Vangthanousone Bouaphanh: Lao Jazznova
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