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Molam Tan Smay Project

In Laos, molam is ubiquitous, as troupes are regularly hired to perform at temple festivals, receptions and other events. In the United States, there is only one practicing molam troupe, called Lao Bantheung Sinh, based in the East Bay (Oakland).  Molam remains popular with the Lao communities in the Bay Area, but the troupe has struggled to survive. Troupe members must volunteer their time, effort, and resources, as they receive very little or no pay, and as such, they also maintain “regular” jobs to sustain themselves and their families.

The knowledge of the art endures in the minds and hearts of the troupe members, but as a unit they are struggling to maintain their presence, and their significance. In particular, the largely Americanized children and grandchildren of Lao refugees sometimes feel that traditional molam – even if they have never experienced it—as old-fashioned or even irrelevant.     

Recognizing that molam could cease to exist as an art form among Lao in the United States, the Center for Lao Studies proposed a project that would not only preserve molam, but make it relevant for youth and future generations as well.  The delivery of molam melodies has been described as conversational, with the lyrics sung rhythmically against an instrumental or “beat” background, and more than one observer has likened this style to that of American rap music. [1]  For many youth who grew up in urban settings, rap is something they appreciate and understand. [2] Furthermore, many of the themes of traditional molam – love, courtship, the struggle between desire (e.g., desire to marry, desire for physical contact) and fear (e.g., fear of rejection, of disappointment, of pain), hardship and struggle, the search for fulfillment and balance in one’s life – are also those one finds in rap.  As such, CLS believes that a modernized molam reung that incorporates elements of rap could be an effective vehicle for communicating messages relevant to a young audience. By combining the traditional skills and knowledge of the molam troupe and the work of Lao American rapper One Hunned, the project seeks to help to connect Lao youth with their heritage and culture, and to facilitate intergenerational dialogue and understanding through the production of the modernized molam.

Some Lao American rappers, such as Gumby aka Pryce, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, have actually experimented with using molam in their works. His song entitled “Shut ‘Em Down” briefly fuses molam with hip hop music, as does One Hunned’s “One More Shot.”[3] But the Molam Tan Smay project proposes the first true collaboration between the traditional and the modern, between a molam troupe and a rapper/hip-hop artist, and moreover, it will be the first full-length molam reung that will be performed bilingually, in both Lao and English.[4]

Rap in the Lao American Community

For Lao youth in diaspora, particularly in the United States, rap music and hip-hop culture serve as media through which they debate, construct, and reconfigure their Lao-American identity. And while rap music and hip-hop culture are (often wrongly) correlated with illegal activities and gang affiliations, in Lao America many rappers also work with youth in their communities.  Illaphant (née Tony Innouvong), a Lao-American rapper and poet based in Seattle, Washington, started an organization called Freshest Roots, which strives to help youth to cultivate their passions in the arts, including through rap. “Young people should not have to resort to gangs for refuge,” he states. “It is our duty as community leaders, people with positive uplifting voices, to innovatively find ways to build the youth up so that they may become positive leaders that act for change.”[5]

[1] There is insufficient space here to outline the similarities in verse, rhyme and rhythm between molam and rap. Of note, however, is that both genres rely heavily on witty, creative dialogue using various types of alliteration, assonance and repetition and are performed according to defined rhythms and beats.  

[2] See, for example, Adam Chapman, "Music and digital media across the Lao diaspora." The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology 5.2 (2004): 129-144.

[3] The video of “Shut ‘Em Down” can be accessed at http://www.laopress.com/images/artists/info/felonz.htm.

[4] The molam reung of Lao Bantheung Sinh has to date been performed almost exclusively in Lao language.  By the same token, rapper One Hunned has performed almost exclusively in English. Combining the two languages for a new work represents a departure from previous works and a new challenge for both sets of artists.    

[5] Thatsanaphone Bounyarith, “Sticky Rice and Mangoes.”  Lao American Magazine, June 25, 2011.  Accessed via http://www.laoamericanmagazine.com/2011/06/sticky-rice-and-mangos/ on April 14, 2015.




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