Sorapet Pinyoo and the Status of Pleeng Luuk Tung

By Mitchell, James | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, June 2009 | Go to article overview

Sorapet Pinyoo and the Status of Pleeng Luuk Tung


Mitchell, James, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


Introduction: Argument and structure

This author's particular point of interest in pleeng luuk tung is the role that it has played in facilitating the rebirth or regeneration of Isan identity and culture. My overall research proposes that the significant involvement of Isan people within the luuk tung music industry has provided Isan people with an entry point into mainstream Thai society and culture, when most avenues were closed to them. Through luuk tung, Lao-Isan (1) culture has been able to influence Thai society to the point that Isan language and culture has become acceptable. However I aim to demonstrate that this heavy Isan involvement is one of the main reasons why luuk tung has historically been accorded low status.

Conversely, luuk tung's rise in status in Thailand since 1997 has prompted attempts to disguise the Isan involvement in luuk tung. The status of luuk tung is the subject of this article, with status being defined as the degree of prestige attached to an activity/person by society. I propose that from 1958 to approximately 1990, a number of social, political and academic movements combined to present a more negative image of luuk tung than was warranted and, as a result, the genre has been understudied. This article aims to address these issues by, first, identifying the forces that influenced the development of luuk tung's status in Thai society prior to 1997; second, comparing the portrayal of luuk tung in the three most recent and significant publications; and, third, by examining the career, songs, as well as songwriting and recording techniques of Sorapet Pinyoo, a well-known luuk tung artist.

As my research into the genre progresses, it is apparent that very little has been written about the art of luuk tung songwriting. In both the Thai and English literature, analysis of luuk tung lyrics as poetry is virtually non-existent. As a consequence, the limited English language literature is unable to give non-Thais a real understanding of what luuk tung is. It is hoped that an analysis of Sorapet's work will provide insight into the nature of the genre and allow readers to reassess some of the negative aspects of luuk tung's conventional image. This case study is also intended to complement the overall argument of my research--that luuk tung has provided Isan people with the means to revitalise the image of Isan culture within Thailand.

The development of luuk tung's conventional image

The low status of luuk tung in Thai society before 1997 has been referred to by many authors, such as Ubonrat Siriyuvasak, (2) Craig Lockard (3) and Amporn Jirattikorn, (4) but there has yet to be a concerted attempt to identify the reasons behind it. The contention of this article is that a number of different social and political forces, movements or conditions combined to produce an overly negative image of luuk tung in Thai society and in academic writing before 1997. (5) The first such force is the dialectic between Thai classical music linked to the monarchy and popular song genres linked to Luang Phibunsongkraam. Luuk tung developed during the period of Phibunsongkraam's influence and the revision of his image after his overthrow in 1957 may have indirectly affected that of genres associated with him. The second force that contributed to the low status of luuk tung in the past was the high level of Isan involvement. Isan people have long been derided by central Thais and were regarded with suspicion during the years of the communist insurgency. Throughout the last 100 years, Thai rulers and governments have sought to build a cohesive nation-state and Isan culture has been both suppressed and appropriated in the service of nationhood. The third force to be discussed is the tendency for Thais to classify luuk tung as rural folk music. It was not until the late 1970s, with the influence of Marxist theory, that Thai historians became interested in writing about the culture of ordinary people. …

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