"How beautiful that girl was! When I went into the forest, I enjoyed the scent of the wild flowers which surrounded me when a gentle breeze blew, and reminded me of the scent of a young girl. I have never understood how the rain knows when to stop, nor have I understood the eclipse of the moon; but I will never be able to stop loving that young girl."
These lyrics, from "Lam Tangvay", give a glimpse into the world of Molam, the thousand year old musical tradition of southern Laos. Molam is a love jousting, a stylised courtship ritual. Male and female singers improvise in poetic or bawdy style, competing in rhyme. Traditionally Molam is founded on the churning rhythms of the khene, the lively bamboo mouth organ which is the national instrument of Laos.The khene is to Laos as the bagpipe to Scotland, only more so. Inextricably tied to the national identity, the sight and sound of this bouncing cluster of tubes makes the Laotian heart beat faster. The khene player blows, sucks, wheezes and often dances while playing - it's a mouth-driven accordion, and is in fact the ancestor of the accordion, harmonica and all other western "free reed" instruments. The Laotians are famously the people who eat "sticky rice" (steamed rice served in baskets and eaten with the fingers) and play the khene.Laos is a landlocked strip of southeast Asia between Thailand and Vietnam, the river Mekong forming most of its western border. One of the poorest countries in the world, it also has the dubious distinction of being the most heavily bombed nation per capita in the history of warfare. In the Palace Museum in Luang Phabang is a fragment of moon rock, presented to the Lao people by US President Nixon in 1973. The same year that the US finally stopped saturation bombing of eastern Laos, the secret footnote to the history of the Vietnam war.Molam is still the country's favourite entertainment, heard at farming ceremonies, family celebrations and raucous drinking parties. When you witness Lao singers trading amorous innuendo through microphones and a vicious amplification system at a Vientiane party, it's hard not to see Molam as a distant cousin of rap music.Molam is such a popular genre in Laos and neighbouring Thailand that it has mushroomed into pop and electric formats, involving guitars, keyboards and drums.Many singers sell vast numbers of cassettes of electric Molam and the related Thai Luk Tung. One of these stars is the singer Pornsak Songseng. When listening to this largely drone-based and pentatonic music, two impressions leap out: one, that Pornsak's bass guitarist plays a lot like Jah Wobble; and two, that the whole kaboodle is southeast Asia's answer to reggae.After listening to and admiring this music for many years, and seeing that such a fine group of Lao traditionalists was living three hours across La Manche by Eurostar, Jah Wobble could finally resist no longer, and decided to record a collaboration with Molam Lao group members. The sessions were an exhilarating party - westerners were impressed by the flexibility of the Lao musicians, and the direct beauty of their performances. Laotians were bowled over by the antics of Wobble and engineer Cai Murphy on the mixing desk, and each mix was concluded by the whole studio bursting into applause. We were all moved by what was happening, and hope that this project will bring the Molam of Laos to a wider audience.