TUESDAY, April 16, 2024

Faces of Asia: Guardian of Thailand’s musical legacy

Faces of Asia: Guardian of Thailand’s musical legacy

To commemorate National Artist Day in Thailand, which falls on February 24th, the Nation has exclusively interviewed Chaichana Boonnachote, a revered figure in Thailand’s music scene and a national artist.

Known for his unique singing skills, Chaichana’s melodic gem, “Pleang Lae”, continues to draw audiences.

Despite his high profile and the many kudos acknowledging this important national artist, Chaichana’s early journey was marked by perseverance and passion after growing up in a poor family in Chachoengsao province, in eastern Thailand. Chaichana and his brother were sent to receive basic education with the monks at the temple, as his parents could not afford to send both to school. He completed his education only up to Grade 4.

Chaichana Boonnachote, a revered figure in Thailand’s music scene and a national artist.

Despite the challenges, his talent was noticed at age 16 when he participated in singing competitions.“Bangkok Noi”, a song from his debut album, catapulted him to fame.

While only 20, and a monk, he earned a place in the public’s hearts with his signature song, ‘Plaeng Lae’.

“I was the one who pioneered ‘Plaeng Lae’," he tells The Nation. The national artist recalls those memorable moments: “When I was a monk, I sang ‘Plaeng Lae’ to impart spiritual guidance to Buddhists across 27 temples. At Wat Bang Krajab, many gathered at the pavilion to hear ‘Plaeng Lae’,' which I sang until the pavilion collapsed. People came specifically to listen to me sing.”

This traditional Thai tune, with its unique style of singing and improvisation reminiscent of jazz, holds a significant place in the country’s artistic heritage, and is often performed during temple rituals before monkhood. It is a cherished part of Thai spiritual life, referred to as “Tum Kwan Nak”.

Chaichana says ‘Plaeng Lae’ is very difficult to perform, as it requires great skill, good memory, and the creativity to be able to improvise on the spot. In our contemporary time, these skills have become rare.

“The person who sings ‘Plaeng Lae’ at the Tum Kwan Nak ritual must memorise all of the poems and sing them uniquely – and sometimes has to improvise by composing and singing it right on the spot,” said the national artist.

It is referred to as a “beggar song” since its origins lie with a wandering ascetic begging for alms. While singing, performers also hold wooden rhythm clappers in both hands and play cymbals with their feet, simultaneously providing rhythm while singing.

“Over time, the song was continuously modified until it became ‘Plaeng Lae,’ telling the story of The Vessantara Jataka, the almsgiving tale of Prince Vessantara before he was born as the Buddha,” explains Chaichana.

Chaichana’s influence extends beyond his music. He has mentored aspiring artists, including the late Waiphot Phetsuphan, leaving an indelible mark on Thailand’s folk music scene.

Tossapol Himmapan, a renowned Thai folk singer.

“As far as I can recall, he was already famous by the time I was born,” reflects one of Chaichana’s admirers. “He’s an idol to us, adept at singing various types of Thai folk songs, and now holds the esteemed title of National Artist,” said Tossapol Himmapan, who is also a renowned Thai folk singer.

"Now Chaichana is facing another huge challenge following a diagnosis of early-stage bladder cancer, and yet he remains determined to see ‘Pleang Lae’ preserved as a national treasure," said Pikul, Chaichana's wife.

Faces of Asia: Guardian of Thailand’s musical legacy

Chaichana hopes that the new generation will step up, especially in the realm of art. “I hope that they will uphold our traditions and culture, whether it’s through singing, composing music, or language usage, said the national artist.

As Thailand navigates the winds of change, a question lingers: will the beautiful cultural heritage of the nation fade away with the older generation? It’s a question that resonates deeply within society, urging communities to recognise the importance of cultural preservation and support its continuation for generations to come.