Vangthanousone Bouaphanh: Lao Jazznova
Cradling his Epiphone Emperor Regent as he stands against the backdrop of a Buddhist temple, guitarist Vangthanousone Bouaphanh cuts a dashing figure. Vangthanousone comes from the "Land of a Million Elephants," better known these days as Laosa small, Buddhist/animist country sandwiched between Vietnam, China, Burma, Thailand and Cambodia. Vangthanousone may look like a star, but he's not at all famous. His country is not really famous, either, other than for being the single-most-bombed country in the history of warfare. Laos has no internationally famous historical heroes, like Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh, nor does it have notorious villains, like Cambodia's Pol Pot. It has no internationally recognized politicians, like Thailand's Thaksin Shinawatra.
The one-party communist statein which few call themselves communisthas no famous dissident opposition figures, like Burma's Auung San Suu Kyi, nor famous athletes, like China's basketball star Yao Ming. And, with the exception of a few bands and singers who have enjoyed success in neighboring Thailand or within the large Lao expatriate communities in America and France, Laos has no internationally famous figure from the arts. Modern literature, art, film and music are all still fairly much in their infancy, nearly 40 years after the communists came to power in Laos, following America's inglorious exit from the bloody Indochina war.
Vangthanousone may not be a famous musician, but in Lao terms he is unique. However, a little background detail first. When it comes to music, Vangthanousone acknowledges, most Lao like it sweet and mellow. The vast majority of the population is bound to the soil, and Lao folk music is music of a very nostalgic, romantic nature, characterized by alluring vocals and the soft tones of the khenea sheng- like, bamboo mouth organor the gentle accompaniment of the three- stringed Lao guitar, the phin. The Lao do shake it up with mor lam, an increasingly electrified, fast-paced music with plenty of sexual innuendo in the modern lyrics.
Rhythm in most Lao music, however, is relatively simple and often metronomic. The accelerated or fluctuating rhythms, dissonance, experimentalism, harsher vocals, and solos commonplace in Western music are neither understood nor appreciated by most Lao. As Lao music is predominantly vocal, instrumental Western musicbesides pan-global club musicbe it Western classical, electronic, instrumental rock or jazz, is frequently met with the refrain: "I don't understand." In a society with a strong oral tradition, a song literally must tell a story.
So it makes it all the more surprising, and intriguing to boot, that Vangthanousone is a jazz guitarist. He's also an extremely accomplished one at that, as his assured performance at the Mark Two venue with the Ron Cole Trio from Bangkok demonstrated in January. It's especially notable, however, for one simple reason, as Vangthanousonewho employs the moniker Lao Jazznova states"nobody plays jazz in Laos."
So just how did Vangthanousone come to be a jazz guitarist? Vangthanousone was born in 1987, at a time when the former Soviet Union was still an important influence on Laos. Mikhail Gorbachev's Perestroika paved the way for market-economy reforms in communist Vietnam, and in turn, Laos. The Lao government followed the lead of Vietnam in abandoning the disastrous agricultural collectivization policy which had been implemented at the end of the Vietnam War, and it has slowly, but effectively, followed suit in embracing state- controlled capitalism.
This didn't mean, however, that a libertarian society automatically followed; travel around the country was tightly controlled and restricted for locals until the beginning of the 1990s, and older Lao recall how in the '80s, the police would stop people with "decadent, Western" long hair and proceed to cut it short. That all seems a long time ago now.
Laos opened its doors to international tourism at the beginning of the 1990s, and the trickle of visitors then has grown to something approaching 2.5 million per year, and rising. Changes in Laos, particularly in the capital, have been rapid in all manner of ways, economic and social. Cars are a plague, and parking is a lottery. Luxury cars and motorbikes belie the country's status as an impoverished nation. Banks, once conspicuous by their rarity, are now two or three to a street. Cafes are so common, you could be forgiven for thinking that drinking coffee is all people do here. Trendy hair salons, chic cosmetics shops, Korean and Japanese restaurants, pizzerias, ATMs and clothes boutiques all abound. The English language is no longer the rare beast it formerly was, and just about every neighborhood has an English school.
Happily, hair too, is doing its own thing these days; Lao youth follow the latest in Thai, Japanese andincreasinglyKorean trends, free from the watchful eyes of the now-defunct hair police. It follows that, like everything else, the musical panorama in Laos has come a long way, too, as Vangthanousone confirms: "Ten years ago, there weren't many bands making CDs, only Issan [Issan refers to northeast Thailandformerly Laos, but annexed to Thailand by the colonial French in 1893] and Lao country songs, but now we have many styles: pop, rock, hip-hop, and bossa nova, of late." There are even a few rowdy decibels of punk and metal now and again, music that Vangthanousone describes as "underground," which, roughly translated, means they struggle to get gigs.
Jazz would no doubt be in the same boat, if there were such a thing as a Lao jazz band. There isn't. However, that may change sooner rater than later, if Vangthanousone has his way. Having played in various pop and rock bands, Vangthanousone found his way to jazz via Mr. Tao, owner of the Jazzy Brick, one of Vientiane's most elegant bars, and the only bar in the capital city where jazz is the main music piped through the speakers every day. The walls are decorated with large frames of photographer Herman Leonard's iconic images of singer Ella Fitzgerald and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, both at Birdland in 1948, album covers of trumpeter Miles Davis and saxophonist John Coltrane, live shots of drummer Art Blakey and saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell. In short, it is a veritable oasis for jazz lovers.
For Vangthanousone, the visit to the bar was to have a major impact on him: "Before, I had never heard jazz," he explains. "I had probably heard it, but I didn't know what it was. When I came across jazz at the Jazzy Brick, I thought it was just amazing. Mr. Tao gave me some jazz files. At first, I was mainly attracted to bossa nova and started playing it, particularly Antonio Carlos Jobim. Later, I moved onto jazz standards." That Vangthanousone has acquired a high degree of fluidity in his playing and an authentic jazz-blues vocabulary is all the more impressive, considering he is self-taught and only picked up the guitar three years ago. "I learned to play by ear," he says.
With none of his friends interested in jazz, Vangthanousone was forced to follow a singular path. "The only jazz I have heard in Lao is on the computer, and I've listened to a lot of jazz on the computer," he says, laughing. Vangthanousone spends an hour a day watching jazz videos on the internet, and a further three hours practicing on his guitar by himself. The 24-year-old is familiar with guitarists such as Bill Frisell, John Scofield and Pat Metheny, and is a fan of saxophonists John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. However, he has a clear favorite: "The first is Pat Martino, my idol," he states. "I like his speed picking and his ideas. Wes Montgomery too; I like Wes because he didn't use the pick, just his thumb. He sounds very cool."
With the internet as his main source of music and guidance, Vangthanousone soon came across the Facebook page of Bangkok-based, American guitarist Ron Cole. Vangthanousone asked for lessons and advice, and Cole agreed. Vangthanousone has been studying with Cole for one year. "Ron sent me files and jazz standards books, and I learnt by myself," he says. "He is very kind. He has given me a lot of advice." With some Skype and a lot of chatting, Cole has been important in helping the young Lao guitarist develop his improvisational techniques.
The role of teacher and mentor is one that Cole has been happy to fill, encouraged by the fact that someone from Laos is learning jazz guitar. "He struck me as a dedicated and serious musician," says Cole of his student. "He has what we call 'big ears,' which translates into a good sense of pitch and an ability to hear music and play it back accurately." Cole has been very impressed by Vangthanousone's discipline and determination: "He has shown a great deal of progress. He certainly has a great deal of natural talent, but he also practices his ass off!"
Cole cut his musical teeth in New York, obviously in a very different musical environment from Vangthanousone. Cole recognizes just how important this factor is in a musician's development: "I was very lucky to grow up in a musical family," he says. "My brother was a drummer who took me out to jam sessions at an early age. The cats who were playing around that time had come up during the golden years of bebop and straight-ahead jazz, so they had the vocabulary and the harmonic approach, and forced you to you learn the music and gave needed feedback."
It's precisely this sort of support that Vangthanousone lacks in Laos, so his single-minded determination to master the jazz idiom is all the more impressive. Cole has words of advice for his student and any other aspiring musicians: "The more musical situations you put yourself in, the more you can learn. Playing with other musicians teaches you things that just can't be learned from playing along to software or a theory book. Of course, having a good teacher helps tremendously, but with all that, it boils down to practice, practice, and more practice."
In this respect, Vangthanousone is something of a model student. In addition to the three hours he practices daily on his guitar, he performs every evening in an acoustic band, playing Lao and Thai pop in local venue Mark Two. Then there's Afternoon Blossom, the bossa nova-influenced band which he leads. Singer Biby Vilinthone sings in Lao, hence the music has been dubbed "Lao Bossa." The band has a single out, the first bossa nova recording in Laos.
The gentle strains of bossa nova suit the Lao musical palette very well, though Vangthanousone is hoping to explore more adventurous territory: "I don't have a jazz band, but I'm looking for one," he says. "I like improvising, but there isn't much improvising in Lao music, so it's a very big change." A very big change no doubt, but Vangthanousone has a strong handle on the concept: "Improvising is like talking to someone," he says. "You don't think before. Sometimes it's difficult, sometimes it's easy."
Vangthanousone certainly made it look easy when he sat in with Cole's organ trio Bump, when the American guitarist came to Vientiane in January. Cole had been planning a social trip to Vientiane, but Vangthanousone persuaded him to bring his trio and play. Vangthanousone worked hard to organize a venue and equipment, and Mr. Thai, the owner of Mark Two and owner of Indie Records agreed to stage the concert.
"We decided in advance what tunes we wanted to perform together, and then I sent charts to them," relates Cole. Rehearsal was the warm- up gig at the Jazzy Brick the evening before the Mark Two concert: "Vangthanousone and Biby ran through the tunes at Jazzy Brick the afternoon before and then performed during the gig there. This gave us a chance to find a groove that worked."
The concert at Mark Two was a notable success. A genuine jazz performance is a rare event in Laos, but the several-hundred-strong crowd at Mark Two was warmly appreciative of Cole's trio, his Lao guest musicians, and the high standard of playing. Singer Biby Vilinthone and alto saxophonist Udon Pao gave assured performances, but the real star of the show was Vangthanousone, whose blues-tinged runs contained the seeds from guitarists George Benson, Grant Green, Montgomery and Martinosoulful, fluid and lyrical.
For Vangthanousone, the experience was an edifying one: "It was very exciting to play on stage," he enthused several days after the gig. "This concert was the greatest concert in my life." Cole, who was generous in the space he gave the young Lao musicians to play, was clearly delighted: "Vangthanousone has a natural feel and he's a good listener, which is critical when you have two guitars and an organ going at the same time," he said afterwards. "I was really pleased by his performance."
Once the euphoric dust had settled, it was back to the routine of nightly Lao/Thai acoustic pop for Vangthanousone. He has just graduated from college with a degree in finance and is thinking about his work options: "Maybe in the future I will work in a bank," he says, "but I really like jazz and I'd like to be a professional musician." Vangthanousone has his dream, but he's certainly under no illusions about the difficulties that face him: "You can be a professional musician in Vientiane," he says, "but there's not much money." With a distinct shortage of jazz musicians and venues in Vientiane, it may be that Vangthanousone will have to travel abroad if he is to pursue his dream.
There is something quixotic in Vangthanousone's raising of a lonely jazz standard in Laos. The anodyne boy bands and hip-hop acolytes that predominate in Vientiane are his windmills, and he tilts at them with his Emperor Regent guitar. There will certainly be a few battles to fight, though he undoubtedly has the talent to succeed. In the meantime, any jazz musicians thinking about venturing to Laos to play a gig should take note that there is an exceptional young jazz guitarist already there for hire. His name is Vangthanousone Bouaphanh, the Lao Jazznova.
All Photos: Courtesy of Lao Jazznova