result when he plucks would not be considered ethereal by even
the most rabid lover of Thai folk music. The major sound is too
twangy (albeit too soft to be really annoying). The tune he
plays lacks any real interest. Typically (or not so typically in
today's hi-fi, disco-dinned world), it is a simple five-note
theme of far from lasting appeal.
Kamol says, "listen to the second tone, which comes out
of the first."
there it is. A single note, barely heard, which seems to come
straight out of the heart. Like the harmonic overtones on a
violin (or those resonant notes when one plays the piano with
the echo pedal held down), Kamol has created an overtone on the
instrument: a sound which lies somewhere between echo and
must be almost an initiate to hear it. But Kamol Setsiri was
initiated into traditional Thai folk music almost five decades
ago. Like Bela Bartok and Ralph Vaughn Williams, who had
thwarted conventional music training in the early 1900's by
going to the roots of the countryside, Kamol discovered his Thai
roots in the farmland of eastern Thailand
was hardly easy, as Kamol discovered. Born in Surin Province,
the son of a schoolteacher, he was grounded in Thai classical
music-the "only" music for serious students. Folk
music was either ignored or looked down upon as frivolous and
I was interested in both musics when I was young,"
Kamol explained. "Yes, as a boy scout I played in the
town band, and later studied older music at Silpakorn (Fine Arts)
University. But Whenever I mentioned the music from villages
near Surin, they laughed at me in Bangkok. That music, they said,
a way, they were right. The music is primitive compared to court
music. But it certainly isn't uncivilised."
was unknown in Thailand during the 1940s, and Kamol had no help
in his search. But Surin, he knew, was very special to the
searcher of original music.
at the geography of Surin,"
he explained. "We are next to Cambodia, and many of the
older people speak only Cambodian. This brings the music back to
the 14th century, when the Khmer Empire was at its height. At
the same time, there are Lao influences and of course Thai
influences. But the sounds are certainly different, as I
discovery came through sheer hard work. Without even a tape
recorder, Kamol went from village to village in Surin, listening
to the songs, discovering the instruments in the jungle. His
discovery of the khaen - the Laotian "panpipes"
with its drone and syncopated melody - gave him great joy,
because the instrument is so dynamic.
the khaen was already well known. The gourd-lute was totally
found it by accident,"
said Kamol. "I had been teaching in Surin and went up to
the jungle one weekend on my usual sort of jaunt. There I found
a village around 10 miles away from the city. But it was much
further in time. There were no roads, no connections except
through the jungle. I saw one old man playing this one-stringed
instrument. I liked the sound so much-just a simple tune but
with this echo effect when you listened carefully-that I
requested to learn from him."
course he wouldn't take money. (I don't think money was of much
use in the village anyhow.) But I gave him one baht as the
homage of a student to a teacher. That was the way it was in
I learned his songs. The melodies weren't difficult, but the
words were. They were either very old Thai or very ofd Cambodian,
but I couldn't understand them at all.
I discovered they were songs about the old days and miracles of
some sort. Like most folk music.
I learned later just how difficult it was to play these simple
tunes well. The old man didn't use a guitar string like I have,
but actually an old thread from a bicycle tyre!
he made me an instrument, and I've made many others just like