The tsunami that struck South Asia in late December ripped across an area of rich cultural diversity. At the juncture of the Indian and Pacific oceans is an area where musical currents stream together from sources as diverse as Indian and Chinese classical music, Africa, American pop, the unique sounds of the Pacific islands and the music of local indigenous cultures.
The Moken people who live in and around the island areas of the Andaman Sea near Thailand and Myanmar belong in the last category. Animist, nomadic boat dwellers, they are still struggling to remain outside the mainstream of contemporary society, living independently on self-contained kabang houseboats, beyond the boundaries of nation and religion.
The Moken spend seven or eight months of the year at sea, with complete families on each boat, foraging for every imaginable sea organism. Most of what they find with their nets and spears serves as their primary food source. Extras are sold to provide rice, cooking oil and fuel for their boats’ single-cylinder diesel engines. During the monsoon season, they live in small houses built on stilts at the edge of the seashore.
Such a nomadic, small-space lifestyle doesn’t exactly encourage a musical expression that’s based on the possession of instruments. But the Moken nonetheless have developed a vocal music delineated by the myriad details of their itinerant way of life..
“The Moken: Sea Gypsies of the Andaman Sea” (Topic Records)
Recorded in 1999 on the island of Ko Surin Nua off the coast of Thailand, this album was released in 2001 and has a completely informal quality, with casual chatter and the sounds of laughing and socializing in the background.
Songs have titles such as “The woman has gone digging for yam in the forest and has left her youngest child with a sibling,” reflecting the practical, everyday nature of the music. Sung by three female voices with accompaniment from percussion played on a plastic barrel, the tunes have a singsong quality, their conversational tone underscoring how the Moken’s music is simply a further expression of the communal, familial qualities of their lives.
The producer of the album, musicologist Tom Vater, first visited a group of the Moken in 1999. After the tsunami hit their village last month, Vater returned with his wife, Aroon Thaewchatturat, a Thai photographer and ethnobotanist. He reports that the Moken, highly attuned to the ocean’s vagaries, “knew the wave was coming and saved countless tourists” by leading them away from the shore and into the jungle. In the process, however, their own village, their boats and their belongings were swallowed up by the tsunami.
Vater was concerned that the wave could produce an even greater cultural devastation if the Moken -- who need new boats, tools, etc. -- are forced to assimilate into Thai society. He issued a call for donations, noting that “I felt like I was observing an entire culture on the brink of extinction” and asking for support via the UNESCO Andaman Pilot Project.
By Jan. 10, most of the Moken had returned to their island habitat, Vater noted on the Andaman project website, adding “It’s a great new start for this community.”
Although more funds are needed, relatively small amounts can produce extraordinary benefits: A typical long-tail Moken boat with engine, of the sort that houses a family of eight, costs around $1,500. (More information about the Andaman project can be found online at www.cusri.chula.ac.th/andaman/en/).
The best sources for recordings of music from the tsunami-hit areas are generally the large, ethnomusicological collections from companies such as Nonesuch, the Rough Guide, Smithsonian and Celestial Harmony. Here are a few of the most intriguing releases.
Music of Indonesia, Vols. 1-20 (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings)
This is, obviously, as inclusive a collection as one could desire, encompassing all areas of the Indonesian islands. Sumatra and the other areas worst hit by the tsunami are represented in Vol. 4 (“Music of Nias and North Sumatra”), Vol. 6 (“Night Music of West Sumatra”), Vol. 11 (“Melayu Music of Sumatra and the Riau Islands”) and Vol. 12 (“Gongs and Vocal Music From Sumatra”).
Also worth exploring are the earthy female vocalizing of the gundrung style in Vol. 1’s “Songs Before Dawn” and the eclectic, contemporary pop sound of guitars (of every conceivable style) in Vol. 20’s “Guitars,” which only hint at the startling range of music that courses through Indonesian society.
Sampler: Indonesia, South Pacific Music from the Nonesuch Explorer Series (Nonesuch)
The original Nonesuch Explorer series (initially titled the International Series) was released between 1967 and 1984 and served as the cutting edge for the emergence of what would come to be known as world music. All 92 titles in the series are being rereleased, grouped into global regions. In 2002 and 2003, 15 collections of music from Indonesia and the South Pacific were issued, including the extraordinary “Music From the Morning of the World,” one of the first recorded presentations to Western listeners of gamelan music. In addition, the group includes this sampler of selections from all 15 titles.
The Music of Islam, Vol. 15: Muslim Music of Indonesia: Aceh and West Sumatra (Celestial Harmonies)
Two CDs. The first disc, emphasizing music from the west coast of Sumatra, includes examples of Sunni prayers and Shia rituals. The second moves to the province of Aceh, in the north of Sumatra, near the epicenter of the quake that produced the deadly tsunami.
It also is an area in which Muslim art forms have flourished. The disc focuses on the varied music that has evolved as the result of interaction between Aceh’s various ethnic groups, including music associated with the daboih prayer ceremony, the male martial dance, seudati, and the female vocal form, pho.
Rough Guide to the Music of Thailand (World Music Network)
Chinese and Indian influences simmer beneath the surface (and sometimes to the surface) of Thailand’s diverse music. This colorful collection ranges from the sound of morlam -- immediately identified by the presence of the bamboo mouth organ -- to the country music called lukthung, as well as frequent blendings of both with contemporary instruments and grooves. Most unusual is a surprisingly compelling track by the Thai Elephant Orchestra, in which elephants have been taught to play a collection of instruments specifically designed for their trunks.
Sri Lanka’s Drum Masters & Healers (Buda Musique du Monde)
The island nation once known as Ceylon has a long tradition of using percussion in healing. This collection, by three contemporary drum masters, features ancient healing rituals performed with vocals, drums and flutes.