playing with the sounds of young lao monks


at 4am we awoke to pulsing drums.

We were sleeping across the street from some beautiful temple grounds in Luang Prabang, a city famous for its monasteries in northern Laos. Seeing nothing from the window, we stumbled downstairs and out onto the street… delirious but still aware enough to grab recording equipment of some kind.

The drumming came from a small tower, which from below was entirely pitch black. Another Falang, a Frenchman, had come out to investigate and circled the tower looking for more. We just stood and stared at darkness.

Then suddenly it just stopped. No climax. We don’t know how it began either – we had been in dreamland. We were still in dreamland in a way. But then it just ended. The quiet entered and settled, and 4 monks who had just been frantically beating drums leisurely descended from the tower and quietly moved back to their rooms.

Craving more, we followed the only other sounds we could make out in the predawn air, some young monks, novices, singing in a smaller temple. They sat on the floor, feet tucked under to their right, ranging in age from perhaps 6 to early twenties. their robes ranged from a golden yellow to a deep orange. Katrina, the Frenchman, and I sat in the rear. They took photos, and I set my little handheld camera on the ground and recorded the novices’ chants. Low-Fi, but then again, I don’t really need anything fancy.

I toyed with the audio a bit the next day, and then put it away unsatisfied.

I’m still in Laos now, in a city in the south called Pakse where I’ve settled for a week to get a work project done, and today in the barely bearable heat of midday I sat down to revisit the audio. The singing of course comes from the novices singing their early morning chants. Many of the younger ones were still reading from photocopied books. A tiny secret – none of the percussion is actually from that day, or recorded in Lao at all. I pulled it from a recording I did with my mom’s Bulgarian Tapan a few years back. It’s been that long since I’ve used the audio software, Ableton, and years since I’ve done audio in general. The beatboxing I did right here, via my tiny built-in laptop microphone and the guys who work the desk day and night at my guest house, Phonesavanh, found the noises pretty amusing. The voice is one of theirs – a sweet guy. He doesn’t speak any English but I think my appreciation came across, as did his. At the end of the song he says: “Hello, it’s delicious, thank you.”

Laos btw is a land of smiles :)

and since i really don’t write much about my wanderings, i’ll throw out a few things i’m grateful for here.

    i’m thankful for:

  • the intricacy and precision of the homemade silk looms
  • the cultural tradition that nearly every male is a monk at some point in his life
  • mangosteens… one of the greatest fruits i’ve ever tasted
  • the ease of making someone smile here – all it takes is a “sabadi”
  • a wonderfully intuitive numerical system (like japanese) – 45,000 is si sip ha pan ( four-ten, five, thousand)
  • and simply saying number in lao improves bargaining immensely – they love it

  • being invited without second thoughts into wonderful events and situations like a birth ceremony, a 99th birthday, and wedding
  • each question posed being preface by “excuse me, but…” even after speaking for 5 minutes
  • everyone being taught to use “Mr.” all the time and so sharing beer with a bunch of bike mechanics who go by, Mr. Ung, Mr. Joe, Mr. Kham, and Mr. King Kong. “Excuse me sir, Mr. King Kong would like you to have more Lao whiskey, it is your turn. Excuse me, have you watched WWF?”
  • all lao names meaning something. many animal names, such as my friend, “Frog,” and my favorite so far, a woman named “Good Morning”
  • bbq meat and fish on sticks in the market. not as thankful that the dish laab uses boiled buffalo intestinal juice
  • the average lao man knowing how to cook
  • hilarious fake ipods and iphones
  • practicing French a little with the old people here who still speak it
  • badminton in the streets
  • motorbike riders holding parasols
  • luang prabang (and perhaps other cities) where the monks, hundreds of them, process down one road at 6am daily, each with a decorated metal canister strung from their shoulders. as they walk, the people from the town, kneeling or standing, put a few grains of cooked rice, fruit or other dishes often wrapped in banana leaves in each canister. just a tiny bit. the result is that by the time the monk has walked the full kilometer, their canister of food (that will sustain them for the day) is full, and each of the people from the town has helped to feed each monk just a little bit. i guess the downside is that, as a monk, you know that your food has been touched by the hands of everyone in town:) but the symbolism is pretty beautiful

1 comment

Dude, this is a sick beat. Please make more :)

me know
what you think
just remember i have feelings too