Music

Sounds of the Zomia, Sounds of Resistance: An Interview with Kink Gong

Photo courtesy of Laurent Jeanneau / Akuphone

Laurent Jeanneau, also known as Kink Gong, walks among the peoples of Southeast Asia and listens, with sincere passion, for their vanishing music and culture.

You've probably heard of the Golden Triangle, the infamous (some say invented) opium-growing region of the upper Mekong where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet. It sprawls over 367,000 square miles of rugged terrain, jungles, thick forests and steep mountains, that make it particularly difficult to govern. Civilization prefers the coastal plains and fertile inland plateaus with flat land on which it is easier to build cities and surveil and tax populations, and the geography of the upper Mekong doesn't loan itself well to such civilities.

Yet the Golden Triangle is only a small portion of a larger area known as Zomia, a massive 970,000 square mile chunk of Asia that sweeps from Southwest China across the Himalayas to the borders of Afghanistan to the west and down into the mountains of Cambodia and Vietnam to the south.

The social significance of Zomia has been explained in a book with a title so perceptive and invigorating that it can be chanted like a resistance mantra whenever you're confronted with the lesser inanities of our hyper-consumer capitalist age: The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale UP, 2010). Penned by James C. Scott, a professor of anthropology and political science at Yale, the book sets out to explain how the 100 million or so residents of Zomia have for millennia managed to resist forces of imperial, colonial, and nation-state building. They are anarchist by nature, governed by none but their own affiliations.

Some of these ethnic groups have names that are familiar to American readers, such as the Hmong, who helped American forces during the Second Indochina War, but most are totally unknown. They are margin people, tough, rural, and often amorphous, changing names, affiliations, identities and even "traditions" as it suits them, often in an effort to avoid being categorized by whatever outside invaders were trying to "civilize" them at the time. They rightly understood that civilization begins with categorization, swiftly followed a hierarchy of status that invariably leads to forced labor, taxation, impressment, and a loss of independence.

For the French colonial administration in Indochina, which spread into a barely policed "sphere of influence" in the borderlands with China, these ethnic groups were a source of frustration and fascination. Frustration, because they were next to impossible to correctly categorize, resulting in an alphabet soup of names and identifiers in colonial documents that have driven anthropologists batty ever since. Fascinating because these people were a direct link to an age beyond the modern world, and what we would call their "popular culture" was seen by some colonial operatives as both more primitive and purer than the alien one the interlopers represented.

The rise of anthropology as a science happened at roughly this same time, which also tracked, not uncoincidentally, with the emergence of portable recording and playback technologies. It wasn't long before anthropologists were schlepping heavy, hand-wound phonographs into the wilderness to record the languages and music of indigenous peoples on wax cylinders.

This was no less true in the lands of Zomia, in which the colonial French had access. As I recently uncovered, the first field recordings made in Laos, including in the highlands amongst marginal groups, were cut into wax in 1905 by an amateur explorer, journalist, photographer, and anthropologist named Alfred Raquez (a pseudonym since he was in reality a former establishment lawyer turned con-man who fled France to avoid an arrest warrant for fraud). He made over 300 recordings which were played at a colonial exposition in Marseille the following year.

Those phonograph cylinders are now lost, but others came after Raquez for much the same reasons. They seek the adventure of travel in rugged, remote lands, and they seek to capture the sounds of the people of the region, the groups that continue to resist the dominant, globalizing, totalizing civilizations of the coasts and plateaus.

Enter Laurent Jeanneau, an amateur ethnomusicologist who has traveled across the Zomia collecting sounds. In an update to the old colonial ramblers, under the name Kink Gong, Jeanneau is also a composer who incorporates his sound recordings into live performances. Between 1996 and 2014, he amassed a huge collection of field recordings, totally nearly 160 CDs of raw sound, now available on his website.

In addition, Jeanneau puts out albums and his latest release on the Akuphone label is titled Music of Southern and Northern Laos, a collection of exhilarating sounds of the Hmong, Bit, Lantene, Ahka (or Khmu) people and others recorded between 2006 and 2013.

I caught up with Jeanneau to find out more about this project, his adventures and techniques, and the importance of Zomia field recordings in the 21st century.

How did you start recording in upland southeast Asia? What is the main attraction for you about folk music from these regions?

In 1990, I had enough money to start travelling far outside of Europe and I probably loved the experience of being this Western dude who has access to the real world. You have to understand that as a simple leftist European optimist discovering the world, it took me years to fully understand what was going on, and my analysis now about my life in Africa or Asia after all those years reflects this will to discover the world outside of Europe because I was seen as one rich lucky guy from a rich post-colonial country, a feeling I could not have in my own country.

It's a matter of honesty to understand my privilege: with a French passport I could go pretty much everywhere I wanted, being poorer than how local people perceived me but having time and a great feeling of freedom. I had no plans to live in France, owning nothing. I'd rather wanted to live in exotic, hot, underdeveloped, cheap places where life was uncomplicated and somehow Asia was easier than Africa.

I arrived for the first time in China in 1992, and at that time it was just a communist nightmare with people discovering their greed, so I rapidly understood that far away rural environments were giving me more gratification than the so called modern world. I must say that I always hated any kind of commercial music and that experimental and tribal music were really my thing, so I've focused on ethnic minority cultures, looking for music with special emotions, far away from fashion, Western harmony and so on. Basically, I was always looking for surprising musical structures and textures and then gradually I was able to have a global image of what is left of the Southeast Asian Zomia in the 21st century, mostly in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, China and Thailand.

I found this quote on the internet that sums up how I hear this music: "Listening to Laotian music, you might guess that some minimalist composer like Steve Reich or Pauline Oliveros had arranged electronic." A-hah!!!

TA OY COURTING SONG 4.46. ONG a 32 years old KATANG (highlander) man and KEO a 50 years old TA OY woman performing improvised responsive singing, the man alternates singing and using a Lao KHENE (a 16 bamboo tubes mouthorgan). This photo, by ©Emanuel Gschiel, was taken at night in the middle of a rice field after harvest, December 2012. (courtesy of Laurent Jeanneau / Akuphone).

What is your technical approach to field recording? What type of mics do you use? Tape or digital? What about post-production techniques?

My recording equipment was according to my income. I started with a Minidisc recorder with two Shure microphones, then every time I could update for better equipment, I did. I had several digital recorder and various mics over the years. When I stopped my recording activities in 2014 I had a cheap Tascam digital recorder and a rich friend offered me a pair of DPA microphones in 2010.

I try to be physically near the musicians, trying to avoid unwanted sounds like a motorbike passing by. In my process of selecting which recordings I want to release, I try to include as much as I can. I can't stand professional ethnomusicologists who cut their recordings, beautiful recordings but strangely always too short. I want to keep tracks intact, the only limitation in my case is the length of the CD (74 minutes).

I try to be physically near the musicians, trying to avoid unwanted sounds like a motorbike passing by. In my process of selecting which recordings I want to release, I try to include as much as I can. I can't stand professional ethnomusicologists who cut their recordings, beautiful recordings but strangely always too short. I want to keep tracks intact, the only limitation in my case is the length of the CD (74 minutes).

As for post-production, a professional mastering guy can really enhance my recordings, if you check the double LP Gongs of Cambodia and Laos, it's been mastered by Rashad Becker in Berlin and that definitely improved the original recordings. I try only on problematic recordings to enhance the sound quality, reduce saturations, but I kept most original recordings untouched.

What is a typical recording scenario like when you're working in these remote regions?

A typical recording scenario? I have 200 scenarios! I'll give you two examples.The first is my birthday in January 2004 in Ratanakiri province in northeast Cambodia. I've taken a bus built in the '60s from Banlung to Veun Sai then a boat to the other side of the Sesan river and started walking maybe ten kilometers on a small path where only motos can drive. Later, I can feel more people along the track, some drunk, and it leads me to the first village along the Lalai river where a village party is taking place; these are Kavet people, a Brao sub-group, and rapidly I'm invited to join and of course managed to sit next to the wooden structure outdoor where five nipple gongs of various sizes are hanging.

I was about to witness a three day ceremony with five gong players, each man holding one gong, drunk on new rice alcohol fermented for three weeks. All I knew when I left Banlung (a Khmer town) was wanting to check Kavet territory and luckily winter is the time of celebration when people of the villages congregate. Some have not seen each other for months or weeks and reunite on the territory of the village after rice harvest has been finished.

Another time I was in Xishuangbanna, in the extreme south of Yunnan province in China. I always check those CD/VCD shops in small towns were the local population is mostly belonging to an ethnic minority. Here I was in Dai Lu territory, and spent 30 minutes in one of those shops. The shopwoman is friendly and shows me all kind of VCDs of Dai Lu traditional songs and I bought a one-dollar VCSs (some produced in neighboring Myanmar) and asked her if some of these singers are living around there. She pointed to a VCD of Ita Ram, praised for her voice, her knowledge of ancient stories and her ability to improvise the words within traditional singing patterns.

The shop woman gave me an address in a village five km away. I jumped on a moto taxi and when I reached the village, showed the photo around and in one minute the people had directed me to her. She's busy renovating the family house and all belongings are piled outside and it's a mess, but she is very happy and tell me to wait till tomorrow, when she will perform in a ceremony for a new house. I'm invited to sleep in their home and get drunk with them and the next day we drive first to Jinghong where we spent more than an hour in one of those small improvised hospitals where you walk in-and-out with a perfusion in your arm. Ita Ram mentioned being weak and needing energy, so she get a shot of I don't know what but later I understood why: she sang from 9PM 'til 9AM!

In the liner notes to the new Laotian release, you create an ethnographic context for the music we're hearing. How do you acquire the information?

The first problem to solve is communication, so learning a bit of the language is essential, unless you have all the funds you wish and hire a translator. I also rely on Western sources, having met some anthropologists, or read essential books or archives. But if you look at the information on the new release, it's very basic, names of people and locations, a few numbers. It's clear that the music itself is the essential part and that anthropological information can be found in other places, for the ones who wish to know more.

What are some of the ethnographic problems you've encountered interacting with people without much contact with the digital world?

Ahahaha, yes. I did recordings between 1996 and 2014 and it's only in the last years that I met Hmong girls on Facebook in Vietnam or that I had to ask performers to turn their cellphones off. While living in Asia, I was not obsessed with having my recordings on line, I'm taking it more seriously the last four years living in Berlin in order to promote my work and make a living out of it.

Well, I mentioned before the idea of being automatically seen as a rich white guy. I'm really pissed off at this simplistic view that if you are a white male, you automatically belong to an educated, affluent elite… Call me a punk! Unfortunately, I'm not affluent, so my first problem was to survive and handle my limited income in order to have some cash to give to musicians I would find. So many times I could not afford to rent a motor scooter, so I just walked to the jungles of Ratanakiri province in Cambodia, but it turns into an advantage, 'cause local people were impressed: he walked from Banlung or came with a bicycle, so they know you are not an NGO guy or a missionary.

I've got lots of stories, but they're not based on the lack of a digital world, they're based on a collapsing world. Everywhere in the 21st century, the main problem is the confiscation of ancestral lands by the new economy (deforestation, rubber plantations or dams). The powers that be want to kick out those "useless minorities" in the name of development. Give them an inferiority complex until they surrender, accept to give up their lands and customs… and if not, then send in the army! And some indigenous people ask me to help them, and I am nobody!

ONG a 32 years old Katang TA OI man and VINH a 40 years old NKRIANG (NGE) man are switching between the use of a Lao khen (a 16 bamboo tubes mouthorgan): mo khen and the oratory art of mo lam (improvised singing). ONG sings in TA OI language, while VINH sings in NKRIANG language, a third man (POLAI 50 years old) is hitting a bucket as a drum. This photo, by ©Emanuel Gschiel, was also taken that night in the middle of a rice field after harvest, December 2012 (Photo courtesy of Laurent Jeanneau / Akuphone)

As Kink Gong, you create a Western performance / DJ context for this ancient music. What choices motivate you in re-contextualizing the sounds for a Western audience? What do you want your First World audiences to experience when they hear these sounds from the backcountry of Laos?

I'm involved in those two parallel activities (a DIY ethnomusicologist and a DIY composer), and the various records released by Sublime Frequencies, Discrepant or Akuphone are sold mostly in the USA, then Japan, then continental Western Europe , then England at the bottom, so yes, my records end up mostly in the hands of western people.

Certain instruments or voices motivate me more than others, so I choose those sounds and recompose them with different degrees of transformation, from simple acoustic collages to more electronic composed structures, but regardless, what matters is the opportunity for listeners to discover both the original and the recomposed. Who else gives you this opportunity to have access to the raw recordings and remixes?

I will never pretend that my recomposed music is better than the originals, but people can just find out by themselves. Maybe I would feel bad if I only produced new music out of old music and just hid the originals, but the originals are probably going to last in the future and my music…I don't know !

About the new Laos release, there is an element of exclusivity as well. There's very little available on the subject. A few LPs were recorded in the '60s by Jacques Brunet, for example on TVMultiversity, followed by a blank period of 50 years. There were a few exceptions, but mostly those recordings were of the dominant Laos culture and hardly nothing from the ethnic minorities, so I'm proud that Akuphone will release some truly exciting beautiful and unknown music from this part of the world.

There are now a number of labels, such as Sublime Frequencies and Akuphone and others, that release field recordings and compilations. Is this becoming a genre? Do you have any comments about the niche industry involved with distributing folk/world music to modern audiences?

You are using the word "niche" and I'm just hoping for the enlargement of this niche!

I guess people of different backgrounds will gradually get bored with nasty music that surrounds them and eventually will look for some music which has real emotion. Both Sublime Frequencies and Akuphone deal with exotic pop (well it's "exotic" for Western people and not for the musicians who produce it in their own country), which is fine, but there's also really scary fake jungle, savage, ritual bullshit exotica, that comes out on other labels.

I'm also puzzled by the amount of bad DJs who contact me in order to use anything authentic and the end product is just bad house music. When I meet those DJs, I tell them, Do you think I went for ten years through the jungles and mountains of Southeast Asia for the benefit of club culture?

They usually answer that they think that I owe them the right to bad taste. That's a very tricky issue for me, or people who want to do a pseudo-documentary and don't understand when I refuse.

In many cases the music I record goes beyond the level of entertainment, but the modern DJs see everything as entertainment… and what would they be without sex and drug culture disguised as shamanic ritual? They make me sick…

*

Most of us can't get to Zomia, which is a good thing. It helps preserve the ethnic cultures there, though their erosion has begun. The ethnic people of upland Southeast Asia are being inexorably swept into globalization, their land undergoing rapid and irreversible change as modern consumer capitalism, often with a Chinese flavor, roils the region.

Where the last of the anarchists were able to resist Han Chinese, European, American, and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) dominance, they are now collapsing before landgrabs and 3G networks, Facebook and Korean pop idols. The ultimate value of Jeanneau's work is to preserve their musical traditions before those too become part of the dust heap of history. Listening to his Zomia field recordings creates a tiny distortion in an overwhelming tide of lowest-common dominator entertainment that often masquerades as a reflection of human progress.

*

Music of Southern and Northern Laos is available as two LPs or a single CD from Akuphone.

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