DOK CHAMPA  (the booklet)
Melodies from the past

For the most part, Laotian populations are of Chinese origin. Over the centuries, they have been subject to all sorts of enriching influences, from the Indian sub-continent, via Burma (currently Myanmar) in the northeast; from the Kingdom of Siam (Thailand) to the west, and from the Khmer Empire (Cambodia) to the south. These influences can still be discerned today in the Theravada Buddhism practised all over the country, as well as in various regional modes of artistic expression such as music.

The existence of Laos as a sovereign political entity goes back to the middle of the 14th century, the time of the foundation of the Kingdom of Lan Xang. Up until the arrival of the French, its history was marked by a series of conflicts and invasions targeting its territorial integrity, led mainly by the neighbouring kingdom of Siam. In the 19th century, Laos was at the centre of the British and French colonial power struggles for influence, each trying to extend its possessions. Gunboat diplomacy ensured France's presence on both banks of the Mekong and she imposed her own borders on the Kingdom of Siam, grouping together its Vietnamese, Cambodian and Lao possessions into French Indochina. During the Second World War and the Japanese occupation, an important independence movement developed in Laos, which turned on the old colonial power as soon as Japan capitulated. France, while trying to maintain control over the Northern provinces, was forced to grant independence to Laos in July 1949, thus paving the way for the Lao People's Democratic Republic. The 'Pathet Lao' (literally 'Lao country'), founded shortly after independence, quickly took control of the Northern provinces, with the support of the Viet Minh, as France sank ever-deeper into the Indochina quagmire until her stinging defeat at Dien Bien Phu (May 1954), which sounded the death knell for French Indochina.

The first Geneva Agreements (July 1954) recognized the sovereignty of North Vietnam above the 17th parallel, as well as the independence and neutrality of Laos. But the United States, who had remained rather discreet up until then, had no intention of allowing the communists to spread across Southeast Asia. They intensified their presence and military aid in Laos and throughout the region. After several government-led attempts at national union and several coups d'état led by the right, supported by Washington, the situation became more radical and in the end civil war broke out in Laos (1958), opposing communists, centrists and royalists. The royalists, massively supported by equipment and advisers from the United States and the CIA, set about eradicating the Pathet Lao, itself supported by the Viet Minh. The escalating intervention by the United States soon became a veritable "secret war" (1964 – 1973) against Pathet Lao, parallel to the open war against the Viet Minh in Vietnam. The strategic stakes were of prime importance: the control of the famous Ho Chi Minh trail that runs along the entire length of the South Vietnamese border, on Lao and Cambodian territory, and which allowed North Vietnamese fighters and reinforcements to penetrate into South Vietnam. During this "nameless war", carried out in the shadow of the other, the Americans dropped over two million tons of bombs (some sources say this represents between 300 and 500 kg of explosives per Laotian) on a neutral country...

Relatively speaking, the bombs claimed few victims (an estimated 25.000 Laotians compared to 2.000.000 Vietnamese) and did not stop the Pathet Lao advances. In 1975, the American debacle in Vietnam and the fall of Saigon (and Phhom Penh) precipitated the fall of Vientiane in Laos and the victory of the Pathet Lao. It must be said that the Pathet Lao owes its enormous popular support and legitimacy not to promises of agrarian or social reforms as might be supposed considering the ideology on which the movement is based, but to its Lao nationalist and identitarian arguments, which were fed and stimulated by American imperialism and the savagery of its bombardments! In Laos alone, each year – even now, thirty years after the events – thousands of unexploded bombs cause several more hundred victims, mainly the children of farmers.

Since the end of the conflict, Laos has harmonized its relations with Thailand and even with the United States. It still has a privileged relationship with Vietnam and like the latter, though more timidly, has started to open up to the market economy – Laos joined ASEAN in 1997 – and a certain westernization. It is the poorest nation in the region, and is completely landlocked. It is aware of its economic vulnerability, which explains why it remains prudent in terms of reform and takes care to ensure national cohesion. This difficult construction of identity has nevertheless continued to be enriched by the various influences that have nourished the country throughout its history.

Music of memory
The north and east of Laos are very mountainous and difficult of access. In the extreme south, in the narrowest part, the Bolovens plateau dominates a broadening of the Mekon river that stretches the length of Thailand as far as Cambodia. It is here that we find Champasak province, whose main town is Pakse. The province owes its name to the ancient kingdom of Champasak. The Khmer remains of Wat Phou (5th and 6th centuries), a few kilometres from the ancient royal capital, a quiet agricultural backwater also called Champasak, bear testimony to a prestigious past and to the proximity and importance of the Khmer culture in this part of Laos.

In this isolated region, they perpetuate the tradition of sepnyai orchestras, which are comparable to the pinpeat in Cambodia, though the latter are better known precisely because of the influence of classical Khmer culture 1. Southern Laos sepnyai ensembles use the same instruments as those of their Cambodian neighbours, but they have different names. The same instruments are also used in Thai piiphaat ensembles. On the bas-reliefs of the Angkor temples – dated two hundred years later than the Wat Phou – are representations of musical instruments very similar to those that make up a pinpeat today. The Khmer pinpeat in Cambodia uninterruptedly perpetuated (apart from the sinister period of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979) a tradition reserved for the royal courts and classical theatre. The sepnyai of Laos, on the other hand, have become more popular because of the political orientations of Laos and these days, in the southern countryside, the sepnyai accompany most profane and religious celebrations as well as official events.

The village of Champasak has the oldest sepnyai in the province, the Vongdonti Lao Dheum ensemble, or "Ancient Laos". The musicians of Champasak themselves go back more than two centuries and, despite forty years of war and upheaval, they have carried on the sepnyai tradition without interruption. The broad age range of the musicians – from 25 to 80 years old – also ensures the continuity of the genre. The handover would appear to be guaranteed, for the young musicians make every effort to rehearse with the older musicians several times a week, whenever their agricultural activities – they are all farmers – allow it. Thus, from one generation to the next, the repertoire is handed on faithfully. The musicians are self-taught and the instruments come from nearby Thailand (on the other side of the river) or from Vientiane, for there are no more instrument makers in the region.

A complete sepnyai orchestra consists of various xylophones and metallophones lana (roneat)2, a set of circular gongs khongvong (khonvong, a pinpeat has two), an oboe pi (srolay), a recorder, khoui (absent from the pinpeat), a double oblique drum, kong, and the horizontal drum taphon, which gives the tempo (respectively skorthom and sampho) and the little cymbals, sing (chhing).

The Vongdonti Lao Dheum ensemble is called upon to accompany the boun (Lao celebrations), weddings, etc., and religious or official ceremonies. The ceremonies dedicated to the dead take place every two weeks according to the phase of the moon, and give the group a chance to rehearse. Their performances, apart from those given for the government, are paid according to what the requester can afford, but do not bring in enough to live off. A complete performance for a boun generally lasts around 12 hours, and is divided into three sections.

The Vongdonti Lao Dheum ensemble enjoys a certain renown in the region and travels all over the province, sometimes even beyond and exceptionally, to Thailand. The economic weakness of Laos and the poverty of its population certainly limit the influence of their traditional music but, on the other hand, they also protect it from rampant acculturation and an often fatal confrontation with modern western music.

Dok Champa means a particular flower, symbol of Laos, represented on the cover of this CD.
These recordings were made at the peaceful site of Vat Pa, the "temple of the forest", on the outskirts of Champasak. This was originally a place of cremation, whence the involuntary presence of a few "bad spirits" who nevertheless refrained from interfering in our recordings.

Please find, in the same collection the popular music of Cambodia: Plôw Tcha. Village Melodies, by the Rohal Community and the area around the temples (Angkor). Colophon Records, Col.CD110.
In brackets, the reader will find the equivalent names of the instruments in the Khmer pinpeat.

CD traks
  1.  Lao Kasay - The Royal Procession

  2. Sameuh - Equality

  3. Lao Khor Boun Khoun - A Prayer for Buddha

  4. Kay Keo - The Good Chicken

  5. Lao Tor Nok - The King Hunts the Birds

  6. Ker Mon - Mon's Song

  7. Phe Nang Nark - The Dragon Chases Away the Girls

  8. Kaonok - The Journey

  9. Lao Siang Tian - Candlelit Declaration of Love