Review: Music Saves My Soul by Xaisongkham Induangchanthy @Seashorts

Sitting through this film, I have the urge to stand up from my seat, reach through the screen and give Mrs Khamlek a big hug if she'd let me. Baring her soul to the world and sharing her voice through song, the title of this film holds onto the essence of the journey shown. 

Music Saves My Soul by Xaisongkham Induangchanthy follows the milestones and events of Mrs Khamlek's life in Laos. Working as a housekeeper in the day and a singer by night, she shares her life with honesty and no frills. Xaisongkham shares, "Few years ago, I conducted a workshop for local authorities in Luang Prabang on how to use a video camera to document intangible cultural heritage. Mrs Khamlek was one of the people we interviewed. That’s how I met her. Upon hearing her singing voice and a little bit of her background, immediately I was drawn to her and thought that I would one day do a documentary about her."

Initially, he was keen to interview several female performers in Luang Prabang and document their lives, different traditional styles of music and singing. However, the concept eventually evolved into featuring a more personal side of things as well. "When I got to know them, especially Mrs Khamlek, I found that their personal stories were more interesting," he reveals. 

The personal stories certainly serve as an anchor for the film, with the singing an artistic expression and release from the daily tensions of wanting to do better than just survive. Heartbreaking from the hardship and tragedies that occured, it is her strength and passion for singing that really strikes you. Joy radiates from her face when she talks about singing and how calm envelops her while she performs, while also sharing the inconveniences of performance as well. After all, no situation is ever a bed of roses. 

One scene that sticks with me will be her performance at a local temple. Floral decorations are up while people dance cheerfully in their traditional garb. Musicians play their instruments with ease, while Mrs Khamlek and her male singing partner take their place on a platform. Her hand caresses the fresh flowers placed in front of her, a ritual and a blessing to give her the words to sing, before having the same hand touch her face and hair. The entire atmosphere at the temple is lively and everyone is brought together in this sacred place. 

"A temple is a centre of communities. It is where important ceremonies and fairs are held; where people come to cerebrate, make merits, ask for good health and prosperity, and so on. The temple fairs are usually held on special occasions such as at the end of Buddhist lent when rice is harvested. So it is a joyous time to celebrate and make merits. Games and performances are important part of the fairs. People come and enjoy them. Young people will meet and court," Xaisongkham shares some insights of the temples' significance in Laos. 

The level of details speak for themselves in this film, especially for Mrs Khamlek's transformation from housekeeper to singer. From her dress to her make up, the gradual visual change is interesting to witness how these subtleties add up to a new perspective of seeing her. A ritual in itself, the intimacy of this process is captured well on film and precious glimpses into her personal space is granted to the audience. 

But for Xaisongkham, this film goes beyond Mrs Khamlek and her story. It is about documenting the art form while showing appreciation to the senior performers of these traditions. 

"‘Arn Nungseu’ is a style of  traditional singing that is unique to Luang Prabang and its neighbouring provinces. However, Lao people in general, hardly know about it. Currently, it seems access to lesser-known traditional music and performers, to listen to or learn from, is very limited. I want to document this style of music and share with a wider audience so they will know and treasure it. I also want to show respect and appreciation to seasoned performers who have so much to share. In Laos, senior performers, artists in different fields are often overlooked and under-appreciated. It would be a loss if we don’t document and promote them while they are still around and active. I hope that audiences, especially young Lao audiences, will appreciate their work and get inspired to come and learn from them."

On this note, though music and other art forms in Southeast Asia have played a bit part in tradition and culture, they are dying out as audience numbers begin to taper off and new interests are formed. What will happen if these forms are to die out in the future? 

He simply responds, "I think some will eventually die out in the future. Some will evolve and survive; its style and function will change. For example, the style of music heard in ‘Music Saves My Soul’ known as ‘Arn Nungseu’ (literally means ‘reading words with rhythm) used to be performed in the palace for royal family and for soldiers only. Now it can be formed anywhere as long as performers are hired. They can even perform for tourists. Some styles of singings used to be accompanied with few pieces of traditional music instruments. Now they can be performed with an electronic keyboard. Or some traditional styles of singings have turned into dance (listeners used to sit and listen. Now they can dance to it as well)."

And it is with this documentation in mind, with stories and art at the forefront, that Music Saves My Soul is made. 

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