Lao Bantheung Sinh
The members of Lao Bantheung Sinh were all molam performers in Laos, albeit in different troupes. Upon their arrival in the United States, they came to know each other and rediscovered their shared interest in molam and subsequently formed a troupe in the East Bay. The Lao Bantheung Sinh troupe has performed at numerous Lao cultural events throughout the years, including but not limited to the International Lao New Year Festival and seasonal Buddhist temple festivals in Hawaii, Sacramento, Stockton and Fresno.
Troupe Leader: Mr. Khankham Phaxayavong
Khankham Phaxayavong was born in Savannakhet, Laos. At the age of 14 he went to live with and train with a molam master. The “training” involved observation and emulation, as it takes years of practice to be deemed a true molam. Indeed, Khankham did not receive the title of molam until he was in the United States, at the age of 21. Within the molam community (including both active and inactive troupes), he is well-respected for his skills in molam performance.
CLS interviewed Mr. Phaxayavong to learn more about his background and experience. The transcript of the interview appears below.
CLS: Where and how did you learn to lam? Is it something that is passed down from generation to generation (that is, were family members involved in it)? How long have you been performing lam?
KP: I am from Savannakhet, Laos. I grew up as a rice farmer and animal herder, but enjoyed lam from a very young age.
I learned different forms of lam in my home village from a molam [master of lam]. I was an apprentice, and started studying at the age of 14. In the village, there is no formal artists' school; if you want to learn to lam, you go to live with a master. The craft is sometimes passed down from generation to generation, but not always - it is transferred from master to student. I lived and studied with the molam for several years, learning and practicing lyrics and verses he himself had learned and new ones he had written. I had to repeat again and again the sounds, the tones, the delivery and presentation. Each character within molam has a distinct yet equally important role, with its own costumes and style of performing - and you have to become the character you are portraying. This is what the master teaches you.
CLS: How did you come to perform lam in the U.S., especially as part of the current troupe? How did you and the other artists in the troupe come to find each other? Did you know each other or perform with each other in Laos?
KP: I came to the United States in 1980, when I was 21 (I am now 55). When we were at the refugee camps in Thailand, I also performed there. It was a rough time for everyone and lam comforted them and eased their suffering during rough times, at least for the time being. When I got to California, I found out that there was a molam master in the Bay Area. He decided to form a molam troupe - and it was very exciting to have molam here. Now, the former molam director has retired, and the troupe has passed to me. Our troupe, called Lao Bantheung Sinh, in Oakland, is the only active troupe in the U.S. In fact, we once went to Hawaii to perform, and while we were there, we met someone who decided to move to Oakland specifically so that he could be part of the troupe. Our troupe has performed mostly in the Bay Area (although as mentioned before we sometimes travel), in Sacramento, Stockton, Fresno, Richmond, and San Francisco.
CLS: Can you tell us about some of the molam performances that you have done? What roles/characters have you played?
KP: I have always played the pa ek [hero or lead character]. This is funny, because I am now 55, and the pa ek is supposed to be young and handsome [Laughs]. But currently I am the only one in the troupe who knows how to perform that particular role.
CLS: What are some of the skills necessary to perform molam well?
KP: The performer has to have a passion for molam, because it requires a lot of dedication to refine the craft. Molam performers have to be multi-talented - they have to be able to not only sing, but dance, act, and generally entertain the audience as well. They also have be outgoing (not shy) and humorous. A performer has to be able to engage the audience, so has to be social.
CLS: What are some of the stories, topics or themes that you address in molam? How do you make it relevant to the audience?
KP: Oh, we have written many new molam plays since we came to the U.S. This includes new dialogue and new song lyrics for the lam. The thing about lam is that is adaptable - we change the songs, dance, etc. to meet the requirements of the storylines, which can be very different. Here are some examples of "new" [contemporary] lam we have written and performed here in the Bay Area:
- Yaad Namtha Pohang (Tears of a Widower) - which addresses the high divorce rate in the Lao American community;
- Sao Lao Bao Amerika (Lao Beauty, American Hunk) which concerns the "phenomenon" of (married) Lao men in the United States who travel back to Laos and take another wife there. They essentially live two lives - one with the wife in the U.S. and another with the wife in Laos-and sometimes they don't know about each other;
- Yaa Kup Lukphai (Mother-in-law, Daughter-in-law) about the tensions that can occur between mother-in-laws and daughters-in-laws in the American context, given differing expectations and circumstances.
CLS: Do you think it is important to pass molam on to the younger generations? Why?
KP: Yes, of course! It is one of our most treasured traditions. But it is very difficult. I have often had to pay for the expenses involved in running the troupe myself (purchasing costumes, instruments, travel, etc.). We are not making any money at all. We have to work full-time to make ends meet, and so lam suffers. But I would love the opportunity to teach lam to our youth.
Rap/Hip-Hop Youth Leader: One Hunned
Rapper One Hunned is based in San Diego, California. One Hunned has performed with artists such as TI, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, French Montana, and Drake, to name a few, and has toured throughout the United States as well as in Australia, New Zealand, France, and Canada. He has performed both as part of concert tours and for cultural festivals and fundraisers (e.g., a recent autism benefit at UC-Davis).
One Hunned has performed at the International Lao New Year Festival held in Richmond, and it is here that he was introduced to Khankham Phaxayavong. Dr. Vinya Sysamouth of CLS facilitated an initial discussion about the Molam Tan Smay project, and One Hunned expressed great interest in collaborating with Lao Bantheung Sinh.
CLS interviewed One Hunned about his background and experience as a Lao American rap artist. The transcript of the interview appears below:
CLS: Hi, One Hunned! Please tell us, how did rap become a part of your life? Where and how did you learn to rap? Who were your sources of inspiration?
OH: Well, I started listening to rap and getting into the hip-hop culture at age 15 or 16, and the more I listened, I just became more interested it. I really liked Jay-Z - his story made me feel like I could do it - and later, that I could inspire others of Lao descent to [rap], too.
CLS: How long have you been performing rap/hip-hop?
Where (or for what events) do you usually perform?
OH: I've been rapping for about half of my life. [One Hunned is now 32.] I started writing how I felt, and then I put it to beats . . . I put all of my feelings into the music-it was kind of a therapeutic way of talking to someone.
I perform all over the country - and outside of the U.S. as well. Let's see, I've performed concerts at arenas, for baseball games, for benefit concerts [. . .] for festivals - especially for 501c3 organizations. A lot of organizations ask me to perform for events, like multicultural festivals, benefits for breast cancer awareness, and so forth. I've performed at high schools and colleges - I performed at UC-Davis for a benefit for autism, for example - clubs, and of course, for the Lao New Year. I've even performed at weddings.
People usually hear about me through word-of-mouth. I'm usually contacted through email. Some of the events where I perform are annual events. I have letters of recommendation and reference as well, and that helps me to get booked.
CLS: What are some of the skills necessary to perform rap/hip hop well?
OH: Well, I think there's no "right" or "wrong" way when it comes to the art. As long as you are authentic to your feelings, I guess you could say that "everyone is a rapper inside." Rap itself is kind of like poetry - you take what you're feeling and you put it into rhyme. There is a system - like hook, verse, hook, AB, AB, and so forth - a kind of rhyming formula.
I do think it's important to be able to work with many different types of audiences. For example, sometimes I'm performing for high school kids, other times for a breast cancer awareness event that has a different audience than that, you know? But I can tailor my songs specifically for an event. That doesn't mean I necessarily have to rap about breast cancer - but I can talk about trials, tribulations - the feelings and things that people go through in a situation like [having an illness]. I know my target demographic, and I create things directly for them.
CLS: Why is rap/hip-hop meaningful to you?
OH: Music is based on emotion, on vibe. I want kids to know that they can do this. They have options - and music or art [One Hunned is also an airbrush artist] can be an outlet for things they can't talk to their family or parents about. I am able to teach what I know to them.
CLS: Is rap popular in other Lao communities in the U.S. (outside of the Bay Area)?
OH: It is, definitely - now is the day and age when hip-hop is kind of universal. You have Gumby [in Minnesota] and Supasong [in Anaheim]. The kids who are listening to it today, they have some sort of hip-hop influence. It's more pervasive today, and [somewhat] more accepted. When I first started doing it, I wanted to perform at a new year event and [the committee] told me no, because [my music] was too different. But now they're getting used to it.
CLS: Are you familiar with lam? Did you see/listen to it a lot growing up, or do you now?
OH: Well, I didn't really grow up listening to it, but my parents listened to it, and I know what it is, of course. And I really like how [molam] can be integrated with the [rap] music I perform. I am intrigued by Mr. Khankham and his troupe - I am going to listen to a lot of molam to prepare for this project.
CLS: Do you see any similarities between lam and rap/hip-hop?
OH: Yes, I do. The beat patterns are similar - the BPM (beats per minute); the drums, the beats, tempo and speed of music -- you can bob your head to [molam] the way you do to rap beats.
CLS: How do you think a performance that includes both lam and hip-hop will be received by a Lao audience? A non-Lao audience?
OH: Well, it's going to be different, but for example, in some of my work, I use English words, but also Lao khene [a traditional Lao reed instrument] - even those who don't know what the khene is can still enjoy it. You can enjoy something without knowing the background ethnicity. It's different, so people might not understand it at first, but if it continues, people will come to understand and appreciate it.
CLS: Would this project provide an opportunity for you to deepen your exploration of traditional forms or to try something new?
OH: Yes, definitely. I'm up for the challenge, for anything that will help me to learn more about Lao traditional music.
According to Rolling Stone magazine, rapper Jay-Z, now one of the most successful rappers in the music industry, grew up poor and was raised by his mother in drug- and violence-infested housing projects after his father walked out on the family. In his youth, Jay-Z was involved with selling crack cocaine and other illegal activities, and even shot his own brother. At one point, he received a "boom box" as a gift and began free-styling and rapping, eventually leading to his now-lucrative career. See http://www.rollingstone.com/music/artists/jay-z/biography
JOSEPH SOULIGNA NONTANOVAN
Originally from Washington, D.C., Joseph Nontanovan has traveled the globe spreading his love for music, movement, and self-expression. He is the former artistic director of Culture Shock Dance Troupe (Los Angeles and D.C. chapters), a nonprofit youth outreach organization and professional dance company. He currently teaches and performs throughout the Bay Area, and also works as an onsite corporate sous chef. His passion for sharing food and building community have led him to pursue a degree in food ethnography for social change at Goddard College. Through the organization of community events and his most recent work as a prep cook for the exclusively Lao pop-up restaurant, Lanxang Kingdom, he is transforming personal stories and experience into material for his new venture into writing and spoken word performance.