Rasmee’s Isaan Soul

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Chiang Mai Citylife > Articles > 2016 > 2016 Issue 01 > Rasmee’s Isaan Soul

Rasmee’s Isaan Soul

Warm arms embraced a young Rasmee as she listened to the deep vibrations coming from her father’s chest every night, slowly sending her to sleep. The lyrics of ancient Morlum lullabies and traditional Cambodian melodies captivated a young Rasmee, filling her dreams of the future with blurry images of music, fame, performance and soul. Thirty years on, there is something special happening in Chiang Mai, attracting ears from across the globe. A unique fusion of traditional melodies; Africa and Asia, morlum and soul. This is Rasmee, and this is her Isaan soul.

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Outfit sponsored by Cocoricooo Original Design, Thailand

Born in Nam-yuen, Ubon Ratchathani, 32-year-old Rasmee Wayrana’s youth was dedicated to the morlum scene. Her father was the founder of what is called a ‘jariang’ — a Khmer folk band that travels from town to town singing songs in exchange for rice, money and sometimes buffaloes. When Rasmee was around five years old, her father recognised his daughter’s talent, nurturing it and encouraging her to copy and recreate the songs and lullabies he sang for her at night. It wasn’t long before she joined his jariang.

Morlum is an ancient type of music specific to North Eastern Thailand and Laos. Originally, morlum was comprised of just one singer and a khaen (a bamboo mouth organ that is a key instrument in Laotian music), with songs and verses originating from Isaan folk traditions such as storytelling and lullabies.

“Morlum began in Ubon,” said Rasmee, sipping on a chilled lemon soda. “But was changed dramatically by the influences of American GIs stationed in the area.” According to stories Rasmee heard while growing up, the American GIs were fascinated by the sounds of the east, and often requested to ‘jam’ with the Thai Morlum bands, introducing guitars, bass, and piano sounds to the traditional music — forever changing the sound of the North East.

After many years singing with her father’s band, Chang Thon Kon Ban Pa, the family decided to move to Bangkok in search of employment and better opportunities, which encouraged Rasmee to try to forge her own career, staying in Isaan. With youthful dreams of becoming a star, 13 year old Rasmee tried to enter into the popular Morlum world. “From a very young age, I always had a dream that I wanted to be something,” Rasmee said with a weary expression, years of experience in her eyes; experience of misogyny and brick walls. After her family moved, she joined a band in Sisaket before moving on to Khon Kaen to sing for an Isaan band, but it was soon clear that life for a young woman in Isaan was a lot harder than imagined. “If you wanted to be signed as a singer, you needed to be the wife of somebody. I got the impression that if I wanted a five year contract, I would have to get a husband,” she said. “I didn’t want to be involved with a music scene like that.” This attitude that women were identified only by the men she married distressed Rasmee to the point that she began to lose interest in singing altogether.

Some fourteen years after she graduated from high school, feeling stagnated and bored, Rasmee decided to go back to the classroom and follow her other passion, art, by enrolling into the faculty of arts at Chiang Mai University.

“Chiang Mai opened doors for me,” said Rasmee in retrospect. “After coming to the city I felt I was my own person, not controlled or identified by the men around me.” She studied art and became immersed in the large and active art scene in the city, she gathered around her a circle of friends and settled down to a quiet life, painting but also earning extra money by singing at many of the city’s live music venues. “I had a boyfriend for the first two years at university, but he didn’t like me going out and singing at night,” she said. “He was the jealous kind, and I stopped singing for him. But I had to express myself somehow. I am a performer, so I painted.” After breaking up with him, Rasmee began to spread her wings again. Since then, an unplanned chain of events has led Rasmee to where she is now, an upcoming star in not only Chiang Mai’s music scene, but internationally.

After several years of part time jobs here and there singing in dives across Chiang Mai, Rasmee began to frequent the famous North Gate Jazz Bar, a place where minds and melodies meet in all forms of obscure and chance ways. “It all took off when I met Ralph Thomas,” Rasmee said. Thomas often plays saxophone at North Gate and soon began a project with Rasmee, fusing jazz and morlum together. “We used to jam there, with people joining us in a freestyle session,” a melody of sounds that were refreshingly deep and curiously different. Soon crowds would form and fans return again and again.

In no time at all the ensemble grew. Rasmee met a Djembe drum player, who introduced Rasmee to a range of West African beats and music, which were strangely familiar to the tuned ears of Rasmee. “It was fascinating,” she said. “The West African sound has the same rhythms as songs from Cambodia and Isaan, it followed the same pentatonic scale.” Rasmee was inspired and began to seriously work at bringing two starkly different but also strangely familiar music genres together. With influences from newly discovered bands such as Tinariwen, traditional Thai artists such as the legendary Suraphon Sombatcharoen and of course Rasmee’s love and expertise in all things morlum, Bamako Express was born from a cocktail of this unique combination, and Rasmee was back on the performance wagon.

Their melodies of West African beats and morlum verse drew the crowds, and although mostly underground — North Gate, Chiang Mai Fest and a few gigs in Bangkok — they soon found themselves regulars on stages across Thailand, even performing at Shambala Festival in the UK in 2014.

“I was just doing my thing not thinking much of it and boom! People loved it. There were lights, crowds, people, atmospheres,” Rasmee said with a happy smile on her face which soon faded. “It was all too quick…” With no agent and a band comprised mostly of travelling expats, Bamako Express was soon lost to the express lane of international lifestyles.

Before it began, it was over. But for Rasmee, things did not end there. On a night out in Chiang Mai in early 2014 she was introduced to the members of Limousine, a French jazz band with a unique interest in Isaan beats and melodies. Soon Rasmee was invited to be a guest vocalist with the band at no less than three festivals in France. “I could already sing morlum, so I had it easy,” laughed Rasmee. “The band had it harder, following Isaan melodies. But the whole experience was just amazing.”

This was when Rasmee realised that she did indeed have what it took to be a performer, and that she could finally succeed as an independent woman in the morlum industry — be it a quirky offshoot. “I knew then that I wanted to make an album,” she said, explaining how she wanted to share the songs and verse she learned from her father who she describes as her inspiration, but also to play with a mixture of jazz, soul, African and Isaan melodies and create something truly unique. And thus, from the beginning of 2015, Rasmee began searching for a band to help her record an album. Employing the guitar skills of her friend Satukan Tiya Tira, she began to formulate her personal morlum songs into fully fledged tracks, packed with soul, jazz, bass and tradition.

Four months later, around 200 copies of ‘Rasmee: Isan Soul’ were printed. Rasmee finally became her own identity. Rasmee was Rasmee.

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Their debut performance held at Tha Pae East drew crowds in the hundreds. With only 100 tickets available at the door, the event was sold out before it began, resulting in more tickets being hastily made and a total crowd of almost 200 flocking into the already overflowing performance room. “People were sitting, perching and leaning in to watch us perform,” beamed Rasmee. “We were playing in the small performance room on the second floor. There were just two small fans and I could see people sweating uncomfortably, but nobody left for our entire set. It was amazing.”

For those lucky to be the first to enjoy the melodic soulful sounds of Rasmee’s first concert, it was not only the music that enriched their minds. Her lyrics play homage to inspirational figures in her life while bemoaning the plight of women while also admiring their strengths. “One of my songs, Lam-Duan, is about my grandmother,” she said. “She died at 42 years old when I was only four, but I remember her vividly. My grandfather used to leave home and often return with other women, sometimes he would even take my grandmother with him to ask another woman to marry him. She used to smoke heavily, I remember that. She would have smoked herself to death if she hadn’t killed herself first.” The song Lam-Duan talks of her grandmother’s duty as a wife and the emotional strain that finally led her to end it all.

“I feel I am a feminist,” she said. “I don’t lie to myself. If something is wrong I will be sure to express my opinion.” Rasmee expresses a lot of her feelings in both art and music; through watercolours and sound. “I want to tell women to feel and respect the value of what’s inside,” she explains of much of her music. “I don’t want women to fall for the external and forget the most important things in life. It’s not an accusation, just a revelation.”

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It was her father who was her greatest inspiration. “It was only right to include one of the songs that he used to sing to me when I was little,” she said. Boonruen’s Love Song, is her homage to her father’s Cambodian styled lullaby that he used to sing to her when she was a little girl. “This song is my father’s song, he never even named it. He doesn’t know I’ve used it yet,” she laughs. Four months after the album release and Rasmee has yet to tell her parents. “I know they will be so proud of me, but I want to surprise them, especially my father.” She plans to invite her family to a concert and then just begin singing Boonruen’s Love Song, “I might even invite him up to sing it with me. It is his song after all.”

It has been a busy few months and Rasmee has already attracted the interest of several local and international producers, but her opinion on the matter stays firm. “I still don’t trust anyone to manage me,” she said. “I do need help with stage set up, electrics, mics, and all that – but not management…yet.” That final step into the big world of international music is still a little too steep for Rasmee just yet – and why rush it? “I live a slow life,” she laughs at how long it has taken her to get to where she is today. “I don’t feel like having an agent, I don’t trust other people to make decisions – but that means I take forever to get things done.” She takes pause and then in a semi daydream, says “I want to try the Japanese market first, and then see where that takes me.”

Rasmee has options, that is a luxury not every musician has, but she will take her time to fully flourish. But we wouldn’t want her any other way would we?