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The “forbidden” songs of the Pkaz K’Nyau (Karen), part of a larger oral tradition (called tha), are on the decline due to lowland Thai modernization campaigns, internalized Baptist missionary attitudes, and the taboo nature of the music itself. Traditionally only heard at funerals and deeply intertwined with the spiritual world, these 7-syllable, 2-stanza poetic couplets housing vast repositories of oral tradition and knowledge have become increasingly feared, banned, and nearly forgotten among Karen populations in Thailand. With the disappearance of the music comes a loss of cosmology, ecological sustainability, and cultural knowledge and identity. Forbidden Songs is an autoethnographic work by Chi Suwichan Phattanaphraiwan, himself an artist and composer working to revive the music’s place in Karen society, that offers an inside glimpse into the many ways in which Karen tradition is regulated, barred, enforced, reworked, interpreted, and denounced. This informative account, rich in ethnographic data, speaks to the multivalent responses to internal and external factors driving modernization in an indigenous and stateless community in northern Thailand.
Originally published in Thai as เพลงต้องห้ามของปกาเกอะญอ. Bangkok: Santisiri Press, 2014.