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The traditional music of Thailand
written by INGO STOEVESANDT
The interesting fact about "classical" music is, that it seems to be no more a part of daily life, is rather seen as a "museum piece" but is respected to be "truly Thai" and always used for representations. Asking for "classic tradition", one will always face dance and theatre traditions combined with the music of the ensembles.
From 1932 on, instrumental music restricted to court relations started to vanish. In the 1970ies the universities reinstalled some of these traditions, but the theatre, dance and festive occasions still are the most common places to experience "traditional" music.
Most of all, the theatre traditions provide a platform on which music, dance and language melt in genuine forms and shapes:
The origin of the shadow puppet theatre (nang yai) is not clear and might link back to the Khmer "sbek thom" or Indian and Indoensian traditions. It was the first place in which backgrounds and stages (water in Vietnam) were used, in each play a set of puppets (chü) is performing pieces of the "Ramakain", a Thai version of the Indian "Ramayana" epos, which takes several days to be performed completely.
The performance is resounded by the Piphat ensemble, which is bound to ceremonial traditions in its playing context, like honoring the teachers in the Wai khru ceremony and playing instrumental overtoures.
We also find rod puppet shows called "hün", which may have originated in Hainan.
The masked theatre (khon) may have evolved in the 16th centurfy from the nang yai tradition, in which actors take the role of the puppets, using colourful masks, which actually only show the faces of deities, gods and demons, and only act without speaking - which is only done by a narrator standing off stage or interactive clowns. Here we also only find pieces of the Ramakain which still are seperated in several chü. The performance is resounded by a Piphat ensemble played with hard mallets (mai khaeng), in which the xylofon player takes the melodical part while the drums follow the foot steps of the actors and dancers.
The dance drama (lakhawn) may have evolved from the village theatre "li-ke", or it may be of Khmer or Southern origin and uses more dancing and singing than in the khon. It can be found mainly in temple festivals under several (irritating) names. Piphat as well as Mahori ensembles accompany the dances, which are redifend by the University of fine Arts today, depending which instruments are used.
In the temples we also find the "thet mahachat" ("to preach high birth"), a festival in which Bhuddas life is rechanted and which knows several very famous Piphat pieces that are performed even outside the ceremony today, like in the "tham kawn" ceremony or during an intermission of a narrative singing (sepha), in which the narrator sings in a high voice (khap) about a famous king and his rival, accompanied by wooden castagnets (krap sepha) and recited by the Piphat ensemble in his pauses.
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