Fong Naam is one of the great musical acts from the under-heard Southeast Asian nation of Thailand. It is a culture rich in sounds and tradition but the culture we are mostly exposed to is often just vapid exotica.
To preserve and revitalize the country’s music, Thai renat instrumental great Boonyong Kaetkhong and American musicologist Bruce Gaston formed the stellar group, Fong Naam. And they’ve been doing that for over a decade. Since the mid-90s though, Fong Naam has rarely been heard on record and sadly Boonyong Kaetkhong has passed away. However, they did record five sessions for the label, Marco Polo—an affiliate of the Naxos family. This re-release of the first of those classic sessions—made in 1990, before all of Fong Naam’s other international releases—with Gaston’s original notes will hopefully bring their eminence back into the world music spotlight.
Fong Naam derives its name from the title of an ancient melody and can be translated as “bubbles”. It is a unique insight of Thai Buddhist culture to think of art as a bubble, the transparent beauty of which is most clearly identified with a short, fleeting moment of existence. Boonyong Kaetkhong was considered to be one of the greatest masters of the renat (soprano xylophone). His playing has been compared to “the sound of pearls falling on a jade plate” by the former Chinese leader Zhou Enlai.
When Boonyong Kaetkhong and Bruce Gaston, who has lived in Thailand for over thirty years, launched this orchestra, they wanted to bridge a gap. The divide they wanted to link was not only between Asians and Westerners, but more especially between Thai traditionalist musicians who in their zeal to preserve the old refused to allow any evolution or growth and modernists who, embarrassed by their roots, sought to imitate the West exclusively. Within this context, Fong Naam was created.
This classic album, The Piphat: Siamese Classics Vol. 1, presents music which preserves the integrity of Siamese piphat ensembles while incorporating new ideas. It is a truly exceptional introduction to the sound and sensibility of traditional Thai music. The title ‘Piphat’ is actually two words: ‘pi’ means an instrument of the oboe type and ‘phat’ coming from Sanskrit refers to percussion instruments. Thus instrumentation which combines the pi and percussion in various proportions is called the Piphat. The music on this Vol. 1 collection is Piphat Orchestra music in Pre-Ayudhya and Ayudhya periods (which translates to about 14th and 15th century Thailand in the Menam Basin region).
In Siamese orchestration there is never any doubling of instruments. This is because the Thai tradition places great importance on the individual freedom of each player. Each member of the orchestra recites in his head the given melody that has been handed down from the teacher. The joy and interest in listening to the music is to compare the various musical ideas that are concurrently evolving out of a single hidden melody, and it is for this reason that the timbres of the various instruments are designed not to create a homogeneous blend, but rather to maintain the clarity of the instrumental line.
This mixture of the very old and the very new in the group’s repertoire seeks to emphasize the ever-changing nature of this ancient but still-living musical tradition. With The Piphat: Siamese Classics Vol.1 Fong Naam has given us something fascinating and breathing. Similarly this re-release on acclaimed international budget label Naxos World aims to keep the legend of Fong Naam alive.