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Vangthanousone Bouaphanh: Lao Jazznova

Ian Patterson By

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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 Laos—a 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 state—in which few call themselves communist—has 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 khene—a sheng- like, bamboo mouth organ—or 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 music—besides pan-global club music—be 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 Vangthanousone—who 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.

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