- Forbidden Songs of the Pgaz K'Nyau by Suwichan Phattanaphraiwan
"We are headed for disaster if the Pgaz K'Nyau people do not know tha plue or other songs for the deceased." Community elder Phati Johnni Odochao shares these fears in Chi Suwichan Phattanaphraiwan's insightful book Forbidden Songs of the Pgaz K'Nyau. The loss of tha funeral songs, he continues, may well lead to a loss of a sense of ourselves, our origins, or the true meaning of life. As he puts it, "We would have a life on earth that just floats by, not truly rooted in our own humanity" (48).
Forbidden Songs of the Pgaz K'Nyau is a valuable addition to the Ethnomusicology Translations initiative of the Society for Ethnomusicology. In this book, musician and social activist Chi Suwichan Phattanaphraiwan contemplates the loss and (partial) revival of a song genre that is an important window into the indigenous cosmology, ecology, cultural knowledge, and identity of a Karen group in Northwest Thailand who call themselves Pgaz K'Nyau. Although there is a large volume of literature on the Karen—a stateless indigenous population straddling the Thai-Myanmar border tied together by a shared experience of lowland oppressive kingdoms and by shared cultural practices, folkloric history, religious practices, and written scripts—almost none of it is written by the Karen themselves. The Karen are diverse, with six million in Myanmar and one million in Thailand, and their coherence is challenged by different religious affiliations, political struggles with the lowland powers, and uneven engagements with modernity. Through Chi Suwichan's autoethnographic exploration of traditional song, we gain valuable insights into the changing lifeways and the struggle of the Pgaz K'Nyau to retain a sense of identity.
Clearly translated by Benjamin Fairfield, this open-access publication contains sixteen short chapters that capture the historical context and the purpose of traditional funeral songs, or tha. Many of the chapters are narrative [End Page 139] stories that were first published in Thai on Chi's website in 2014 for a Thai readership. The "forbidden" subset of the tha oral tradition is a provocative theme that threads through the book. What songs are forbidden, by whom, and in what context is variable, as meanings change across religious systems, through memory loss, and with the adoption of modern lifestyles. The book begins with a history of traditional animist belief and music practice, traces the demise of traditional songs as villages convert to Baptist Christianity, and elaborates on the impact of lowland-driven modernization and of the marketdriven reconceptualization of the sacred forests in which the Pgaz K'Nyau live.
A wide variety of tha are sung at funerals and guide the organization of the multiday ceremony. Seven-syllable, two-stanza couplets sung antiphonally with a leader (mo cho) comment on numerous aspects of Pgaz K'Nyau culture throughout the ceremony—from the specific merits of the deceased to general commentary on coexistence with the environment. The variety of tha types include an aid in guiding the dead to the afterlife (tha choekeplue) so that they do not lose their way; songs for the living to encourage separation (tha chawlaw) so that the living do not follow the dead; community affirmation songs (tha dawthaw) that highlight cooperation, songs giving participants an awareness that they are all of one community; youth courting songs (tha naw doe jaw); and many others.
The performance of some tha, such as those guiding the deceased to the afterlife, are taboo and restricted by the community to the funeral ceremony. Performance of these songs for nonfuneral contexts may have adverse effects on the living. Even within the funeral context, vulnerable ears (for example, young children and pregnant women) are forbidden from participating to avoid living souls straying toward the afterlife. A very different type of prohibition came with the advent of...