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8.223493 - THAILAND - Fong Naam, Vol. 5 (The Mahori Orchestra)

The History of Siamese Classical Music Vol. 5: The Mahori Orchestra


The Spirit of Unity Overture – Kwan Meuang (The Small Mahori Ensemble)

This work is composed by the greatest composer of the Ratanakosin Period, Phra Pradit Pairoh. It was probably composed during the latter part of the reign of King Rama the Fourth (1851–1868) or the first part of the reign of King Rama the Fifth. At that time Phra Pradit Pairoh was teaching a Mahori Ensemble which was made up of women.
The group was to play in a musical competition among court orchestras which was a popular form of entertainment. It so happened that Phra Pradit Pairoh’s younger brother, Kru Pheng, had just composed a new overture: Pama Wat which was a virtuoso work appropriate for the Piphat Ensemble. (This piece is performed in volume 3 of this series.) In the Kwan Meuang Overture, Phra Pradit Pairoh takes the general melodic contours of Pama Wat and spins them into a gentler fabric which emphasises depth of musical thought and sensitive interpretation and is thus appropriate for a Mahori orchestra made up of female musicians.

Royal Elephant Lullaby – Glom Chang (Kap Mai Ensemble)

The appearance of an albino or white elephant has always been considered to be most auspicious and the animal is thought of as being a symbol of the glory of the king. There are, therefore, elaborate royal ceremonies associated with the blessing of new white elephants that are received into the royal palace. The song heard here is taken from these royal ceremonies. The text explains how rare it is to discover a white elephant and how it portends good fortune for the reigning king.

The Jampanari Flower (The Mahori Ensemble of Four Instruments)

This song is taken from one of the standard mahori suites entitled Saming Thong. Originally the piece was part of an older and longer suite (called “phleng reuang” in Thai) for the Piphat Ensemble entitled Kaek Mon. It consisted of five sections. The version in the mahori suite, however, contains only sections four and five of the older work.

The Sad Nobleman – Phya Soak (Solo for Saw Sam Sai)

Originally a “song chan” piece, i.e. a piece where the ching is heard on every beat (please refer to the notes in volume 3 for a complete explanation of the Thai rhythmic theory concerning the three levels). The work was taken from the ancient suite or Phlang Reuang called Phya Soak. The version heard here is in “sam chan” indicating that the ching is only heard on every other beat. It is most probably an elaboration composed by Phra Pradit Pairoh. It has become a standard solo work for almost every member of the Thai instrumentarium not only because of the technical challenges connected with the performance of its ever modulating melody, but also because of the rare and tragic atmosphere it creates.

The Floating Moon – Bulan Loy Leuan (The Mahori Ensemble of Eight Instruments)

The special history of this beautiful melody has made it one of the most beloved tunes in all of Thai music. It was composed by King Rama the Second (1809–1824) who was a very fine saw sam sai player. It came to him in a dream one evening after he had been playing with a court mahori orchestra. In his vision His Majesty saw a band of angels playing in a heavenly mahori orchestra in the light of the full moon. His Majesty arose from his bed immediately with the melody still ringing in his ears and picking up his own instrument began bowing the song. The melody made such an impression on His Majesty that he woke the royal musicians from their slumbers to memorise the tune so as to insure that the melody would not fall back into the subconscious with the break of day…

The Lady Sea Serpent – Nang Nak (The Mahori Ensemble of Six Instruments)

This work comes from a suite for mahori orchestra entitled Nang Nak which most probably dates back to the Ayuthaya period. It is one of the most often heard works in the mahori repertoire. It is often used in wedding ceremonies during the time when friends and relatives of the bride and groom pour waters of blessing over the hands of the newly married couple.

Farewell Song: The Sun Behind the Clouds – Phra Artit Chiang Duang (The Small Mahori Ensemble)

There are several standard farewell songs which were originally used to close Sepha performances which have since become common to repertoires of all the ensembles including the mahori. As a form the farewell songs are characterised by alternating sections between the singer and the ensemble and most especially passages where an instrument of the orchestra will imitate quite precisely the ornaments employed by the singer. These types of passages are referred to as “presenting the flowers”. If one is familiar enough with the text it can be imagined that the instrument is actually “talking”, echoing the words of the singer. The nobleman, in whose employ the great Phra Pradit Pairoh composed so many famous works, tired of the standard farewell songs and asked Phra Pradit Pairoh to compose a new work. The title of this work refers to the image seen on the coat of arms of this patron.

History of the Mahori Orchestra

The Mahori Ensembles have, since the earliest times, been associated with the royal courts. The sweet sounds of the strings blending with plucked instruments and percussion created a pleasant harmony appropriate for accompanying gentle melodies sung in the cool of the evening to grace the atmosphere of the palace as members of the royal family retired to their bed-chambers. Thus, if one were to characterise the nature of the Mahori repertoire in general, it could be thought of as a tradition of sophisticated lullabies first used in the courts of ancient Siam.

The original meaning of the word Mahori has been much discussed and as yet no one has been able to verify where the word comes from or what it refers to. At present it is used by musicians as a technical term denoting an ensemble in which all four of the sound gestures are represented. As has been pointed out earlier in this series, classical Thai music theory categorises its instruments according to four basic actions used to produce sound: plucking, bowing, hitting and blowing. The various standard orchestral combinations grow out of this conception of instrumental families and may be divided into three main groups. First, the Piphat Ensembles, used for sacred rituals and theatre, employ percussion and winds exclusively. The String Ensembles, however, are made up of a different pair of gestures: bowing and blowing. Finally, the Mahori group of ensembles is made up of instruments coming from all four types of sound-producing movements.

Where did this idea of an orchestra which contains all four of the instrumental families come from? Certainly, it was not an impulse toward the symphonic idea, as occurred in the history of western orchestral music. To find parallels of that nature one would have to look to the orchestras of the Sepha tradition as discussed in volume 4 (Marco Polo 8.223200) of this series. Perhaps the association of the Mahori with courtly lullabies prevented its development along the lines of an orchestra as an unique and ever varying blend of colours which could achieve an aesthetic value of its own, independent of the voice it traditionally accompanied.

Be that as it may, Phya Damrong Rachanupap, the famous Thai historian, has suggested that the concept of the Mahori as a complete combination of four families of instruments probably developed by mixing the ancient Kap Mai Ensemble with a folk instrument found both in Thailand and Cambodia known as the Phin Nam Tao. Phin means harp or lute while the word Nam Tao refers to a type of resonating gourd which is used in a way not unrelated to certain Indian models. The instrument itself consists of one or sometimes two strings stretched across a piece of wood. The unusual playing style requires that the resonator, which is a gourd cut in half and attached to the stick, be placed on the breast of a male player whose body then becomes a resonating chamber as he accompanies his own singing. The Kap Mai Ensemble was always connected with royal ceremonies, especially ritualized lullabies such as the lullaby for an elephant used in the ceremonies connected with the discovery of a white elephant which, according to traditional Thai beliefs, is considered to be a very sacred animal, or the formal lullabies sung for a newly born child of the king. This ensemble consists of three members only: singer, a Saw Sam Sai (three-stringed fiddle) and the bantaw drum known as Shiva’s drum.

When these two traditions merged, there came into being the earliest of the Mahori Ensembles called the Four Instrument Ensemble. In this group of instruments the Grajapi, another lute-like instrument, was substituted for the Phin Nam Tao, which was too soft to balance with other instruments. Also, the Thon or Tap (one-sided drum) replaced the Bantao drum since it was able to play more complete rhythmic patterns than the single pitched Bantao drum. The Saw Sam Sai and a noise-maker called a Grap Puang completed the quartet of four instruments. Later, this ensemble was expanded to the so-called Six Instrument Ensemble by adding a second fiat hand-drum called the Ramana and a bamboo fipple flute named the Khlui Piang Aw.

During the reign of King Rama the First (1782–1809) further development of the Mahori orchestra resulted in the unusual Eight Instrument Ensemble. Besides the instruments mentioned already there were added to this Mahori group two other ranats. The first was simply a smaller version of the ranat ek or soprano xylophone. This miniature sized ranat was thought to blend more happily with the delicate sound of the strings than the louder, larger instrument used in the Piphat Ensembles. The second ranat added to this orchestra was the Glass Ranat. Perhaps influenced by the glass gamelan which appeared in Java in this period probably owing to the presence of the Dutch and their blue glass, the Thais were experimenting with glass at the same time that Mozart was composing his beautiful works for Benjamin Franklin’s glass harmonica. There is some ambiguity over the number eight since authorities suggest that the Gong Circle was also employed in this ensemble. In our own experience this certainly seems plausible since the longer resonating time of the gongs helps to support the otherwise “too-dry” sound of the glass. Was the Grap Puang just not counted? Could a parallel be drawn between the Grap Puang and the uncounted Ching of the Five Instrument Piphat mentioned in album number one of this series (Marco Polo 8.223197. These can only be matters for speculation since the Eight Instrument Mahori fell into disuse for over 175 years until it was revived by Fong Naam who made an exact replica of the only remaining instrument, which is kept in the National Museum and is presently unplayable. This rare orchestral combination was heard again for the first time in a concert given for HRH Princess Sirinthorn at the Tap Kwan Palace, Nakorn Pathom, in January 1990.

In more recent times there have been other ever more elaborate combinations of instruments for the Mahori. In general the Grajapi has fallen out of use and has been replaced by the louder zither-like instrument called the Jakay which had always formed the core of the Kreuang Sai or String Ensembles. Other instruments from the Kreuang Sai such as the Saw Duang (Soprano Fiddle) and the Saw U (Alto Fiddle) came into the Mahori ensembles during the reign of King. Rama the Fourth probably with the “return” of men to the Mahori orchestras. Originally, the Kap Mai Trios used for accompanying royal ceremonies were played by men exclusively. During the Ayuthya Period a royal decree prohibited female performers to appear in public theatrical productions. Their talents were to be reserved for the eyes of the king alone. Women were thus encouraged to take up instruments of the Mahori ensemble instead of dancing and these orchestras gradually became the domain of women only. When King Rama the Fourth lifted this ban on women taking part in public theatre performances, men once again began to appear in the Mahori groups to fill in the gaps created by the many women who went into theatre to perform as dancers and singers. Be that as it may, in the court itself, a Mahori ensemble comprised exclusively of women was maintained up into the modem era. Jaroenjai Sunthrawathin, who plays the three-stringed fiddle in several of the works heard here, was a member of the last official royal Mahori orchestra which was disbanded in 1932 by HM King Rama VII when the country changed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy.

Prasarn Wongwirojruk and Bruce Gaston

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