I awoke one morning in the village to the plaintive wails of odes for the dead. The village had become an odeum. A strange and beautiful, yet sad, music filled the air.
I wondered what was going on. The music was loud, but its mournful sound had a peaceful effect on my soul. The strains floating about my home were of a type I’d never heard before. It was Thai, or Lao, I’ve not the education yet to tell the differences, usually. I struggled to remain in bed, but my curiosity got the better of me and I had to finally drag my ass from under the covers to see what exactly was happening to the small slice of the planet where I was presently residing, my slice, the Isaan village. Another day of Asian edification for my unlearned little bit of gray matter was dawning. It was bound to be interesting at least.
I snorted and grumbled myself awake, mumbling obscenities, for no real reason except that I like to mumble obscenities, and stumbled from the bedroom for the hong nam (bathroom) and a yen ab nam, or is it ab nam yen, a cold shower in the bathroom to be exact. The freaking water from the Isaan village water well feels like it comes from a direct pipe-line under some frozen ice-cap up beneath Santa Claus’ home! (This was before a good friend’s power-shower hot-water heater wedding present was finally installed. For which I wish to thank him profusely for once again. It’s being put to good use daily now during the cold season in Isaan. Look sow (daughter) and my wife love it, brother.
Thanks again. My nuts thank you too.)
After a quick rinse off of the sleep dirt of the previous evening (the quicker the better, the water’s so cold it makes my nuts hurt) I cautiously bumbled my way outside the house to the back kitchen area where my wife was want to be. Upon seeing my grizzled and battered, freshly frozen, yet scrubbed clean and shaven at least, mug, my wife broke into a lovely smile that warmed me to the bone.
‘Wife, what the hell is going on with that music?’ I asked her, after she had asked me what I wanted to eat to break my fast this morning and I had placed my order.
‘Old lady. She dead last night.’ she replied smiling, still.
‘Huh? What old lady?’ I mumbled back perplexed, as I lit my first smoke of the day.
I hadn’t heard of any old ladies on death’s door recently, and usually it would have been brought to my attention in passing conversation during the gossip sessions I attend over beers at Sis Mun’s shop. Ostensibly I go for a drink or two, but really because, even though I despise gossip, I’m prone to listen and be curious as to what they are all talking about. Hey, I’m human, I think; although some have questioned the fact. At least I would have been asked to throw in a few baht (Thai money) for a collection for her care, or medicine,
special foods, or some such anyway. The old dears are always starting some social service collection for the needy of the village, which I am not adverse to kicking in a few baht towards. I watch and see what the old bats are kicking in themselves, and act accordingly.
‘Old lady she, live house there.’ my wife explained, pointing to the house almost directly behind us.
My addled brain, not yet truly awake, but beginning to function slightly just from the smell of coffee and the thought of a forthcoming breakfast, seemed to dimly remember my being awakened some hours earlier, like 3 a.m. or so, by some hollering and screeching that must have, now that I had this knowledge, been brought on by the grief of the relatives of the deceased woman once she had died. I had woke up, mumbled something like ‘What the hell? Shaddup for chrissakes you idiots!’, thinking it was another late night Lao Khao (rice
whiskey) fuelled argument of some sort or another, and promptly rolled over and hugged my pillow on the cool side, returning forthwith to slumber. I’d probably been wakened by the relatives wails of anguish that their loved one had passed on. A shiver touched me at the thought I had witnessed, however sleepily, their immediate and raw grief, and had been such a grumpy bastard about it.
I ate my breakfast, scrambled eggs and fried ham, with toast perfectly done the way I’ve taught her to cook it, and mentioned to my wife that the music playing so loudly over a speaker system was actually quite nice. I asked her about it and she said, ‘Old music. Old lady like too mutt.’ I laughed, and told her, ‘Well, this old falang (foreigner) like too mutt too. It’s very beautiful.’
‘You like?’ she asked me.
‘Very much.’ I said in reply.
She smiled oddly at me, with a slight tilt to her head, a passing lovely expression, and a look came into her eyes that I liked. It was a look that most men like to receive from their woman, one of appreciation. A shining, dark, deep look that says you’ve just said something that pleases her greatly, and that she thinks just maybe she might have latched herself onto someone she can love forever. My offhand words of praise and appreciation for this funeral music had touched her heart in some way, for some reason. Don’t ask me why; she’s a woman, and mostly a mystery to me. It is a look I would do most anything to receive often from the woman I love. If you’ve seen this look before you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. If not, hopefully one day you will know what I’m talking of. It has heat that warms your heart, even the coldest of hearts in the coldest of men.
The days passed, the funeral was planned, the music was played twenty-four hours a day for three days, and those songs haunt me still right now. I’ve never heard anything quite so calming, soothing, and mellow as those songs. I asked my wife what it was, and if we could buy some CD’s of it. She said she would try to find some for me. They are old Thai classics from the forties, fifties and sixties I guess from what she told me. Wonderful stuff. Love songs. Ballads. They helped set a distinct mood around the village. It was like the old
ways were being reinforced in everyone’s minds. People grew even more mellow and
polite within the songs radius of decibel influence. Even the water buffalo seemed to enjoy the songs, and it looked like they were swaying in time with the music.
I know I did; swayed and enjoyed that is.
I’ll never forget those few days those days of songs for the village dead. Quite a few old village folk died during this past trip over for some reason. That one old lady gave me some music that moved me, that made the days seem more pleasant than usual. Her death seemed to bring the village back in time for a while, back to her time, her younger days. I wish I could have been there then, to have seen this village when it was untouched by the western influences of the present. I wish I could have met the young Thai lady whose love for those songs had touched my heart in the year 2002, the year of her death.
I fell in love a little with her, the girl she was that loved this music, and I fell in love with the songs of the dead.
Cent (The Central Scrutinizer)
Copyright 2003. All rights reserved by the author.
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6 thoughts on “Songs For The Dead”
I actually quite like Thai upcountry music. It has charm.
I know what you mean about that look of appreciation from a woman. If you manage to touch her heart in just the right spot, it evokes that response. It’s hard to describe, but I feel that your definition was quite adequate…
Interesting upcountry music. I really like it.
I also like the luk thuneg music and older country music, pin music, the stuff with the drums, saws and pins etc. I don’t care much for the ‘pop’ style the kids are listening to, my daughter included. 🙂
And yeah, there is that look, that touching of the heart as you say, that is very nice to see when it comes your way from the woman you love.
I have quite a few cds of this sort of country style music. I also have a couple of cds of recordings done by a professor who went around Thailand (and also the world) recording old Thai songs from all the provinces. It is interesting old music that one hears less and less. I like it. It sets a mood in our house, village, neighborhood when I play it. Quite nice actually, and soothing, yet so different for a western ear.
How can i get ones like that ?
Ask around your Thai family, friends, and neighbors. Many will help out finding what for us would be hard to find. I told my family and a neighbor that I liked the songs they play at the funerals, the ‘monk’ songs, and by the time I left the funeral one man had gone home and gotten a copy of these songs for me. They thought it weird I would want this music, but hey, they gave me a copy of it anyway (they know we farang are a bit odd). So my advice would be to just ask around the Thais you know and see what they can come up with. I’ve seen if you express a sincere interest in their customs, music, religion etc most Thais will go out of their way to get you what you are seeking. -Cent
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