2016: Crafting a Sound from Northern Thailand

Crafting a Sound from Northern Thailand
by Lamtharn Hantrakul

I took a year off, after graduating from Yale University in 2015, to pursue research projects back home in Thailand. In August 2015, I started apprenticing with Khet Chaikam (เกตุ ไชยคำ), a craftsman from the North of Thailand, to learn the craft of traditional musical instruments from Northern Thailand.

The project took place in Mae Jai (เเม่ใจ), Phayao Province (จังหวัดพะเยา), Thailand.

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On top of the lump, the tail of a tattooed naga waved in sync as he raised his jungle machete to strip the bark off a pile of logs.

His woodshop is located in Mae Jai (เเม่ใจ), a village located approximately 25km north of Phayao, my mother’s hometown in the North of Thailand. Mae Jai is a sweet name, translating directly to Mother of the Heart. Google Maps Pin

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Every morning, I biked down to the morning market in Phayao (พะเยา) to catch the 8AM departure to the Mae Jai market on a modified pick up truck known as a “songtaew” (สองเเถว, literally – “two rows” of passenger seats).

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I was always the youngest rider—most were 40 to 60-year-old ladies from Mae Jai who arrived as early as 5AM in Phayao to sell home-grown vegetables, home-cooked curries and sugar-cane sticky rice.

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About 20 minutes into the ride, I hopped off the freeway and biked 7 km further into the village to begin my apprenticeship with Uncle Khet at 9AM. The path to the workshop alternated between village houses—some built with wood and corrugated iron roofs and others made from concrete—and rice fields; huge green expanses of rice fields.

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It was the monsoon season when I began in August (2015), which meant if it had rained the night before, my bike ride became a dive through the fresh and magical scent of rice stalks frolicking in the morning dew.

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Uncle Khet’s house in Mae Jai and his wife.

For over 15 years, Khet Chaikam, 59 – or as “Uncle Khet” as I called him – has been chopping, sawing and carving wood to produce two musical instruments from the North of Thailand: the guitar-like “Seung” ซึง (left) and the fiddle-like “Sloh” สะล้อ (right).

Uncle Khet insisted we begin the apprenticeship on a Sunday, not Saturday, since the Thai word for Saturday (เสาร์) auspiciously coincided with an unlucky astrological sign (ดาวเสาร์ – Saturn).

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On the first day, my mother and I prepared a silver plate with a of variety fruits, incense sticks and auspicious leaves. In Thai, the name for the leaves “Bai Khosohn” ใบโกศล is synonymous for good luck and wellbeing. They were for the “Yok Kan Tang” ยกขันตั้ง ceremony, a rite of passage in Northern Thailand when a student wishes to learn from a teacher. The exchange included a sum of 2000 baht (about 60 USD), a purely symbolic token and not to be confused with materials costs or “tuition,” which in Northern Thai culture, is completely separate.

Once finished Uncle Khet finished his blessings for my luck and success, we immediately began with the most difficult part of the process: carving the shaft on the carpenter’s lathe.

It takes Uncle Khet a short 5 minutes to fluidly carve and sand down a shaft. To carve the straight ridges, lotus buds and other ornamentations on the shaft, Uncle Khet demonstrated the different angles of attack on a carpenter’s “straight gauge” (the tool he is holding). To carve out large sections, the “U” of the straight guage points directly at the log. To carve out straight edges, the U is tilted. Pushing the straight gauged while resisting the downward rotational force takes a surprising amount of effort! Naps in the afternoon soon followed.

My first few runs were terrible; I kept fearing an irreversible error. The ridges on my first attempt were not 90 degree steps but shy little bumps, the proportion of my lotus bud was too top heavy and in some locations I had pushed the straight gauge too deep. “This shaft will snap under tension” commented Uncle Khet.

By the end of the afternoon, after cutting through six more logs, my shirt was draped with curls of wood chips. But after about three days on the lathe, I became much more confident using the straight gauge and could make perfect 90 degree cuts. Quite frankly, it’s an oddly satisfying feeling to make right angle cuts on a spinning log.

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Later in the week, Uncle Khet and I glued polished coconut shells to a thin piece of wooden board. Uncle Khet uses dried banana tree stalks to tie the components together for two reasons. Firstly, it is cheaper than man-made elastic bands and secondly, the stalks expand when soaked and contract when dry, naturally pulling the coconut and wooden board tightly together.

In the countryside, where raw materials are naturally abundant, it is often cheaper to use a DIY solution than an industrialized tool. I remember Uncle Khet saying “wood will never run out”, which was a little concerning given current environmental trends.

The DIY tools and safety in Uncle Khet’s workshop would have made folks at the Yale Center for Engineering, Innovation and Design (CEID) pull their hair out. Uncle Khet’s disc sander was made from a refrigerator motor bolted to an old, heavy log. Sandwiched between the two were a pair of old sandals, used to absorb shock and vibrations. You turned it on by plugging into a socket extension that sparked every time the disc sander was connected. I was always worried the pile of woodchips on the woodshop floor would spark on fire one day.

Uncle Khet was a nationally recognized craftsman of traditional instruments from Northern Thailand. OTOP stands for “One Tambon, One Product”, a government initiative to support local crafts and produce across Thailand.

At noon, I would sometimes join Uncle Khet for lunch. My favorite food from the North of Thailand was sticky rice (ข้าวเหนียว) and a chilli dip/paste (นำ้พริก)

With our stomachs filled, both Uncle Khet and I rested and napped on hammocks for an hour after lunch before continuing until about 4:30pm to leave time for the return bike ride.

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My two best fiddles after 3 weeks of apprenticeship. Since Uncle Khet communicated with me exclusively in Northern Thai, I also learnt how to speak a little bit of it! (อู้กำเมือง!)

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After the apprenticeship, I learnt that every country in East Asia, Southeast Asia and the Middle East has a variation of the fiddle, each using different materials to achieve distinct timbres. Thai’s use cow skin, the Japanese use cat skin, the Vietnamese use lizard skin while the Iranians use fish skin. My first hand experience of building fiddles with Uncle Khet inspired me to engineer a cross-cultural modular fiddle system called fidular. This part of the project, lasting from September to December, is documented in detail on my research portfolio site.

In February 2016, I returned to Mae Jai to show Uncle Khet the first prototype of my modular fiddle and get his feedback. He was excited, telling me immediatly “this is great, you can play many different styles and sounds with just one shaft”. Uncle Khet assured me I could sell it as a product and maybe “even make it on television!”

I took fidular and my experience building fiddles to a “Maker Faire” (invention fair) in the northern city of Chiang Mai, the second-largest and most popular city in Thailand after Bangkok. The faire was open to the public and attracted locals, students and teachers from neighboring villagers and the Maker scene in Chiang Mai. The project garnered a lot of interest among fair-goers, especially from a teacher hailing from Mae Sai (เเม่สาย) who said “students in my village aren’t interested in traditional instruments anymore, but maybe your combination of 3D printing and woodcrafting in this new instrument can re-invigorate their fascination”

In January 2016, I keynoted the SEASAC (Southeast Asia Student Activities Conference) Festival themed “Past Present Future”. The conference brought together over 150 students from over 10 international schools in Southeast Asia for 3 days of workshops and activities held at Bangkok Patana School, Bangkok, Thailand. In my keynote, I spoke about the convergence of science, art and culture in the creation of new technology. It was a talk inspired by my experience combining the craftsmanship skills learnt from Uncle Khet with Engineering techniques I had learnt from Yale and is available online.

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In March 2016, I was invited by Thailand’s National Electronics and Computer Technology Center (NECTEC) to present at a National Science Fair Competition open to high schoolers, college students and professors. My talk, entitled “The convergence of Science, Art, Culture and Commerce”, focused on the merging of traditional technologies like wood carving and weaving, with cutting-edge technologies like 3D printing, in designing new inventions optimized for cultures in Southeast Asia.

As we move into the 4th industrial revolution, I believe we can merge new tools like 3D printing and Artificial Intelligence (A.I) with traditional technologies like wood carving, embodied by locals like Uncle Khet, to develop a new kind of “culture-aware” technology. Too often, traditional cultures have difficulty catching up with new technologies because, unfortunately, no one makes connections between these two worlds.

“Culture-aware” technologies are optimized to integrate with cultural techne (“craft”) and episteme (“knowledge”), particularly those from non-Western traditions. I believe intelligent systems based on Western and non-Western cultures will make technology more robust and better for all users; from all cultures.

My apprenticeship with Uncle Khet, development of fidular and interactions with locals, craftsmen and technologists from my home region have formed the foundation of this vision I hope to refine and implement in the future as I continue onto my Masters and PhD.

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The apprenticeship and project was partially funded by Yale University’s Chase Coggins Memorial Fund, under the the objective “traveling to rural areas or developing countries to document and study those regions from a variety of perspectives (including natural or cultural history, health, anthropology, linguistics)”. I would like to thank the Chase Coggins board for giving me this wonderful opportunity.