Her name is Banyen Rakgan, and here I must quote Wikipedia:
“Banyen was the first national mor lam star, whose appearances on television in the 1980s brought the form to an audience beyond its northeastern heartland. She bridges the gap between traditional and modern mor lam, normally appearing in traditional clothing, but using electrified instruments and singing luk thung and dance influenced songs.”
The basic story of how I found myself ten feet away from Banyen performing live is simple: It was serendipitous.
I work at Rajabhat Mahasarakham University. There are many Rajabhat universities located all over Thailand. A few days ago I went to the Rajabhat in Ubon Ratchathani (where the US Air Force created a base during the Vietnam War) with 450 other teachers from my university for what they call a “sports day,” and insofar as helping my tug-of-war team lose twice and thus tie for third place (the victories needed for such were achieved before I came in at the semifinals), I guess I did play sports. Sports Day this year was actually two days – we arrived on February 4th for the opening ceremony and dinner, and played sports on the 5th with teams fielded by all the other Rajabhats in the Isan (NE) region.
According to a close friend, Banyen has been overseas (mostly in the states) for some years and only recently returned to Thailand. She’s a teacher at the music department at the very university we were visiting, which explains why she was performing at the closing ceremony/dinner. She is now 55 years old and has only become more beautiful with age. Everyone calls her “Ajarn Mae” which are respectively the words for teacher and mother in the Thai language. This encompasses the feelings that most Thais, and especially most Thais from Issan have for her – they grew up on her music and she is a national hero; she is also the most famous molam singer in the world. This much I have studied since the last time I really wrote about molam on this blog. Incidentally, Banyen is also a student of Ajarn Chawiwan Damnoen (who I guess would have to be called the Queen’s mother), who sang at our wedding in 2006 and is also a living treasure…
I had no idea what was going on when Banyen started singing, as we were working through the free food and booze at my table in an auditorium crammed with several hundred university employees. However. I was drawn to her voice, and soon found myself threading through a crazed yelling mass of fellow teachers who were temporarily achieving enlightenment with an instinctive dance passed down through their DNA. I eventually reached the center stage and there was only a single row of people in front of me. People were offering her money as they do here – from grade school performances all the way to stadium concerts – and when she came to accept it, I saw that her dress was made from what looked like polished pieces of broken mirror… There is no way to describe the sound. It flowed through my body and I felt it as much as heard it. The primeval beat of the drums, the fluctuating melodies of the Kaen reed flute, and the luscious voice of Thailand’s Queen of Molam (I use that word because this type of Molam is basically flirting)… For a few minutes I was lost in the groove, which is something I haven’t felt for a long, long time. Dare I say it? Yes. For a few minutes, I too achieved an enlightened state. A state that I hereby coin as Molamgasm.
The video I took on my crappy old cellphone is so bad, I was determined not to bother posting it here. The more I thought about it, though, the more I became convinced that it would be an interesting experiment: Perhaps Banyen’s presence transcends the absolutely horrible quality of the video. Possibly not. Oh well, it’s all I’ve got:
What a shame. I’m pretty sure this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Then again, it probably plays better in my memory than it ever would on YouTube. Speaking of which, if you want to see much better videos of Banyen, she is well represented there. Here are two of my favorites: LINK 1, LINK 2
If I ever have a chance to see Banyen that close again, I’ll be sure to have a decent camera. Or maybe I’ll just ask Ajarn Chawiwan to introduce me…