"This foreigner has taken us to a beautiful place but he hasn’t bought us lunch yet". Clive Bell looks at the endangered music of southeast Asian hilltribes and John Moore's Indigenius label
Indigenius is a tiny label run by John Moore, a vehicle for his highly recommended field recordings of southeast Asian hilltribes music. In previous incarnations Moore ran language training programmes for the British Foreign Office and a legendary stall selling musical instruments at London’s Greenwich market. Currently, he lives in Chiang Mai in north Thailand; in fact he has lived there for nearly two decades, married to Tomima Yipa from the Lisu tribe. The city sits just south of a vast mountainous area, sprawling across the modern borders of China, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. This is home to a bewildering roll call of tribal peoples, many of whom arrived centuries ago from Tibet. Until recently these people lived separate or marginalised lives, out of the sight of mainstream Thai society, but regularly visited by trekking parties of tourists, eager for glimpses of peasant life and exotic costumes.
Hilltribe music, Moore suspected, might offer something better than Chiang Mai’s nightly performances to tourist groups. He explained to me how he began recording: “If you talk to an educated Thai person or even a musicologist, they will say the real music is what you get in the tourist performances, because the best artists have been chosen. Then I met my wife’s brother [Sunthon Yipa], who plays music. I realised his idea coincided with mine – what about the stuff that people play or sing to themselves in the evenings, or when there’s a celebration? So I lent him a minidisc recorder for a week. He came back with an absolute treasure trove, instruments I’d never heard of, tribes I never knew inhabited Thailand. He said there were three rules: one, never go to a Christian village, because they just sing hymns; two, avoid places tourists go, because people get influenced by what tourists want to hear; and three, only speak to people over the age of 50. That started me off.”
To date Moore has released eight albums, including Sounds For The Spirits and Songs Of The Tiger Hunters, focusing on the Lisu and Lahu tribes respectively. Voices From Within is all songs by women, while Songs Of Courtship And Celebration features male singers. Then there’s Reeds, Gourds And Gods, a parade of the remarkable free reed instruments so characteristic of the area. Metal free reeds – the same widgets that power a harmonica or an accordion – are exploited with flair and invention. Reeds are attached to buffalo horns or flutes, or elaborated into giant bamboo mouth organs, crowned with multiple gourds, that threaten to penetrate the ceiling above. To be a skilled mouth organ player in a hilltribe context can be a question of stamina and steely nerves: funeral or wedding ceremonies last for several days, and musicians perform wheeling and spinning dances while playing – not so far from breakdancing, to a western eye. According to Moore, training for such rituals can involve “the player dancing on one leg, standing on his head and doing somersaults close to the edge of a cliff, imitating a bird spirit”.
One mysterious aspect of this music is that a phrase played on reed organ, flute or mouth harp may be heard as words, as if it had been sung. Instruments are used as speech surrogates. When Moore announced he had taken up the reed organ, he was asked, “What language are you playing it in?” I asked him to explain how this works. “It happens most obviously in Hmong free reed playing, where particular phrases actually relate to verbal phrases,” he explains. “So a phrase may mean, ‘I’m missing you a lot’. Then they’ll take that and put it with other musical phrases to build up a story or an expression of feelings. So these phrases actually mean something. They don’t regard the music as existing in its own right, it’s what it’s expressing that they’re interested in. It’s very formalised, though there is scope for improvisation, and how you play it is very important. But this is getting increasingly rare, because the people listening have to know these phrases. Now increasingly they’re just listening to it as music.”
Improvisation also plays a part in singing, especially within bantering verbal duels. Moore recalls: “On one of my first recording sessions I took some of my wife’s family up to a well-known tourist spot. They said, ‘As we’re here in a nice place, let’s sing.’ And they improvised. I couldn’t catch it at first, but they were singing, ‘This foreigner has taken us to a beautiful place but he hasn’t bought us lunch yet’. This was introduced into a traditional song.”
Of course modern life is arriving in hilltribe villages, and sometimes it’s incorporated into the music. “Another fascinating thing is the way they use mobile phones,” says Moore by way of example. “There’s a promotion where you can get 59 free minutes. So what these hilltribes do is, they use that to sing to each other. It’s men and women who will sing together. And women are able to sing to men that they don’t know without their husbands knowing. Quite a lot of women that we know spend hours and hours on their phones singing antiphonally, improvising a bit while using a lot of familiar things. My wife told me about her first husband, who died quite a few years ago. When she first met him, he played the mouth harp to her, which was a common courting thing. And people in the village said, ‘He plays the mouth harp so well that he’s going to have a lot of girlfriends, you’d better watch out.’ Nowadays that doesn’t cut the mustard I’m afraid!”
There’s no getting away from it, this is a vulnerable, endangered music. Loss of rituals, disappearance of instruments, every traditional singer being at least 60 years old – other recordists have lamented the seemingly unstoppable process, including Laurent Jeanneau in the notes to his 2013 release on the Sublime Frequencies label, Ethnic Minority Music Of Southern China. When you listen, it’s striking how intimate this music is. Some performances – among them the Khamu tribe’s breathy panpipes - can barely be audible across the room. In fact the intended audience may be spirits – or a small gathering of family. Moore believes the game is up, and has stopped recording, at least within Thailand, though he believes within Burma and Laos there is still plenty to discover. “This is one of several reasons why I gave up – I realised the world had moved on, and people were no longer getting together in little groups of family and friends, regarding this as their main form of entertainment. The biggest change took place about ten years ago, when the government decided to install solar panels free in a lot of hilltribe villages. Immediately people got televisions and live entertainment just disappeared. I used to go to my wife’s village: in the evening there were candles and oil lamps, people would be chatting, telling stories and singing. One or two playing a few instruments. You go there two or three years later and they’re all watching telly [laughs]. So that was one of the things that discouraged me. Solar panels, one per household – the trouble was, I couldn’t really say it was a bad idea, because now they have fridges and they didn’t before.”