deal. Having had that musical background definitely made a difference to me when first starting to learn lukthoong and mohlum.
Jonas described pretty well there what we both went through so I won’t repeat it all here. I too was initially trained by Kru Wilai Panom for the lukthoong songs, and Kru Doi Inthanon for the mohlum songs.
Mohlum in particular is a very difficult genre to sing. The note transitions and chord changes in mohlum were not at all predictable to me from my western musical experience and training, so just that, along with the difference in the scales, took getting used to.
In the beginning I had to actually draw on my lyric sheets the sounds and inflections and ups and downs of the notes. So my papers were always full of squiggles and lines and curves and arrows and steps going up and down all over the place. I was the only one who could understand them, but it worked for me! These song sheets were even featured in a number of TV shows that we were interviewed on—I don’t think the Thais had ever seen anything of the sort before :)
Other than that it was a lot of homework too. I spent hours and hours every day for months working as hard as I could to learn how to do those “vocal acrobatics” that the Thai lukthoong and mohlum singers seem to do so effortlessly. And that was just the initial process. From that day to this, every new album and song has been a learning experience for me.
What ลูกทุ่ง and หมอลำ (mŏr lam) performers have inspired you?
Jonas: Rather than any particular individual, I would say that I am inspired by all of the talented Thai lookthung and mohlam artists I have come in contact with, and in many cases had the privilege of meeting personally.
Personally I am inspired by any talented lookthung singers, many of whom may never have had the chance to become famous, but who I consider to be experts nonetheless. I feel that there are so many Thai singers who I can learn from. They are all my teachers.
Christy: I would say the same, and I’ve always tried to listen to many different lukthoong and mohlum singers and learn as much from each of them as I can. I do have some in particular though who I have been particularly inspired by and love, such as Banyen Rahk Gaen, Siripon Ampaipong, Sunaree Ratchasima, and Poompooang Dooang Jun, to name a few.
Were you influenced by any other expat singers of Thai music? For instance, Henry, who performed ลิเก (lí-gày)? Do you trade tips and techniques with other farang musicians specialising in Thai music?
Jonas: From time to time, some people have drawn comparisons between Henry and me of course as there aren’t all that many farangs out there on the lukthoong music circuit. ☺ But unfortunately I never had the chance to meet him or watch him perform. I believe he passed away before I started singing lookthung.
Todd Tongdee is a good friend I have met on numerous occasions. He is a talented performer with a great rapport with the audience. On a professional level I would say that our meeting point is more just as farangs singing Thai and the whole experience of being non-Thai performers, but our actual musical styles differ a whole lot, so there has not been so much exchange on that level.
One of my favourite ลูกทุ่ง songs is Ramwong Dao Dao. And I find the interchange between the two of you with บ้านนี้ฉันรัก Bahn Nee Chan Rak (Jonas) and บ้านนี้ฉันเกลียด Bahn Nee Chan Gliat (Christy) so very fun! What are your favourite ลูกทุ่ง songs?
Jonas: I guess that would depend on if I should say which of my songs is my favorite or which is my favorite in general. Ha!
There are some timeless lookthung classics that I feel epitomize what is lookthung both in style and meaning. One such song is Monrak Lookthung. That song represents the whole lookthung spirit to me, and I would say that it is the definitive lookthung theme song. Another favorite is “Long Ruea Hah Rak” by one of the all-time greats who sadly just passed away—Yotrak Salakjai. I also love the romantic song “Kit Tueng Pee Mai
. There are many more recent lookthung songs which I would say are destined to have timeless appeal—songs like “Gin Kao Rue Yang” by Tai Orathai, or “Jai Sarapap” by Got Jakrapan, and “Krapow Baen Faen Ting” by Ekarat Suvarnabhumi who is one of the greatest current lookthung artists in my opinion.
Personally I feel so privileged to have had the chance to sing many fantastic lookthung songs new and old. Most of the albums I have done have been of classic songs redone, as is the case with the songs you mentioned above. One classic song I had the opportunity to sing was “Mon Mueang Nuea”. That song beautifully portrays the enchanting north of Thailand.
However, as time passes and different albums are produced I feel that I am constantly learning more about lookthung and that I can “feel it” more. I would say that my current favorite is from our most recent album; it’s a song called Mai Pen Rai. The words of the song are simple but heartfelt and the song is very “real”, as lookthung songs should be. I feel that the delivery of it came out natural and sincere which is what I was hoping for. The lyrics are well written (by Ajahn Sompong Pbrem-pbree) as well, sending a message of hope despite hardships.
Christy: Thank you, Catherine! I really like Rumwong Dao Dao also and it’s one of the songs that people like us to sing at our concerts as it’s a lot of fun and often gets people up dancing!
As for some of my favorites, well…
I love the song Sao Ubon Roh Ruk (สาวอุบลรอรัก), though I of course prefer the original version of the song to the one that I did on my second album. The song itself is very beautiful and so moving to me somehow and it just feels like I’m in Ubon whenever I hear it.
A few other lukthoong songs I like are Koy Wun Ter Jai Deeo (คอยวันเธอใจเดียว), Rao Roh Kao Leum (เรารอเขาลืม), and Gaew Roh Pee (แก้วรอพี่). Though really, I have too many favorites to name here, and that goes for both lukthoong and mohlum.
Of my own songs, I really like some of the ones on our most recent album, such as Jep Tee Mai Dai Cheun (เจ็บที่ไม่ได้เชิญ) and Maksidah Sao Dtao Tahng Mohlum (หมากสีดาสาวต้าวทางลำ).
Are there any particular temple fairs that you perform at regularly?
Jonas: Temple fairs typically rotate artists quite a lot and there are many temple fairs we have performed at repeatedly. Other than temple fairs though, there have been a number of other venues that we have been invited back to many times—hotels for their yearly Thai festival events, yearly cultural events in various cities throughout the country, etc., etc. These are also quite fun and special occasions for us, as the audiences are very diverse and besides including a wide range of Thais there are also many foreigners in attendance and it is rewarding to have the chance to showcase Thai music and communicate our appreciation of Thailand and its culture to such a diverse audience.
You often appear on Thai TV. Which shows can we expect to find you on?
Jonas: At present we are promoting our latest album and so are appearing on a number of Thai TV shows including “Hah, See, Sahm, Sohng [5-4-3-2] Show” and “Mum Show”, as well as “Choom Tahng Seeang Tohng”. Around January next year we will be appearing individually on the English morning program “English Breakfast” on Thai PBS. I am also due to appear on “Ching Roy Ching Lahn”.
Christy: We will also be performing very soon on the “Lukthoong Toh Toh Boh Hah” program on Channel 5. You can also look out for us on “Talat Sooan Sanam Pbao” and also again on “Weti Thai”. There are a lot more programs coming soon to a TV screen near you :) but these are a few interesting examples. If you watch Thai cable stations such as Hit Station, OK, or Thai Chaiyo, you will see us fairly often.
You are well-known to the Thai people for positively influencing the youth of Thailand to appreciate their Thai culture. How has the Thai culture influenced your lives?
Jonas: I would say that the influence of Thailand and the Thai people in my life is much greater than the other way around. I consider it a privilege to have grown up here learning to adopt many Thai ways.
To me besides the fascinating aspects of Thai art and music, what is most impressive is the genuine friendliness of the Thai people, their gentle mannerisms and eagerness to serve and make people feel welcome. Beyond the exoticness of Thailand, I would say that this is something that draws people to want to return again and again.
Christy: Thai culture has influenced probably just about every aspect of my life. Especially having grown up here from a very young age, there are many facets of the culture that have become a part of me and the way I think and react to things. The Thai culture is so beautiful and multifaceted. I’m still learning and I hope I always will be.
At times foreigners are granted Thai citizenship. Is citizenship in your future?
Jonas: At this point Thai citizenship remains a dream, but it is one that I truly hope would one day come true.
Christy: “Diddo” to Jonas on that one. I’m definitely hoping for it someday. Who knows? Maybe one day it will be a dream come true! Until then, as the song says, “เรารอ…”
Thank you Jonas and Christy, for taking time to answer questions for us. Especially as you’ve been concentrating on getting your latest album out there (congrats, btw!): Jonas Anderson & Kristy Gibson – Jonas & Kristy (โจนัส-คริสตี้ ชุด โจนัส-คริสตี้)
Coming up next: Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners: Jonas and Christy
Resources for ลูกทุ่ง, หมอลำ, and Jonas & Christy…
Facebook: โจนัส คริสตี้ | Jonas and Christy
The New York Times: A Revival of Authentic Thai Pop
YouTube: Jonas and Kristy – โจนัส คริสตี้ ตัวจริง Presenting Jonas and Christy!
YouTube: Jonas and Kristy – Ramwong Dao Dao
YouTube: Jonas and Kristy – Num Tum Lao Sao Tum Thai
YouTube: Jonas and Kristy – Look Kiam Laeo
YouTube: Jonas and Kristy – Ramwong Sao Bahn Tdae
YouTube: Jonas and Kristy – ป่าลั่น Pah Lan
YouTube: Jonas – สาวบ้านใด๋ Sao Bahn Dai
YouTube: Jonas – ลาวตีเขียด Lao Dtee Kiat
YouTube: Jonas – บ้านนี้ฉันรัก Bahn Nee Chan Rak
YouTube: Kristy – บ้านนี้ฉันเกลียด Bahn Nee Chan Gliat
YouTube: Kristy – สาวเหนือเบือรัก Sao Nuea Buea Rak
YouTube: Kristy – รักคนใส่แว่น Rak Kon Sai Waen
YouTube: Kristy – กุหลาบเวียงพิงค์ Gulahp Wiang Ping
Note: All through this post you might have noticed ลูกทุ่ง (lôok tôong) being spelt in many ways – Luk Thung, lukthung, lok tung, lookthung, etc. I even found a suggestion to google for ‘Look Toon, Luk Tung, Luk Thung, Loog Tung, Look Toong, Loog Toong, Loog Thoong and Loog Thung’.
And I can attest to this – hunting for information about ลูกทุ่ง was fun, but slightly crazy making :-D
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