Wednesday, December 17, 2008

THAILAND'S SOLE FEMALE GONG PRODIGY

Doungnapha Phuengthongkum's mastery of classical Thai instruments is rooted in her upbringing and keeps hope for the future of such traditions alive,

Ploenpote Atthakor

Forget about the typical image associated with a Thai classical musician. With a pierced nose and dyed "J-pop" hairstyle, Doungnapha Phuengthongkum looks like any other university girl.

Carrying a notebook in one hand, Doungnapha, who has just won a music competition in Japan, sprinted to the practice room at Mahidol University's College of Music where we were to meet for an interview one afternoon. Tucking her iPhone into her handbag, the slim, young student was now ready for the first question.

"Yes, my schedule has become tight. A lot of organisers want me to appear in their culture programmes," said Doungnapha with cheerful voice.

The third year student shot to fame after winning the silver medal at the 9th Osaka International Music Competition, which took place in October.

Doungnapha Phuengthongkum, silver medallist at the 9th Osaka International Music Competition.

Playing the gong (a circle of suspended gongs in a rattan frame) in the folk music category, Doungnapa was the first Thai musician to win the honour, beating 14 other contestants. The gold medal went to a contestant from China.

Doungnapha is the pride of her family, in particular, Kalong Phuengthongkum, her grandfather who is also a celebrated gong musician, who has strenuously trained Doungnapha since she was a child. Kalong, 78, was bestowed the title of National Artist in 2007, shortly before his health declined.

"I started learning how to play the gong from my grandpa when I was only seven. Yes, it's quite a long time ago, more than 14 years."

But Doungnapha, now 21, says she was acquainted with Thai classical music long before that. At three, she accompanied her grandfather - who then was the leader of the family's ensemble Phattayasilp in Nonthaburi - during his performances at various events. At that time, Doungnapha helped with percussion instruments, namely krap (wooden clappers) and small cymbals.

"Our ensemble plays both Thai and Mon Piphat music at numerous events ranging from weddings to funerals, depending on the host of the occasion," she explained.

When Doungnapha was old enough to play an instrument, she began with the gong, as willed by her grandfather. Her sister, who is now doing a master's degree in Australia, also learned to play Thai classical music (with the zither, a string instrument) from her family.

Yet, Doungnapha loyally stuck to the round-circled musical instrument. Before she was 10, she had already appeared on stage with the all-male gong musicians of the Phattayasilp ensemble.

So why is Doungnapha so passionate about gongs, since it is predominantly an instrument played by men?

"Actually, it probably has to do a lot with the whole tradition of Thai classical teachings that require musical novices to start out playing with this instrument. The gong is the core instrument in an ensemble and it enables musicians to learn all the basics. It is a long-held belief that each Thai classical musician must master the gong before he or she can move on to other instruments."

Hard practice pays off handsomely.

Although this tradition has largely eased in the Thai music circle, the Phuengthongkum family still hold firm to that belief, she notes.

Thanks to her traditional Thai training Doungnapha is now able to play all kinds of Thai classical instruments. But she admits it's the gong she loves the best.

Nowadays, very few music students get the chance to learn at such a young age as they normally begin their first music lessons later in school, she says.

"Grandpa passes on a number of rare pleng diao (a song for a solo performance) pieces. Traditionally, teachers would keep and give these songs to only a few talented students."

Doungnapha says she was able to play Grao Nai (a piece of music used traditionally in khon mask dance for a scene when the leader of an army makes a troop inspection before entering a battlefield) since she was in Mathayom 2. Grao Nai is considered one of the toughest music pieces to perform for any musician let alone an adult.

Other pleng diao songs that Doungnapha can play well include Phya Soke (Great Man Laments), Sarathi (Horseman) and Nok Khamin (Yellow Bird), to name but a few.

What was it like growing up in a family with a renowned musician?

"From the beginning, I had to practise very hard but now I am used to it. I had to wake up at five in the morning to practise the high-pitched ranad (xylophone) for an hour and then the gong for another hour before going to school. And when I came back home from school the first thing I did was practice more for about three hours," she explained.

And over the years it has been her daily routine ever since. "This is the traditional Thai training for us musicians. We are trained to be highly disciplined. But otherwise, I am just like other girls my age. I chat on the Internet and I surf the Web," she said with a broad smile.

According to Doungnapha, music competitions have become a big part of her life. She has displayed her talent at countless gong-playing contests, starting when she was in primary school. The young Doungnapha has won many trophies, medals and certificates through the years.

"Any time I enter a competition I will practise at least eight or nine hours every day before it. This is normal," she affirmed.

Winning the prestigious Settrade competition in 2004 secured her a seat in the College of Music at Mahidol University, which also offered her a one-year tuition fee waiver.

Doungnapha has appeared on television for some affiliated ensembles including Wong Plai Bang of Nonthaburi. She also joined the Nonthaburi-based Durayasap music ensemble, playing an angklung (an instrument made of bamboo that is shaken) concert that was organised by the Luang Pradit Phairoah Foundation, the Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Indonesian Embassy to mark the 100th year of the angklung in Thailand, in August of this year. Doungnapha has remained the gong champion of the Khun Phra Chuay television programme and successfully defended her title eight consecutive times.

"The Osaka competition was my first experience playing abroad," she said.

The Jeen Khim Yai (a grand Chinese-accented dulcimer) was her choice of instrument for the contest.

"At first I thought of using a Japanese-accented piece since the contest was in Japan. But the melody did not match well with the gong so I changed my mind. The Jeen Khim Yai suited that event best. It's a beautiful, elaborate song that allows a player to really showcase their skills. I adjusted the intro and the final parts to make it more attractive."

Doungnapha says besides winning the medal, the attention she received from the foreign audience made her extremely happy.

"The audience apparently liked it. After the contest was over a lot of people came up and asked me to demonstrate again and again," she recalled.

The prize changed Doungnapha's life for the better: Job offers flooded in.

"Now people are excited about the Osaka prize and they book me to perform a solo in their events."

Yet most organisers and audiences alike do not know that much about this particular instrument or how to truly appreciate it.

"It's a sophisticated instrument that doesn't belong to the easy-listening category. Frankly speaking, I can understand how a gong could be quite boring for those who don't exactly know much about it. So I like to adjust it a bit and try to accommodate for a more contemporary tune to keep the performance attractive to the general audience," she said.

Doungnapha says she has not made a decision yet when asked what she would like to be or do in the future - a music artist or a scholar.

"I don't like the teaching job that much. I will focus on my studies and then do my master's degree before making a final decision," she added.

However, she has dreamed of running a living museum. Her Thai-styled house on the Chao Phraya riverbank would be a great place of interest for culture buffs. The glory of Phattayasilp should not be forgotten.

"Although Phattayasilp no longer performs on a regular basis - as members have other jobs - we still have the whole set of instruments in our house. But who knows ... a return to such music might not be too distant of a dream."

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