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 289th Meeting – Tuesday June 12th 2007

“Will the snakes swallow the singers?”
Traditional music of the hill tribes

A talk and presentation by
John Moore

Present: Ken Kampe, Sangdao and Hans Bänziger, Patrick McGowan, Ken Dyer, Marie Burrows, Peter Gore-Symes, David Steane, Regine Achen, Jacques Op de Lack, Bodil Blokker, Hmn Aye Nyo, Jonathan and Beryl McKeown, Robert Hayes, Eiken Jacobsen, Otome Klein, Patricia Symonds, Michael Tuckson, Thomas Ohlson, Victoria Vorreiter, Tony Baei, Monika Boros, Nameesee Jajang, Amema Saeju, Kim Stogner, Pracham Inthong, Chongchit Sripun and Lamar Robert, John Quicker, Julia Schoulil, Oliver Hargreave, Guy Cardinal, Gilles Roubaud, Angthong Jaroonsakulvong, Armin Schoch, Anne Schoch, Lucy Coombs, Jim Goodman, Reinhard Hohler, Juergen Polte, Thitipol Kanteewong, Shinko Fukuma, Neerasak Khongdrem, Chakkrapan Mauykrom, Torpong Somerjou, Withaya Ponnithun, S. Buys, Bennett Lerner. An audience of 49.

This is the script of John’s talk. Each slide in John’s presentation showed either a singer, a musician with their instrument or an instrument. After talking about the subject of the slide, John then played an extract of the music of the subject of the slide.

Although I am not a musicologist I have been recording traditional music practically since they invented the tape recorder. I was lucky enough to have a job that took me to different parts of the world and I have recorded hurdy-gurdies in the Auvergne, shawms in the Atlas Mountains, the songs of the Tuareg in the Sahara, harps in the llanos and marimbas on the Pacific coast of Colombia.

Neither am I an expert on the hill tribes, but I recently revived my hobby and over the last year or two, with the help of a Lisu musician friend, I’ve recorded over 270 songs and tunes from around 20 different ethnic minority groups in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son provinces including over 40 different musical instruments. Each of the groups has something in its music that is distinctive and different from Thai music and I want to illustrate some of this rich variety tonight.

Music has traditionally played an important role in hill tribe communities, and, as you can hear in these recordings made by Paul Lewis many years ago, it has performed these social, cultural religious functions: 

  • Help maintain identity of ethnic group
  • Bring community members together
  • Communication in life events e.g. courting, funerals
  • Transmit traditional values and knowledge
  • Communication with the spirit world
  • Entertainment

I have been interested to see whether the music is still as important and what the future holds for it. I am looking forward to having what I have found out corrected and added to.
But first the music - I’ll start with some songs and then move on to instrumental music and finish by explaining the title I gave to the talk.

Singing styles

The variety you find here is not so much in the rhythms which tend to be quite simple or the dynamic range which is normally subdued but in the melodies and scales used as well as the timbres of voices and instruments which add up to the distinctive styles.

The songs I’ve recorded seem to fit into four different singing styles
First, simple melodies using scales familiar to Western ears, often pentatonic. Much Karen, Padong and Palaung music sounds quite tuneful like this example of a Palaung courting song sung by a young woman near Chiang Dao. (SLIDE 5)

The second style tends to use a free rhythm with slow long drawn out notes sometimes with elaborate ornamentation and can be heard in the most common types of Lisu song which are antiphonal often with separate groups of men and women. In the first example there are just two singers singing a courting song recorded in Pakia, Huai Nam Dang. Courting songs use many poetic conventions, like referring to the young man as a male bird and questions like ‘is it raining today’ which actually means ‘Is your father around at the moment?’ They are now sung on other occasions as I imagine young women these days are more impressed by a Honda Dream than by a fine singing voice. In the second example you will hear two groups of singers in a real-life sala building ceremony. The singers, who are reputed to be some of the best in Northern Thailand, were hired specially for the occasion. (SLIDE 6)

Here’s a second example of this style from a group of people living in Arunothai who call themselves the Malipa, which is the old name for the Kokang region of Burma. The song tells how when they came from Malipa they were surrounded by strangers. The song is very similar in style to those of several Chinese mountain minority people. (SLIDE 7)

In the third style there is a fixed regular rhythm and the music seems subservient to the words. The melody is closely related to the pitch of the speech (these are tonal languages). This example is sung by a Black Lahu man in the village of Khob Dong, Doi Angkhang. The singer asks the spirits to make the village happy and prosperous. (SLIDE 8)
Hmong songs (which are always sung solo) share the same rhythmic characteristics but also use vocal glides and a sort of yodeling. This style is called khootseea or musical poetry and follows both musical and poetic conventions but also allows some scope for the singer to improvise. They are particularly common at the New Year ball-throwing ceremony. I recorded this one at Huai Luek near Chiang Dao. The song is about a young woman who has gone to live with her husband and misses her family. This is the singer, the daughter in law of a musician you’ll hear later. (SLIDE 9)

The fourth style has a free rhythm with long notes interspersed with rapid sequences following the rhythm of speech. I’ve recorded several Akha, Mien and Karen Pwo songs like this. Here are two short extracts first from an Akha song lamenting the fact that once married you have to work even harder than before, then from a Mien song in which the singer says she is lonely going into the fields on her own and she’s afraid of tigers. (SLIDE 10,11)

Themes and Functions

Music is most often learned from parents or other musicians though one Padong singer told me she had learned from VCD’s. Songs about everyday life are often composed by the singers themselves and sometimes improvised; for ritual occasions there are set texts and music that have to be learned. Here are some examples of what singers choose to sing about from songs I’ve collected: (SLIDE 12)

  1. Feelings
    1. love unrequited or which cannot be declared
    2. missing family or loved ones
    3. sad life of an orphan
    4. loneliness when abandoned by spouse
    5. disappointment after marriage
    6. being apprehensive before getting married
  2. Lessons for young people
    1. respect for traditions, parents, spirits, nature
    2. advice on getting married
  3. Descriptions of nature
  4. Real life
    1. not having enough money for food
    2. asking for help in fields
    3. finding your 7 daughters have been eaten by a lion

You’ll notice from the last one that the Karen have a vivid imagination.

The songs are often sad - one Lisu singer told me ‘if you’re happy, why bother singing?’  An important value of songs is that it is possible to sing about subjects and express emotions that would not be spoken.
The Padong use home-made guitars to accompany their songs. This recording is rather dramatic as the weather wanted to join in. It’s also interesting as a song she wrote herself in a traditional style. When I asked her what it was about she ‘wanting to leave this place is like trying to touch a star in the sky’.  (SLIDE 13)

Much music is not intended simply to be listened to as entertainment. Rather it’s an integral part of occasions that are important in the life of the community. Here are some examples of events in which music plays an important part. (SLIDE 14)

Many social occasions call for music and it’s not surprising that most groups except the Hmong have a rich variety of choral songs. Choral singing is important as it helps bring communities together.
Most of these songs are sung in unison, often with a call response pattern and a lead singer. Polyphony is not common.

There are often taboos about playing music outside its appropriate occasion. It’s difficult to get people to agree to play funeral music, for example. Most courting songs are sung out of the earshot of adults; the Akha won’t sing or play in a village unless there’s a festival and one instrument can only be played when the rice is tall. Almost all instruments in all of these societies are played only by men.

Music is an important part of many ceremonies involving the spirits. It is regarded as a form of language that the spirits understand and appreciate. Here is a particularly fine example from an actual healing ceremony. It’s sung by members of a Black Lisu village near Wiang Haeng. The Lisu in Thailand are the flowery Lisu and the Black Lisu, who come from the Salween valley, have a different dialect, dress, customs and music. They have had fewer contacts with the outside world. The singers here are asking the sick person’s spirit to return to his body. (SLIDE 15)
When these animist beliefs fade, of course, the music becomes a museum piece for tourists and folklorists.
Now a type of song common the world over, a lullaby. Here a Lisu woman is singing to her 6-month-old grand daughter. (SLIDE 16)

Now a Palaung song sung when going to pick tea. This uses a three stringed guitar-like instrument called the ding. The ding player improvises an elaborate accompaniment. (SLIDE 17)
Lisu dance songs are very different from their other songs as they follow a fixed 4/4 rhythm to suit the dance. Here’s an example with a lead singer and a chorus of anyone who feels like joining in to make a call-response pattern. (SLIDE 18)

I couldn’t have got these recordings without the help of my Lisu friend who located many of the musicians for me. He told me there were four things that guided him - one, he only bothered asking old people, two he avoided places frequented by tourists, three he looked for people who had not absorbed Thai music and lastly he avoided Christian villages as ‘the only songs they know are hymns’. We have also focused on what is played as part of people’s everyday lives rather than public music making at festivals.

Accompanying instruments

Now some other examples of instruments used to accompany songs. All Lisu and Hmong singing is unaccompanied; Lahu normally so.
First a mainly percussion accompaniment found in what I call the Akha stick songs which were originally sung when working in the fields but now heard mostly at festivals. The singers beat long bamboo sticks on a piece of wood and there are also drums, cymbals and bamboo clappers as well as a reed pipe in these extracts. What is interesting here is that you get genuine polyphony with different melodies and rhythms going on at the same time. Most of the choral singing I’ve recorded is in unison or of the call-response type so it’s good to find some polyphony, even if it is in the type of music played for tourists. (SLIDE 20)

In the second extract the main singer said she is sad after her husband left her and she’s looking for another.
Now an unusual polyphonic Red Lahu song with criss-crossing melodies which is also accompanied by the reed pipes (which I’ll say more about in a moment). (SLIDE 21)

Next a sophisticated accompaniment, provided by the Karen harp.  Around the 8th century there were numerous harps in Asia, especially China but only two survive, the Karen harp and the more complex Burmese harp. It is traditionally a courting instrument played by young men either solo or to accompany their singing. This song is about going to the river to look for wood to make a harp. (SLIDE 23)

Now another Malipa song, a wedding negotiation song in a more robust style, accompanied by a stringed instrument. The main singer is joined, in a rather subdued role, by two women singers. (SLIDE 24)


In that song the singer accompanied himself on 3 string fretless plucked lute. The soundboard is traditionally made from python or monitor lizard skin.  It’s basically the same instrument as the Chinese sanxian or the Japanese shamisen. The Akha used to play it for courting and both the Lisu and the Lahu use it commonly to accompany dances. Here’s a Lisu example played by the guy who’s been so helpful in finding the musicians for me. The Lisu tseubeu has four different tunings (the first and third strings are always tuned an octave apart), each one associated with its own set of tunes. (SLIDE 26)

Lisu Hmong and Akha instrumental music is almost always solo; the Karen, Lua and Mien groups often play in ensembles It’s noticeable in instrumental music that there is no cultivation of virtuosity for its own sake though competent musicianship is valued and good players, i.e. those who can play to the accepted standard, have a large repertoire and equal stamina, are sought after. Musicians often play several instruments and hand their instruments and skills down from one generation to another. Players often make their own instruments. Interestingly, some simply made instruments often go along with sophisticated techniques for producing the music. Not surprisingly, bamboo, wood, gourds, beeswax and animal skins are used extensively, metal in some specific instruments and plastic mainly in mass-produced flutes.

Here’s one using gourds and bamboo, it’s called hulusi in China, and is made by inserting a flute like tube with finger holes into a gourd along with one or more drones, each pipe having a reed in it. Its soft notes make it an ideal courting instrument and it is also played in the fields when taking a break from planting or harvesting. Here it’s played by a Palaung musician. As with many wind instruments, the player uses circular breathing to maintain the flow of the music. (SLIDE 27)

The most remarkable feature, particularly of Hmong music, is the use of instruments as speech surrogates–the music actually uses pitch most of all but also rhythm and timbre to convey phrases which can be understood by a listener familiar with the conventions. So the music will be listened to not just as an aesthetic experience but for its message. Courting couples might develop a coded language of sounds and converse purely by playing instruments. This use of instruments to speak is elsewhere only found to the same degree in the talking drums and whistles of the Yoruba.
This Hmong instrument called the the taa nplai is like the one you just heard but without the drones. It’s very similar in design to the Northern Thai pi jum. The style and manner of playing, with strong dynamic contrasts though, are quite different. This example is a courting tune where the instrument is talking rather than just playing a tune. It starts with the question ‘Hmong girl, are you lonely?’ (SLIDE 28)

The two instruments I just played both use free reeds like this (SLIDE 29). These free reed pipes are unique to Asia and most diverse in South East Asia. Instruments like this are thought to have originated in China around 1500BC.
Each pipe makes a separate note so it can play chords Akha la yae)

Nowadays it is mostly used to accompany dancing. The first recordings you will hear are of Lisu instruments in three different sizes- going from the small pali fulu to the fulu lae lae and finally the bass fulu na o which is harder to play and so only now played by old men. (SLIDES 30,31,32)
Music for dancing and other ceremonies is often hypnotically repetitive- the players might play the same tune for an hour or more. 

Although the Akha do play the same instrument (SLIDE 33) it is the Lahu, along with the Lisu for whom it has most importance. Here are two Lahu instruments, first the small naw playing the haunting harmonies of a courting tune. The old man playing is 94 and both makes and repairs a variety of instruments. Then an absolute giant contrabass instrument, the largest I’ve ever seen, both of these were recorded near Soppong. (SLIDES 34,35)

This is the Hmong mouth organ or qeng (gain)- as you can see it is different in design from the ones we’ve heard and the sound is also much more dissonant. The qain is in a sense an icon for Hmong culture and plays a major part in several Hmong ceremonies including weddings, New Year celebrations and funerals when it guides the soul on its journey (unlike the Lisu who ban instruments for funerals). It is an important means of communicating with the spirit world but may also be used, for example, to welcome a guest or for entertainment. One ritual involves the player dancing on one leg and doing somersaults close to the edge of a cliff, imitating a bird spirit. (It too translates words into music; as it can play several notes at once the messages it conveys are highly complex). Qain. This tune says ‘dusk insects call- do you miss me- no I’m not interested’.(SLIDE 36)

Brass free reeds are also inserted into animal horns and these instruments, played notably by the Karen and Lua are multifunctional. With the Karen the prime function is a call to the harvest but they also enable young women to assess the strength of the player as they’re particularly hard to blow. The Lua use them to call the spirits before a ceremony.
Horns. Here are 4 short examples the first three, on a deer horn, part of an elephant tusk and a buffalo horn respectively, are Karen; the last Lua. The notes are made by alternately blowing and sucking and stopping the end of the horn with one hand. (SLIDE 37)

This instrument, the mouth harp, is also richly represented in this part of the world. They are most often made from bamboo, like this. It is found in most tribes where it’s ability to sound like speech makes it an ideal courting instrument but it seems to be played less and less. Traditionally it was played by Akha women (here’s one) when courting; the Lahu play them as a pair with two different tunings depending on whether you are looking for a first relationship or repairing an old one. (SLIDE 39)

Here’s a bamboo mouth harp played by a young Palaung woman. (SLIDE 40)
The Malipa play three instruments at one time, they also have an unusual technique of holding the instrument in front of the mouth to get the three sounding simultaneously. (SLIDE 41)
A good player like this Akha man can really make the instrument talk. In this tune he’s telling his girl friend he’s lonely and getting bitten by mosquitoes. The player didn’t have a mouth harp with him but as there was a woman in the village who made them he tried all hers but rejected them. I happened to have in my pocket this one which I bought in the night bazaar in Chiang Mai about 20 years ago. As soon as he tried it he exclaimed ‘yes, this is a real mouth harp!’ (SLIDE 42)

But the ability of the instrument to represent speech is best seen with the Hmong mouth harp (made of brass) and called nya which can communicate all the Hmong vowels and some consonants. (SLIDE 43)
Several types of flute are in use. Perhaps the most common is the simple bamboo duct flute like this. The Lisu occasionally use it to play simple tunes to accompany dancing, but in the hands of a skilful player can be a very expressive instrument for entertainment or, traditionally, courting as shown by this Palaung musician. (SLIDE 45)
The Akha play a very interesting two-holed duct flute which has a very delicate notch and is played like this. Here’s someone who can play it properly; he’s playing a tune to his girlfriend hoping she will have sweet dreams (SLIDE 46)
Side flutes, on the other hand, are normally used in ensembles for festive occasions, though I found this excellent Black Lahu musician (SLIDE 47) who played solo.

Here’s a Kachin group practising for a manau festival dance. The flute is joined by bass drum, gong and cymbals. (SLIDES 48,49)
Now a Padong ensemble also playing to accompany a dance. In this case the other instruments are guitars, cymbals, a very homemade violin and there’s also a male singer. The song tells how the spirits were not satisfied with the food offered by the villagers so they had to offer their daughters. This is the flute he used. (SLIDES 50,51)
The Padong also play the panpipes (SLIDE 52) as do the Pwo Karen. (SLIDE 53) The Padong men play them to celebrate the New Year - each man playing a set of two or three tubes like this. Here they are making the pipes cutting the blowing edges with a huge machete. (SLIDES 54,55) The Lahu also play the notch flute, called the ledulka which has a sweet but breathy sound.  (SLIDE 56). The Lisu also play an unusual harmonic flute with no finger holes called the philu.

I expect you can guess what this instrument is? Yes, it’s a simple leaf, normally mango leaves are used and in this case it is played by a Lua virtuoso. (SLIDES 57,58)
I’ve also recorded it played by several other groups. The Karen and Yao or Mien also use the same type of shawm as is common in Thai music (especially temple processions and funerals) and to my ears the music itself does not sound significantly different. (SLIDES 59,60)

I’ve also recorded the Palaung, Padong, Lua and Karen playing Thai bowed and plucked instruments (the salaw, a two string fiddle, and the sueng, a four string guitar.) (SLIDES 62,63,64)
We’ve also heard a number of percussion instruments including gongs, drums (the most common being these hour-glass drums) and cymbals, large and small. In the Karen, Mien, Shan, Lahu and Akha percussion ensembles are commonly used for temple ceremonies. (SLIDES 66-70) (I believe that the Yao only have ceremonial music and songs but no dances)   Finally, the most famous hill tribe instrument of all, the Karen bronze drum. (SLIDE 71) It appears that as early as the 6th century BC they were played in China, later in Vietnam and they have for many years been used by the Karen (also by the Yao in China) who regard it traditionally as calling the ancestor spirits to important occasions as well as inducing rain. They are now played when there is a major Karen ceremony, often to accompany formal dancing. This was recorded at an annual Christian festival in Bo Kaeo.


That in fact was the song that suggested a title for my talk. The tune, a traditional Karen song, is about a new road arriving at the village which will, like a huge snake, swallow up the inhabitants. It is open to question whether traditional music will also be swallowed up by the spread of media technology, tourism, the fading of animist beliefs and the assimilation of minorities into Thai society, some of which can, at least superficially, encourage as well as erode traditions: (SLIDE 72)





Learn from others: encourage

Exposure to mass produced music erodes
or even replaces


Encourage especially dances

Lower standards; not authentic;
out of context; ‘primitivization’


Remove taboos; turn into hymns

Wipe out; turn into museum pieces


Official support

Cuts people off from their roots;
Thai-ify music

One specific case: (SLIDE 73) many households received these (solar panels to generate electricity) free from the Government in Thaksin’s last days. The difference in the Lisu village I go to was noticeable, with the sound of the tseubeu and fulu this year often being drowned by televisions and CD players. Music certainly performs fewer functions in society than formerly with much music now being either for entertainment or ‘cultural’ shows. This is how I would summarise the changes: (SLIDE 74)



Group identity

Cultural shows

Frequent community togetherness

Occasional community togetherness

Major source of entertainment

Minor source of entertainment

Most life events

Only major life events
(e.g. no longer for courting)

Values/ practical knowledge

Myths and legends

Communication with the spirit 


Perhaps the music will survive but radically modernized - already there are numerous Akha and Karen musicians who play Western inspired rock in their own language and there’s even a Hmong rapper. Traditional music has, of course, over the years, changed and assimilated other influences but I doubt whether a body of traditional music has ever been under threat to the extent it is today. Most of the musicians I recorded were getting on in years; when young people were at best learning it as they might learn mathematics rather than a valuable skill for everyday life. So far I have only scratched the surface of this music but I am hoping that the traditional sounds will be around for another few years for me to delve a bit deeper.

After a most melodically harmonious question and answer session the meeting, reluctantly, came to a close. The combination of the images and sounds in the presentation and John’s commentary had created an experience that was both informative, enjoyable, and I am sure for many people in the audience very moving. It was almost like having the musicians in the room with us. A truly memorable evening.

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