Lao musical artists’ commitment to their craft dates back thousands of years. One folk tale captures the spirit of devotion with which the best musicians have experimented, creating many unique traditions and styles. According to that legend, a traditional Lao instrument called the khene was invented by a woman trying to imitate the sound of the garawek bird she had heard while on a walk one day.
Upon reaching her village she began experimenting with many different designs for her instrument, using plucked and bowed strings and various types of other materials before finally settling on a type of bamboo flute. The woman brought the new instrument before the king, who, after hearing her play, curtly responded that it was ‘fair.’ Modifying the instrument, she played once more and again asked the king if he was pleased. “Tia nee kaen dae,” he said, which means “this time it was better.”
The same persistent approach to finding the right kind of sound can be heard today in the mesmerising music of Aluna, the princess of pop in Laos.
Aluna Thavonsouk is a Lao pop singer whose contemporary musical style draws upon older techniques and often includes traditional Lao instruments. In what she calls her ‘new sound,’ she may even begin including the khene.
“I started with normal pop songs. You learn as you go and I have changed my perspectives in writing songs as well as the way of making music and melodies,” Aluna said of her creative process. “The contemporary ideas came to my soul and I mix the traditional sounds into my music a lot these days, but I am not yet satisfied with the result. I am still looking for the new sound. It might take a year or forever… I don’t know, but it is exciting to me.”
Aluna’s humble attitude – she is also the general manager of her family’s hotel business in Vang Vieng – is uncommon for a musician of her stature, but her tirelessness has paid off ever since she began creating music back in 2002. To date, she has performed in U.S. cities like Chicago, Seattle and Los Angeles, and she has toured in Japan, China, Malaysia and throughout Southeast Asia. Her self-titled albums “Aluna” (2005) and “Aluna Part II” (2008) produced many number-one singles on regional radio charts and her hit “Khaum HouSuek Bork” earned her the award for Best Pop Song at the first annual Lao Music Awards in July 2008. Even The Today Show recognised this 29-year-old artist as one of the preeminent talents of Laos’ burgeoning pop music scene.
Laos’ contemporary music culture has emerged from a long history of political unrest and a complex mix of cultural influences. Although romantic songs and ballads have always been popular in Laos, Western music was first introduced in the 1920s during the French colonial period, impacting a new generation of Lao singers and composers. Then, following the country’s lengthy civil war and the 1975 Communist takeover, patriotic songs and anthems dominated the charts.
Since 2000, though, when the government began to relax the country’s music regulations, Lao record companies have been eager to promote singers who appeal to younger audiences. Today, pop music is booming and local Lao artists are heard on the radio alongside other foreign singers from the U.S. and Thailand.
Aluna is at the forefront of the homegrown talents now changing the Lao music scene. Her songs incorporate the loop of Morlum and other traditional Lao music – especially the catchy fast tracks – and often include unique beats and traditional instruments. Her lyrics focus on themes of love, but she also delves into topics like the environment, social classes and many other touchy subjects.
The artist is currently learning the khene (a bamboo mouth organ with many keys) and the traditional Lao flute, not to mention practicing the Lao Opera singing style, which requires a great deal of energy and the ability to play with how one projects one’s voice.
While Aluna’s contemporary style has many musical influences, the traditional music of Laos plays an important part in creating that sound: “We, the new generation, never forgot the roots of our music,” she explained.
Born and raised in Laos, Aluna was surrounded by music from a very early age and always loved to sing. “People often ask who my music idols are and I respond, ‘They are my mom and dad.’ In fact, they are the first people who opened up my world to music. During my childhood, I’d often hear my dad singing with his guitar; my mom would sing along in her free time. They loved playing songs created by legends of the 60s and 70s like Elvis, Cliff Richards, The Beatles and The Carpenters, among many others. Those early experiences were so cool. Every now and then, I carry some of those old songs with me and sing along. Some people are surprised by my knowledge of old songs.”
When Aluna was young, there were always instruments around the house on which she could practice. (Her father was a musician.) At just five years old, she picked up her first instrument – a guitar.
“At that age, it was much bigger than my body and too big for me to hold, so I held it on my lap and played. I was always curious about how musical instruments produce sounds and how those sounds turn into different keys and notes. The guitar, keyboard and the harmonica were my favourites. With my mind’s empty canvas, I tried to differentiate the sounds, keys and notes using only my senses.” She did not study music, however, and never had professional training because it was too expensive. ”My childhood experience with music was so wonderful and peaceful that I knew I’d always want to be around it. Though I had been surrounded by music from a young age, I never thought of becoming a professional singer – that dream never existed.”
Meanwhile, Aluna excelled in her studies and received a scholarship to study abroad at a university in Australia. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business and returned to Laos to work at Thavonsouk Resort, her family’s business in Vang Vieng. Still, something was missing and she longed for the next adventure in her life. So, during the tourism low season, she took three months off from her job to travel to Europe. “That trip changed my life,” the singer reported matter-of-factly.
Arriving in Paris in the early morning of June 21, 2002, Aluna noticed that a festival was in progress. “I heard music along the road, and I saw people spontaneously come out and play music. They sang about everything using their guitars, saxophones, trumpets, harmonicas and accordions. They were everywhere – on roadsides, in the Metro and on almost every corner I walked past. I was so happy to be in this amazing environment. I felt like I was brought back to something familiar, but also something that I was missing for some time. It was great to hear music again.”
That event was France’s Fête de La Musique (Music Festival), which offered Aluna the chance to see shows by musicians such as Lenny Kravitz, Sheryl Crow, R.E.M., Bryan Adams and many other legendary artists.
“It was so inspiring!” the singer recalled. “I was about to celebrate my birthday a few days later and I truly felt that witnessing this event was one of the most precious gifts ever… I tuned in and silently listened, and in that moment, I felt like a bolt of lightening struck me. It was in that moment that my dream was born. I said to myself, ‘Yes, why don’t I create music? Why don’t I sing?!’ ”
Since then, Aluna has moved from strength to strength and encouraged others to follow their hearts. “There are many ways to realise your dreams and true passions,” she revealed. “Free your mind and look deep down into your heart, because sometimes ideas don’t come right away. Part of the journey is to develop and grow by following your passion.”