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Music Healing Rituals in Thailand
By Bussakorn Binson
This paper discusses music healing rituals from North, Northeast and Southern Thailand from an ethnomusicological perspective. These healing rituals bring together supportive aspects of the family, the community and spiritual entities, and the shaman is the leader and conductor for these events. The shaman utilizes music incorporating the whole community. The shaman elicits support from the spirits. During these ceremonies music is provided as a healing process force. It entices and recruits spirits, it distracts the participant from unpleasant experiences felt in their body. Even in today’s modern society these healing rituals have persisted, as they are inseparable from these animistic belief systems in these regions.
Keywords: Music healing Thailand, Music ritual, Shaman music, Thai Folk Music, Isaan music
Music as a sonic force penetrates and has a physiological affect, propelling a healer's kinaesthetic movement towards patient's troubled psychosomatic state. (Hood &Binson, 2014, p. 15)
Music is created to answer needs in the society’s way of life. Music and performances in each locality of Thailand is called ‘folk music’ signifying that the music is familiar in the locality, and has been heard in the community for a long time. In many cases it is part of the local cultural identity, as Salor Sor Sueng band (fiddle, lute and vocalist) represents the north, Pong Lang band (a vertical xylophone with panpipe and electrical lutes) is known to represent North Isaan or Upper Northeastern Thailand, KanTruem represents South Isaan, and Nora represents Southern Thailand.
A basic role of music is to entertain, as can be seen in Central Thailand folk music such as Thon Dance (drum dance), Choy, E-Saew, and Lamtad (dialogue songs). Music has also had functions as offering away to relax during or after work such as Pleng Kiew Kao (harvest Song), Pleng Song Faang(Straw Raking Song), and the A-Yai Song (a kind of dialogue song of Khmer-Thai in south Isaan). Music supports rituals such as the music of Kong Puja drum of Northern Thailand played to worship the three gems of Buddhism; the Buddha, the Dharma, which are his teachings, and the Sangha – the community who follow the teaching. This music notifies monks of the time to perform their religious routine. The Phon drum of Southern Thailand is also played to signal religious ceremonies.
Music can also answer the human needs, to survive and to be safe. In every regions of Thailand, music is used to create a sacred atmosphere in supernatural ceremonies performed to ensure human security according to local beliefs. Another important function of music is to accompany healing rituals. These kinds of traditional ritual is adopted by locals throughout Thailand since it has grown up from beliefs rooted deep in their way of life for generations.
Figure 1 shows the map of different regions in Thailand. This paper describes the music ritual healing from the North, Northeast(Isaan) and the Southern Thailand.
Music and the Healing Ritual in Northern Thailand
The dance of Phee Mod Phee Meng is a healing ritual dance of Northern Thailand. Phee Mod is the spirit of ants who protect a house keeping the peace and happiness of people in the house, much in the same way that Phee Suer Baan and Phee Suer Mueng protect a city and keep its peace and happiness. When a family arranges a ritual of Phee Mod Dance, nests of ants are often offered for sale to the family and neighbours for a few Fuengs which is an old Thai coinage. These ants’ nests are then kept in their houses. As for the Phee Meng Dance, it is believed to be derived from Mon since the clothes of the medium who is included in the dance are those of ancient Mon. Northern Thai or Thai Lanna have called these ancient Mon “Meng” which comes to be the name of the dance. Consequently, the dances of Phee Mod and Phee Meng (as shown in Figure 2) are actually a type of ritual dance to sacrifice or to fulfill the vows given to the ancestors who, in various forms, protect people’s houses and see to their happiness.
The locals believe that the spirits of the passed away ancestors and relatives will dwell together at the spirit house. The two ritual dances for them are often called together as the Dance of Phee Mod Phee Meng.
Music and the Healing Ritual in the North of Isaan Region, Thailand
The Phee Faa (or Phi Faa) is believed to be a heavenly spirit. Phee Faa Dance is a healing ritual dance according to the belief of the North Isaan (Upper Northeast) Thai people. “The Thai people of the Northeast believe that a supernatural power resides in the sky. They call this being "Phi Faa" or "Phi Thaen", who is a very powerful ghost, and can grant them their wishes”. Roengbuthra &Sumrongthong, (2006)
Figure 3 shows the music healing ritual of Phee Faa with female shaman which is known as Moh Lam Phee Fee, conducting the ritual process, accompanied by 2 Khaen players behind her. Moh Lam Phee Faa is a healer who gets her healing power through the ritual called Lam Phee Faa which includes a dance to a song with lyric played by an instrument of Khaen (a kind of reed mouth organ of Northeastern Thailand). Moh Lam or the healer acts as a medium to be possessed by the spirit Phee Faa.
Most of the mediums Moh Lam Phee Faa are female. They heal by dancing to the songs of Khaen, a long panpipe instrument believed to be a conveyance for the spirit to come to heal people. Important items used in the ritual are Pha Kai or a tray with a bottle of talc, a small mirror, and a jar of pomade. The healing ritual of Phee Faa begins with the dance to invite the possession of Phee Faa, follows with Saung (look through) dance, a dance for the Phee Faa to diagnose the symptoms of the patient, performed by looking through the mirror and tell whether there is a spirit doing harm to the patient or whether the patient has done anything disrespectful to any spirit. If the symptoms are diagnosed as caused by spirits, a ritual will be performed to determine whether the healing will be successful or not by throwing an egg on the floor which allows the reading of the chances of cure. For the treatment, an Ern Kwan Dance to call for the patient’s guardian spirit is performed; followed by Pua Dance to heal the patient; and Sangson (instruction) Dance to instruct the patient including his/her relatives of the right way to conduct themselves. The last dance in the session is Song (send) Dance or farewell dance to send the spirit back to Faa or heaven. In this last dance, the patient cheerfully joins in; signifying that the spirit who has caused the sickness is satisfied with the ritual and leaves the patient.
Music and the Healing Ritual in the South of Isaan Region, Thailand
Ma-muad is a folk ritual of south Isaan which is performed to diagnose people’s sickness. The ritual is influenced with the Khmer’s beliefs in occult since most people in south Isaan are descendants of Khmer people who immigrated into Thailand more than a hundred years ago. In the Ma-muad ritual music is used to conjure up spirits of the ancestors to come to take possession on the medium and do dances to heal the sick. Most of the mediums (Ma-muad guru) are female like Moh Lam Phee Faa. Ma-muad is a Khmer word meaning “witch” or “medium” and refers to a person who allows themselves to be possessed by a spirit. Ma-muad is often a villager who earns a living normally, but sooner or later falls seriously sick with symptoms of convulsions and loss of consciousness. She then turns to be deranged and speaks confusingly and fancifully. These symptoms can persist for a long time even with treatment, and are believed to cause by a spirit who wants to dwell with her. To allow the dwelling of the spirit, one needs to undertake a welcome ritual, guided by an expert medium. When the spirit possession is successful, the new medium has to make a sacrifice as told by the spirit, and her sickness with the deranged symptoms will finally abate. A medium who allows the possession of a witch or a spirit every year may have the power of accurate foreseeing and skillful healing.
Figure 4 shows the Ma-muad healing ritual with the offerings in the front accompanied by the Ma-muad music band in the back which consist of fiddle, a pair of small cymbals and drums.
The Ma-muad healing ritual begins with the medium meditating in front of a bowl of rice with a lit candle stuck into it waiting for the spirit to possess her. After the spirit possession is successful, an assistant will ask the medium about the cause of the patient’s sickness. The medium will tell everyone the reasons for the sickness and will refer to the healing methods, mainly of making offerings, which are informed from the Bol chance reading. Bol is a kind of chance reading ritual to inspect of evil things that cause sickness performed by Bol medium who is usually female. The Bol medium only diagnoses the sickness, the offering rituals must be done by the patient’s family. Sometimes, the Bol reading tells that a ritual of Ma-muad has to be performed to know the exact cause of the sickness. The patient or relatives will arrange the ritual on the day and time specified by Bol medium which must not be the Buddhist Sabbath day. The right time to perform the ritual Ma-muad is during February (Khae Mia Kathom, in Khmer), March (Khae Prakul), and April (Khae Jad). Apart from performing the ritual, the medium gets into contact with the spirits of the ancestors to consult about how to heal the patient. The answers may be to use certain herbs; to blow on the patient with a spell, to spit chewed betel nut, or to sprinkle with holy water; to massage the patient’s body or to prick it with a stick of tree root; and to make sacrifice to the ancestors with a dance or offerings. Sometimes, the spirit who possesses the medium wants to dance and the medium needs to dress properly to perform these dances. Accordingly, the ritual host must bring the dance costumes for the medium to choose. A music band will be prepared to play continuously in various rhythms and tunes for the medium to dance. When satiated, the spirit will leave the medium, the medium will put out the lit candle by biting it, and the patient will begin to feel better.
Music and the Healing Ritual: the Ritual of Yao
The ritual of Yao or the paying homage to great witch doctor Yao is one of the important rituals of the Ka-lerng tribe performed for generations. Ka-lerng is a tribal people found scattered in the provinces of Mukdahan, Nakhon Phanom, and Sakhon Nakhon in Northeastern Thailand.
After immigrating into Thailand, a small group of Ka-lerng people in Sakhon Nakhon Province settled in the villages of Baan Na Yor, Baan Phon Ngam, and Baan Dong Mafai. A larger group travelled further settling on the plateau of Phu Phan range where they can be close to nature which their lives depend on and which they believe can protect them.
The Yao ritual is a folk healing ritual to help villagers recover from sicknesses caused by disdaining or enraging spirits. People believe that spirits have power as well as feelings such as love and anger. Natural disasters and villagers’ sicknesses are believed to be caused by wrong doings to spirits. Therefore, rituals of spirit worship and offerings must be made to ask the spirits to help eliminate those difficulties. Yao ritual is a way to communicate between human and spirits through Yao medium using poems and rhythms with Khaen used as an instrument for tunes and a set of Kai (gift items to pay homage to the medium, all put on a sheet of white cloth) or other items that pay homage to the medium. Ka-lerng people believe that the Yao medium is one who can communicate with the spirit of water and the spirit of heaven. A person who can become a Yao medium must have high virtue, be trustful, ready to sacrifice to any difficulties, and carry himself according to the tribe’s code of conduct (Heed-Krong). It is said that a Yao medium must help the sick anytime he is asked to and without any fee except for an amount of five Sa-luengs (Thai smallest coin) paid to honor him. Yao medium who takes more than five Sa-luengs will become a ghost.
Yao ritual begins with the presentation of Kai set in front of the medium while a Khaen musician sits at his side and the patient sits or lays nearby. If the patient cannot come to the ritual, his/her clothes must be put in front of the medium instead. The Yao medium commences by paying homage to his great masters, and makes a chant to invite a spirit to possess him so that the spirit can tell what the cause of the patient's sickness is. The medium may be possessed by different spirit each time. The nature of the spirit possessed can be seen from his headdress. If the spirit is a Nguek (a half man half fish mythical creature) or a snake, the Yao medium will tie his head with red cloth; if it is a forest or house spirit, the medium will use a cotton thread decorated with flowers; if it is the spirit of a boxer, a red cloth is also used but when the medium performs the dance, he will close his fits like a boxer. Then, the medium will sing and dance to the tunes of Khaen for a length of time during which the spirit will tell what should be done to heal the patient. The healing tasks depend on what wrongdoing the patient has done, and in order to be healed, he has to strictly follow the instruction of the spirit. If it is the case that the patient cannot do as instructed at that time, he will take a vow to do so later. If the sickness does not leave the patient, the Yao medium will perform a ritual of sweeping the sickness away by using the leafs of custard apple tree soaked with holy water sweeping from head to toe of the patient who lies with his legs pointed to the west. If the sickness still persists, the medium will repeat the sweeping again, this time using a sword. The medium will then put the patient's guardian spirit to his/her body and do the farewell ritual which is called "roll the spirit up the shelf" in the Yao medium's jargon.
Finishing the Yao ritual, the medium and the patient's relatives will come to tie a wrist of the patient with pieces of cotton thread available in the Kai set and bless him/her to recover and to have good health onward. The medium will then do the "Pong Kai" in which they pack all the Kai gift items away with the white sheet of cloth signifying the end of the ritual.
The Saak Dance of Saek
Isaan tribal people, Saek, like most Isaan tribes, worship spirits. They distinctively weave a bamboo basket and put it in a corner of their houses to accommodate the spirit. In the time of sickness they also have Yao medium perform rituals similar to Phee Faa Dance and use herbal treatment. Nowadays, Saek people live a normal life as general Isaan people. The Saak Dance of Saek, not a regular performance, is normally performed on the third day of the waxing moon of the third lunar month which conforms to the Annamese traditional day of "Kin Tret" or Annamese's New Year day. On that day, Saek people bring flowers, joss sticks, candles, and food to a spirit house called "San Ong Moo," a dwelling house of Ong Moo, a much revered Saek ancestor, believed to be of great sacred power who is always asked for a blessing and help in every work. San Ong Moo, located eastward on the Mekhong river bank, is similar to normal houses of land guardian spirits found everywhere in Thailand, except that there are painted wooden swords decorated around it which are assumed to be a symbol of the ancestor's fighting ability in leading his people to this beneficial land. When all Saek people are presented at San Ong Moo, beautifully illuminated for the special day, a ritual to sacrifice to the spirit of the ancestor begins. Yao medium will light up candles and joss sticks, pour some liquor into a small glass, and utter an invitation in Saek dialect to Ong Moo to take the offerings. It is followed by the ritual of thrown coins reading. The coins used are two old small copper coins painted white on one side. Yao medium will throw the two coins and read the way they drop on the floor to see if the spirit is satisfied with the ritual and whether the spirit allows the photograph taking. If the coins turn up on different sides, it means the spirit is satisfied and the request allowed, but if they turn up on the same sides, no matter white or black, it means the opposite. However, when the coins turn up on the same sides, they can be thrown again until the satisfaction signs come up.
After the offering ritual to Ong Moo, a pair of old type long club-shaped rice pestles (Saak) with convex middle will be laid down with a small wooden base at each end. The two pestles will be rhythmically brought to close up and part off on the bases. Intending to worship the spirit, ten to twenty Saek men and women will come to dance between those open and close gaps of the pestles.
Instruments used to accompany the dance are drums, small and large cymbals, and the pestles themselves which are hit together or on their wooden bases to give the beats. For the sick, apart from giving them herbal treatment, the Yao medium will call on Ong Moo to help heal them. In return the sick give vows to do certain tasks when healed, such as do the Saak dance or give offerings, and the medium will arrange a future date for the vow fulfilling ritual.
Music and the Healing Ritual of Southern Thailand
Praphon, Ruengnarong(1994) describes that the Tueri Music is a Muslim folk healing ritual accompanied with music and practiced for centuries. Tueri or Matueri is a word in Raya Moodaw means a young prince or a crown prince who has turned to be a wind or a spirit to help heal the sick. In former times, Muslim-Thai believed that people are made of four elements, Hatu Tanor (earth), Hatu Ahe (water), Hatu Apee(fire), and Hatu A-nging (wind). Everyone has a Ying or a spirit within called Ying A-sase, which can also mean Mala Eka or Death Angel, who protects the person. It is also believed that when one dies, another one is born and this cycle will run forever starting from Toh Adae or Nabi Adam whose death brings up offspring that have descended until today.
Figure 7 show Tueri band accompanied the Tueri healing ritual. Originally, a Tueri musical band used to accompany the healing ritual consisted only of a Ghibba or a fiddle which was played by Bormor or the medicine man. It was added later on with two Gheen-naes or two-faced drums, two gongs, and a brass bowl used for tapping.
The healing ritual starts with the medicine man burning incense and exposes his hands to its smoke to invite the spirit of Raya Moodaw to possess the patient. The medicine man then plays his fiddle with tunes that sometimes are sweet and sometimes shrill and piercing. When the patient is possessed, the medicine man will ask the spirit whether the sickness is caused by a spirit of an ancestor or an evil spirit, for what reason, and how to settle the problem. At that time, though there are the patient's relatives and villagers gathering together to hear the case, the spirit possession is directed at the patient and not anyone else for fear of faulty answers and lest the evil spirit possessed the patient may go on the rampage against the medicine man. The playing of Tueri music begins with a fiddle to make cheerful tunes, followed by drums and gongs playing at the same time, while the brass bowl is tapped. It is assumed that the tapping sounds of the bowl are so well-liked by people of the old days that the bowl is included in the band continuously. The series of Tueri songs begins with Raya Moodaw song, Sena song, Nai Phran song and some other songs according to the moods and satisfaction of the patient.
To invite the spirit of Raya Moodaw, the medicine man will chant the Raya Moodaw song whose tunes are similar to Mayong. A folk art performance of either Mayong, Sila, or Wayang will accompany the song. In order to receive assistance from the spirit, the patient must give a vow to do a task such as patronizing the next ritual. The assignment for the next date to perform the ritual and which art performance to accompany it will be arranged, normally at the next one or two years or may be as long as next five or ten years. The next ritual date set, the spirit of Raya Moodaw will leave the patient, and the patient will recover from his/her sickness. Reaching the assignment date, the ritual will be performed accompanied by Tueri Music and the kind of folk art performance, Mayong or Sila, as agreed. During the ritual, the medicine man, having the recovered patient sit in front of him, will light three candles, burn incense, invite the spirit of Raya Moodaw to possess the recovered patient, and inform the spirit that his requests are already provided. The folk art performance will then begin and Raya Moodaw will leave the patient signifying the end of the ritual to complete the vow.
Toh Kruem Healing ritual
Toh Kruem or Nai Mont or Li Mont is a kind of singing music to heal the sicknesses which according to the belief of people in Southern Thailand, are caused by the ancestors’ spirits of Nai Mont (Pithak Kochawong, 1999:98-108). Udom Noothong (1988:14-50) wrote that Toh Kruem is a kind of music played only in certain districts in Songkhla Province and is considered as a unique folk music or recreation of Songkhla. These bands are operated by those who believe in the spirits of Nai Mont’s ancestors or those who descend from parents and grandparents who used to play Toh Kruem. It is assumed that Toh Kruem is originated from the fear of spirits. When ones are ill without any known cause and cannot be healed, people believe that the illnesses are caused by spirits, especially spirits of the ancestors called Khru Moh Taa Yai (The master-ancestors Grandpa and Grandma) who are widely respected. Toh Kruem or Nai Mont as called in certain districts is usually performed to worship Khru MohTaa Yai or TaaYai Phee Ruen (the Grandparent spirits of the house) when one is sick or, according to the belief, is punished by spirits of the ancestors for his wrong doing. The one whose sickness is caused by Taa Yai spirits will suffer from various symptoms including ulcers which will be more critical if he/she goes to hospitals. The only way to heal the sickness is to arrange the Toh Kruem playing or else he/she may die. Accordingly, Toh Kruem is not to play anytime, only for the one that has been sick as a punishment from Taa Yai spirits. (Jitdham, 1998, 242-243)
Figure 8 shows the Toh Kruem healing ritual accompanied by Toh Kruem band. This band traditionally consisted of seven persons, 1 medium, and their assistant, and 5 players of Thab drums (small vertical drum in the front). But nowadays it is often performed by on one or two drums. The ritual of Toh Kruem may be performed for 3-4 days. It begins with the conjuring up of the ancestor spirits Taa Yai to possess the medium, followed by the chant to invite the spirits. When possessed, the medium will be carried to be bathed and changed to a new dress. Then, the medium will do “Tee Mai Yang,” gently beat the believers with a stick called Yang as greetings to them, practices which the believers considered as auspicious. During this time, the Toh Kruem band will play the Thab drums. Yang stick will be divided into two parts; one is put in the ritual hall, another for the patron of the ritual to be hung at his house’s entrance. Believers of Taa Yai spirits believe that the Yang stick can ward off evil spirits and ghosts. Later, the patron of the ritual will give a feast to the spirits at the ritual hall. Then, a ritual of Tud Moey or fulfilling the vow is performed. The whole ritual comes to an end with sending off the spirits.
It can be concluded that music plays a part in folk healing rituals relevant to local beliefs all over Thailand. From the descriptions provided in the paper it is proposed that music does not serve a manifest function in the treatment, but rather has the latent functions to accompany and perfect the ritual by announcing the arrangement of the ritual to villagers. Music enhances the sacredness of the ritual and conjures up the demonstration of spirits through the medium. The music accompanies the medium’s dances with the musical rhythms showing his supernatural power to stimulate and prevail over the patients’ minds and emotions.
The basic beliefs of the folk healing rituals of Thailand are derived from the original belief of animism represented by shamans, offerings, and the sick patients. As for music, it supports the respectability of the shaman’s demonstration. Its tunes and lyrics help patients manage their sickness. Dances and spirit possession induce the four organs of senses; ears, eyes, nose, and body, to open widely to the activities so that the confused and absorbed mind of the patients will be temporarily relieved. Accordingly, music used in the human healing rituals is considered medicine by the local healthcare agencies.
Rituals with music can be found in societies in every region in Thailand as well as in the global society. As long as the fear of the supernatural remains, rituals with their accompanied music will endure to serve spiritual needs according to the beliefs of each human tribe.
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