Hip-hop has the fame, tradition has the market
The Lao entertainment scene has been shaken up over past few years with the release of pop and hip-hop music, making traditional music producers fear loss of market share, though this might yet prove false.
In Vientiane, unless you are really unlucky, your chances are better than fifty-fifty of hearing Lao pop and hip hop on the radio, at beer shops and entertainment venues or gathering places of young people. There are many sorts of teenage music being pumped out on radio, all about successful love and broken hearts, in both dancing and romantic styles.
Meanwhile, if you have been around for more than 30 years, you might be called a dinosaur by Lao teenagers, especially if you still expect and want to listen to Lao music with traditional and Lamvong tunes in public places. That kind of music is also becoming rare in Lao FM programming.
You will be disappointed if you want to dance the traditional Lamvong in a nightclub. Few nighttime entertainment venues hold the traditional Lamvong, except on official occasions and wedding ceremonies.
Pop and hip hop music is turning Vientiane into a city of entertainment venues where people can get excited at concerts, most often held during the high tourist season. One of the most popular current songs is Mr Hin Som by Overdance, a danceable rap song about a country boy who wants to flirt with a city girl but fears having his heart broken. Also popular is Khon Xuay (Unlucky Man) by The Cells, also a danceable son Lao women there is great value in loving a thin, tall man) from the same studio, also gaining screams from young music fans.
Other top names include Ting Phalayvanh from Valentine Music, and many singers from Lao Art Media. Alexandra is one of today's hottest singers in Laos.
Lao hip-hop music has also hit audiences in northeast Thailand, where Overdance, Alexandra and others from the same studio performed, making big headlines in the Thai media and being interviewed on Thai TV, a rare opportunity to see Lao artists on another channel than their own.
Once young people crossed the Mekong to Nongkai for concerts by Thai singers; no more. Now they go to concerts in Vientiane. The latest featured Dunk and Parn, popular singers in Thailand, who shared top billing with Overdance, possibly leading a big change in the history of Lao and Thai musical cooperation.
Two or three music studios have entered business circles following the Government decision to give young artists the chance to realise their dreams few years ago. Most music houses specialise in teenage music, looking to take a larger share of the Lao music market of around 6 million people, more than half of whom are under the age of 20.
A CD and VCD seller at the Morning Market said that although Lao teenage music is becoming more popular on radio and at entertainment venues, it does not mean that Lao people are getting away from the Lamvong.
"I sell more traditional music than teenage stuff," said Ms Touy, adding that Lao people who live abroad also order a lot of traditional music CDs and VCDs.
It is plainly true that many Lao people still have a strong love of their traditional music. In much of the country people still like to listen to Lamvong music, and they still like to dance in the traditional way, although in the eyes of the elderly, Lamvong itself has changed compared to their time.
There were many rules if one wants to dance Lamvong. In the traditional way, if someone wanted to dance with a girl, first he had to give her a garland of flowers. The Lamvong girls had to wait in front of the stage, say the older folk. Nowadays this has almost completely disappeared; often, the younger males do not dance with a female partner, but with their male friends.
Lao people born before 1975 still like to listen to traditional music. A Ban Nakhuay resident who was looking for some Lao Lamvong music told the Vientiane Times that she did not like what teenagers listen to, because it gave her a headache.
"I do not understand how my children can listen to it, they have no appreciation of proper dancing; I can not follow what they do," she said with laugh. She added that she still liked to listen to Lamvong music, and sometimes liked to show off her voice in a Lamvong in her village.
To many people, traditional music is not only enjoyable, but it helps people to intensify their feeling of pride in their country. Most songs describe ways of life in rural areas where they enjoy the beauty of the countryside, mountains and forest.
"Music writers in the past used much better imagination in songs," said Mr Lakeo Sirimanothai, Lao Song Promotion Director, adding that many Lao songs like Kiewsao Khaem Ngum (Flirting with a Girl on the Ngum River) or Ku Larp Pakxan (Rose of Pakxan) are forever loved.
Despite the strength of Lao traditional music, there are also fears that it will be challenged in the near future when Laos is more integrated with the region. Some fear that the gentleness of Lao music for the Lamvong dance might result in its submergence because of a more modern impatience and desire for the new, with fewer people wanting to hear the same songs repeated.
"It is boring to listen the same songs all the time," said one young shopper at the market.
Customers who asked not to be identified said that if people want to see Lao music succeed internationally, the songs must be promoted and advertised, with more concerts.
"I only hear the song but never see what the singer looks like," said one of them.
Although there seems to be a focus on Lao hip-hop and teen music, public opinion still shows that Lao traditional music holds the larger share of the music market. Teenage music is only popular among teenagers in the bigger cities of Vientiane, Savannakhet and Champassak.
One of the Lao traditional music producers, Mr Lakeo Sirimanothai, laughed about the strength of the competition.
He said that teenage music is only interesting for young people in Vientiane; the other parts of the country still listen to Lao traditional music. People aged over 30, especially in the countryside, remain strongly loyal to the older style of Lao music.
"I do not fear the competition; I have large audiences all around the country," said Lakeo, who said that Lao music was still selling as well as ever. "If you go to the countryside, you will realise that Lao people still listen to Lao traditional music."