Beijing Beat blog with Mark Godfrey

Beijing Beat

Laos: Keeping Music Alive in a Communist Republic

Jun 17

Written by:
6/17/2008 10:50 PM  RssIcon

Local fixations on economic growth leaves little for preserving a rich local musical culture

There a dilemma in preserving musical heritage. On a recent trip to Laos I picked up a CD of local folk tunes in a grocery store in Vientiane. It’s a nicely packaged album but the sales point – an expat-geared Seven Eleven style shop - and 65,000 kip (EUR4.50) price tag means it’ll only ever reach the ear’s of wealthy expatriates. Several Laotians whom I asked to explain the music blinked on seeing the price tag. Understandably so perhaps, given local clerical salaries average US$50 a month.

Worse, the CD was put together by a French musicologist with help from French public money. A healthy traffic flow suggests there’s money in Vientiane but government funding for the arts crumbled in Laos: the Communist government which took over in the 1970s was never one for reminding locals of their retired royal family, or of the French-imperial days when the country and neighbouring Vietnam and Cambodia were ruled by Paris.

It’s hard to find decent collections of local folk in any Vientiane music store – there’s not many of them. So the country’s musical past will remain in the hands of a few interested foreigners and world music connoisseurs like BBC’s Charlie Gillet.

Even moreso than Laos, China is a ‘socialist market economy’ where official obsessions with economic growth and development makes for an often homogenized culture. Finding original works of Chinese folk is hard, given that most have been souped up with a disco beat or Mandopop stylings.

A lonely voice in the wilderness in Beijing, where itinerant French musicologist Laurent Jeanneau has been making his collections of Chinese minority music available in local record stores like the Sugar Jar. Maybe when they’ve gotten wealthy and built enough malls these states will slow down and go in search of their distinctive culture again: that’s a hope.






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