Sunday, July 3, 2016

Ambassador to the Akha in Laos

                                                      by Jim Goodman

Akha village above Muong SIngh, Laos
       My association with the Akha of Northern Thailand began when I moved to Chiang Mai in the winter of 1988.  Besides researching them for a book project, I also worked with them in handicraft production.  They made their traditional jackets, in sizes for Westerners, using their own hand-woven, indigo-dyed cotton cloth, but with appliqué and embroidery done in natural colors.  I bought the white cloth and thread and dyed it myself with plant and insect dyes, my role in the process.  So my involvement deepened.  I acquired a working knowledge of their language, attended all the annual festivals, observed other rites and practices among the three sub-groups in Thailand and conceived the ambition to visit other sub-groups in other countries.
       The Akha also reside in northeast Myanmar, northern Laos and, especially and most numerously, in Yunnan, China, their original homeland.  It was difficult to visit them in Myanmar, because traditional villages were off the main roads, sometimes in insurgent zones and foreigners were not allowed to stay overnight in a village. 
jungle setting of a a typical Akha village in Laos
       I had better luck in Yunnan in 1992, when I visited a village in Xishuangbanna housing relatives of my workers in Pamee, near Mae Sai.   I had met one of them when he was working in the litchi groves of Pamee earlier that year and he was my host in his village.  I had brought photos of Pamee people, festivals and so on, so the encounter was very positive. 
       But even after three days I had noticed how the traditional Akha way of life I had become so familiar with in Thailand was much attenuated in China.  While the political turmoil of the past, when customs and beliefs suffered fierce ideological attack, was long gone, the old ways did not all revive.  Part of this was also due to the shift from growing rice to growing tea, rubber and sugar cane as cash crops instead.    As a traveler, I had a great time.  As a researcher, it was somewhat disappointing.
Akha women near Muong SIngh
A few years later, Laos changed its rules on foreigners traveling in the country.  When going beyond Vientiane Prefecture, they no longer needed to have a government minder accompanying them everywhere they went.  I began making plans to call on the Akha in northern Laos.  This would be different from my trips to Kengtung, Myanmar and Xishuangbanna, for in both those places I knew Akha whom I had met in Thailand.  I had not yet met any Akha from Laos, or any traveler who had been to the area.  I had no idea of what to expect.
       As I did in China, I would wear one of my Akha jackets and shoulder bags when I went to visit the Lao Akha and hope it won’t be like in China, where I was practically the only one in the Akha village wearing any Akha clothing.  I prepared a bigger set of photographs to show them, especially examples of the different Akha headdresses.  I also decided to take a Dictaphone with me and mini-cassette recordings of Akha songs at the dèhâw—the meeting ground for young people in the evenings—and mournful ballads sung by elderly women at the festivals.  That decision was to have the most effect on the nature of my adventures in Lao Akha territory. 
Bukwo Akha woman
      I journeyed to Luang Nam Tha, a northern province bordering Xishuangbanna, China.  Many Akha reside there, but at that time they were rarely seen in the town itself.  The best place to find then was Muong Singh, two and half hours west, an even smaller town, surrounded by hills.  I arrived around 11:00, when the town was all but inactive, the market nearly empty and no Akha around.  I checked into a hotel and found out that the morning market, beginning at dawn and closing by mid-morning, was where to meet the Akha.
     Next morning, rising early, dressed in an Akha jacket and shoulder bag, carrying a camera, Dictaphone and several dozen photos from the world of Thailand’s Akha, I headed for the morning market.  The area was already swarming with hill people and local Lao by sunrise.  The Akha were the most numerous and to my delight virtually all of them were dressed in traditional garments; not just the older women, but the youth, the children and even the few men among them.
     As in Thailand, the women’s outfit consisted of a single-strap breast-cloth, short black skirt, pleated in the back and worn with a beaded bag across the front of it, leggings around the calves, a hip-length, long-sleeved jacket and a close-fitting headdress, decorated with beads, red pompoms, silver studs and pendants.  No two were exactly alike.  Like in Thailand, they carried woven bamboo baskets on their backs, attached to a wooden shoulder board to more evenly distribute the weight.
the Akha shoulder board
Akha woman in Muong Singh
       Young Akha men also wore fancy headdresses, unlike the simple black wraparound turbans of Akha men in Thailand.  Theirs stood high on the head, decorated with colored threads, patches of silver and almost suggested those worn by drum majors in an American high school marching band.
       I was the only foreigner there, but what caught the attention of the Akha was less that fact than that the only foreigner there was wearing a jacket that was obviously Akha, but not one from their own Bukwo Akha sub-group.  Before long Akha women approached me to examine the embroidery on my jacket and bag.  I heard them conversing, in a dialect quite close to those in Thailand, with just a few consonant differences.  So I ventured to join their conversation.
rice storage outside the village
       I followed a set pattern when beginning to talk with them.  First I made a few comments on whatever they were saying.  Then, as they were absorbing their surprise, I explained I was American, living in Thailand, working with Akha and could speak Thai Akha language.  And I bring greetings from the Thai Akha.  Then we could have a short conversation before they would return to their market affairs.  The word spread fast and soon others came forth, if only for the novelty of hearing their language spoken by a foreigner. Eventually a group of four young men started talking and soon we were off together for lunch at a noodle shop.  It was a simple but comfortable enough place, so when I heard them hesitating to order because the price was 12 baht each (about fifty U.S. cents) and maybe they should look for a cheaper place, I offered to pay for everybody’s lunch.  The mood brightened at once.
       Soon we were talking about Thailand’s Akha and not about me.  I pulled out my sets of photographs and now we had lots more to discuss.  Yes, they told me, they had the same kind of houses as the Akha in Thailand, the same boundary gates between the human world and spirit world, the same big bamboo festival swings, the same kind of farms. 
traditional festival swings
       At this point I produced my Dictaphone to find out if they had the same musical traditions.  I played the dèhâw songs first, which they quite enjoyed and then informed me they also had a dèhäw scene and I should come up to their village and see it.  I played the soulful solo songs next and they suggested I should meet their village’s best singer on the way.  She was working with other villagers building a house for a Lao family nearby and would love to hear the cassettes.
       After an hour walk across the plain we came to the construction site and all the Akha took a break to meet the foreigner.  Over tea I played the cassettes.  My own knowledge of the language was limited to certain topics where I knew the vocabulary.  I could not translate the lyrics of the songs.  As it turned out, some of the lyrics from the dancing ground sessions were rather risqué, for the crowd sometimes blushed and tittered hearing them.
girls in the mountain village
young Akha man in the market
       At the conclusion, the woman introduced as the village’s best singer announced that in return for the chance to listen to the Akha of Thailand she wanted me to record her singing so they could hear the Akha of Laos.  Of course, I’d brought blank cassettes, and as the construction noise was too interfering, we went into the jungle to make the recording.  Her songs were similar to the solos we’d just heard, featuring the same kind of quivering voice over elongated vowel sounds—the classic Akha style.
traditional Akha house
      Following this, our singer returned to her work and we headed up the mountain.  Unlike the hills in northern Thailand, where virtually every village was connected by some kind of serviceable road, here there was only a trail.  Much of the way was forested until we passed the granaries set up outside the village, a safety precaution for, in case fire sweeps through the housing area, the people would still have their food.  The cleared, settled area lay on a largely gentle slope, bounded by forest all around.  Two big swings, identical to Akha swings in Thailand, stood at the top of the village.  My new friends got me settled into the headman’s house and then I was free to wander a while.
       The village comprised about fifty houses, every one of them traditional ones on stilts, of bamboo and wood, with thatched roofs and open-air attached balcony.  It was the dry season, clear skies and a couple of looms stood beside the houses, women weaving cloth and children playing in the yard.  The girls, about 8-12 years old, held cotton bolls and spindles in their hands but stopped to stare at me.  I examined the loom, chatted with the weaver, and then asked the girls if they knew how to spin.  Yes.  Well then, the Akha girls in Thailand don’t now how.  Why don’t you show me, I’ll take a picture, show them and then they will learn from you.  They all started spinning.
Akha woman weaving beside her house
      Dinner that night was a sumptuous mountain banquet, enlivened by the music of the cassettes.  After dinner when his son, one of the fellows I met in the market, invited me to witness the dèhäw scene, my host insisted I make a recording.   We walked up the steepest path in the village to the dèhäw, already active with a few dozen youths in small groups indulging in competing activities.  We could barely hear anything distinctly, all singing practically drowned out by others singing.
       This is how it used to be in Thai Akha villages, too, I knew, but just in the beginning. Then five or six teenaged girls would show up, start organizing a ring dance and break into those songs I had on the cassettes.  And everyone would join.  Not here.  Nobody assumed any leadership of the chaos.  I made an attempt to record a few groups, but the overall clamor precluded any success.  All I got was Lao Akha cacophony.
girls demonstrating their spinning skills
       Eventually, I gave up and we returned to the headman’s house.  He wanted to hear the results, but when he did he insisted it was no good (that I already knew) and that I had to go back and make another recording.  He didn’t want the Thai Akha to have such a bad impression of Lao Akha.  He helped strengthen me for the steep walk again with a few cups of rice liquor and back up we went.
       Fortunately, by this time most of the rowdy participants had left.  In a relatively quiet corner two middle-aged women were singing, as a duet, one of those ancient and emotional songs like I had recorded in the plains earlier that day.  A few more of these and I had a successful session after all.  The headman was pleased when I returned.  Now he knew that his village’s gift to the Akha in Thailand that I would be taking back with me, songs of the Akha in Laos, would be properly delivered and warmly appreciated.
       It was, of course.  I played those cassettes from Laos dozens of times for Akha in Thailand.  They could understand the different dialect well enough and marveled at how similar were the lyrics, sentiments and manner of singing.  The photographs also fascinated them, both the differences in apparel and the village scenes that looked lifted from their own lives thirty years earlier.
winnowing grain
hornbill trophy in the house of my host
       Most importantly, my Akha friends in Thailand discovered that there was a place where the Akha Way was still intact, so it seemed to them, and that validated it, that made it good.  They were never unified in a single state, but just a myriad autonomous, self-sufficient villages.  They have separated into dozens of sub-groups, spread far apart from each other.  But they still feel an ethnic and cultural unity, proven to me on my journey.  They share a common history, common identity, the same traditional code of behavior, same way of life and outlook on it and, as it turned out, the same music.

Akha children in the mountains of Luang Nam Tha province
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