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Since ancient times, the Thai people have known how to make musical instruments or to copy the patterns of others and adapt them to their own uses. In fact, there are several kinds of musical instruments which the Thais apparently devised before they came in contact with the culture of India, which was widespread in Southeast Asia before they migrated there.
Later, when the Thai people were establishing their kingdoms and had come into contact with Indian culture, particularly with Indian instruments which the Mon and Khmer cultures had absorbed first, they assimilated this musical culture into their own.
From this contact, the Thais created several new kinds of musical instruments such as the phin, sang, pi chanai, krachap pi, chakhe, and thon, which are mentioned in the Tribhumikatha, one of the first books written in Thai, and on a stone inscription from the time of King Ramkhamhaeng of the Sukhothai period. Some songs of the Sukhothai period are still sung at present, such as Phleng Thep Thong.
During the Ayutthaya period the instrumental ensemble was composed of four to eight musicians. Songs became much longer and singing technique was improved. Many Ayutthaya songs were composed in a form of musical suite called Phleng Rua, which was a series of songs. Poets contributed lyrics in the form of short stories, mostly from the Ramakian. Many Ayutthaya songs are still employed in Thai plays today.
In the beginning of the Bangkok period, after a long period of war, there was a remarkable revival of Thai arts, especially music and drama. The size of the instrumental ensemble was enlarged to 12 musicians and several masterpieces of Thai literature were produced as theatrical performances accompanied by music. Beautiful lyrics written by contemporary poets were fitted into melodies of the Ayutthaya period.
All Thai musicians in the past received their training from their teachers, through constant playing and singing in their presence. With nothing else to rely upon except their own memory, it was only through much hard work that they gained their technical experience and practical knowledge in playing and singing.
Later when Thailand began to have contact with Western European nations and the United States , theThais adopted such Western instruments as the bass drum, the violin, and the organ.
To save the national music from extinction, modern Thai musicians are trying to devise a system in which this traditional music can be rendered into Western notation and later edited. According to a book written by Sir Hubert Perry, entitled "Evolution of the Art of Music"; .
"The Thai scale system is...extraordinary. It is not now pentatonic, though supposed to be derived originally from the Javanese system. The scale consists of seven notes which should by right be exactly equidistant from one another; that is, each step is a little less than a semi tone and three-quarters. So that they have neither a perfect fourth nor a true fifth in their system, and both their thirds and sixths are between major and minor; and not a single note between a starling note and its octave agrees with any of the notes of the European scale... Their sense of the right relations of the notes of the scale are so highly developed that their musicians can tell by ear directly a note which is not true to their singular theory. Moreover, with this scale, they have developed a kind of musical art in the highest degree complicated and extensive."
In all, there are about 50 types of Thai musical instruments, including many local versions of flutes, stringed instruments, and gongs used for all kinds of occasions: festivals, folk theater, marriages, funerals, and social evenings after harvesting.
The Western classical music tradition was introduced to Thailand before the turn of the century. Its development was nurtured by Phra Chen Duriyang, who had studied the stringed instruments and piano with his German father. Phra Chen established Thailand 's first orchestra in the Royal Entertainment Department and taught many young Thai musicians. By the late 1920's, other small orchestras had been established as part of the branches of the Thai armed services, and in 1934 Phra Chen's orchestra was transferred to and became the nucleus of the Fine Arts Department. Thai musicians have showned marked improvement in style and technique over the years .and they have taught a new generation of musicians. Following a drive spearheaded by the musicians, the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra was established in July 1982 and gave its first public concert in November of year.
Popular Western music, introduced in the 1950's, was also widely accepted by the Thai people and today there are a large number of modern groups, some producing music that combines elements of both pop and traditional Thai.
Music plays an important part in the life of the Thai royal family. His M.ajesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej is an internationally-recognized jazz musician with numerous original compositions to his credit, one of which was featured in a Broadway show in the 1950's. Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn is an accomplished performer on several classical Thai musical instruments, while Her Royal Highijess Princess Chulabhorn has made several popular music cassette tapes to raise funds for charity.
Drama & Thai dance
In the purely classical form, Thai drama and dance are indivisible.
The khon masked drama is derived from Indian temple rituals and dancing and draws its story line from the Ramakian, the Thai version of the Indian epic Ramayana. During the Ayutthaya period, the khon was acted by accomplished male court retainers playing both male and female roles because until the 19th century the movements were thought too strenuous for women to perform. By the mid 1800's both men and women were appearing on stage together.
Khon performances are characterized by vigorous, highly-formalized action. Acting and dancing are inseparable, each step having a definite meaning, which is emphasized by precisely defined music to suggest walking, marching, laughing, etc. Because some actors and actresses are masked and cannot speak, narrative verses are usually recited and sung by a chorus that sits with the accompanying woodwind, gong, and drum ensemble. The leading male and female performers do not wear masks and on some occasions they may speak.
The ornate papier mache masks, decorated with gold, lacquer, and paste jewels, are works of art and perfectly portray the protagonists' personalities. Costumes are made of rich brocades adorned with sparkling costume jewelry and closely resemble the apparel of royalty and celestial beings in classical Thai mural paintings. Major characters are readily identifiable by the predominant colors of their costumes. Phra Ram, the hero, wears deep green, While his brother, Phra Lak, wears gold and the monkey-god Hanuman wears white.
Khon productions were originally so long, more than 20 hours, that performances were staged on two consecutive days. Indeed, a performance of the entire Ramakian (with 311 characters) would take more than one month (720 hours plus) of continuous performance. King Rama II's shorter version of the epic is used for dramatic purposes and contemporary adaptations of certain episodes are as short as three hours.
Lakhon dance drama is less formal and actors, with the exceptions of monkeys, ogres, and other non-human, non-celestial beings, do not wear masks. Lakhon plots are drawn mainly from the Ramakian, the Jatakas, and folk stories. Khon and lakhon costumes are identical, but lakhon dance movements are more graceful, sensual, and fluid, the upper torso and hands being particularly expressive with conventionalized movements portraying specific emotions.
Lakhon is subdivided into numerous variations, the major three being lakhon chatri, lakhon nok, and lakhon nai. Simplest of all in form and presentation, lakhon chatri is often seen at popular shrines, such as Bangkok 's Lak Muang (City Pillar) where dancers are hired by supplicants whose wishes have been granted to perform for the shrine deity.
Lakhon Nai drama was originally presented only by court ladies in the palace. It was graceful, romantic, and highly stylized. Lakhon nok plays, on the other hand, were performed outside the palace and acted only by men. Filled with lively music, off-color humor, and rapid, animated movements, lakhon nok was the ancestor of the enormously popular li-ke folk theater which is still a feature of many provincial festivals.
Li-ke, burlesque of lakhon containing elements of pantomime, comic folk opera, and social satire, is generally performed against a simply painted backdrop during temple fairs. Its court-derived stories are embellished with local references and anecdotes, and spontaneous dialogue is freighted with outrageous puns and double entendres.
Two neglected dramatic forms are nang yai shadow play and hun marionettes, both regular forms of entertainment in Ayutthaya.In nang yai, intricately fashioned cowhide figures, some two meters tall, are held against a brilliant backlit white screen. Bearers of the figures dance their parts, the movements of which were later to provide the pattern for khon and lakhon.
The nang talung, a more popular shadow play found mainly in the south of Thailand , closely resembles the Indonesian wayang. Beautifully fashioned nang lalung figures are smaller than their nang yai counterparts and are often constructed to have one moveable part-an arm, a leg, or a chin. Concealed from audiences, the manipulators are skilled singers and comedians whose repartee keeps the action bubbling.
Hun marionettes, seldom seen today, are superbly crafted figures which differ from European marionettes in that they are manipulated from concealed threads pulled from below rather than above. A more popular version is hun krabok (literally "cylindrical model") which are similar to Punch and Judy style hand puppets.
Thai Dancing is poetry in motion. Classical Thai dance performances are largely based on ancient myths and religious stories. The "Fawn Thai" traditional dance was originally an art performed for the royal courts of old Siam. It consists of five classic styles: Fawn Lep (the Fingernails Dance), Fawn Marn Gumm Ber (the Butterfly Dance), Fawn Marn Mong Kol (the Happy Dance), Fawn Tian (the Candle Dance) or Fawn Ngiew (the Scarf Dance). Each region of Thailand has its own flavor of Fawn Thai, they are all accompanied by a band of traditional Thai musical instruments.The "Fawn Lep" or Fingernail Dance usually consists of five pairs of dancers, each wearing six-inch-long brass fingernails. There are slight different dance movements according to region. The arms and head move gracefully and firmly. The elongated fingernails emphasize the classic hand movements of Thai Dance .