Vangthanousone Bouaphanh: Lao Jazznova
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."