Sounding the Center: History and Aesthetics in
Thai Buddhist Performance

    -- Deborah Wong, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2001. 256 pages + CD

The Wai Khruu

“The wai khruu is a performance about performance and a ritual about ritual,” (p. xxii) says Deborah Wong in the preface of this interesting and well-written overview of a Thai ritual which honors teachers of music and dance. The ritual is grounded in Buddhism and Brahminism, woven together with animistic beliefs that spiritual power is passed on to developing musicians through a previous line of teachers (both primordial and present-day). The wai khruu is reflexive in that the relationship between Thai ritual and performance is interwoven. There are two sides to this relationship: “first, the ritual is always performed and second, the performance itself is ritual in Thailand” (p. xxi).

The underlying belief in this ritual is that knowledge is power. People believe that the power is found when requested musical knowledge is acquired through a lineage of expert musicians. The teacher becomes the central figure in the transfer of knowledge. Although books are seen as valuable, Thais believe that sacred knowledge should never be openly circulated, but should retain the mystical, sacred sense. So, the precious rituals, texts, and instrumentation involved in the wai khruu are usually passed on orally and selectively.

In Thai culture, one’s musical heritage is identified and grounded by the ability to trace one’s lineage of teachers back to the “Old Father” of the musical line. One is not necessarily born into this line, but he can be grafted in if he as a student demonstrates interest and skill and if his present teacher chooses to bestow the honor. A person’s musical line is said to influence him by helping him gain spiritual power and by bringing knowledge and ability into his musical performances.

During the wai khruu many music and arts deities are summoned one by one through a progression of songs. The pinnacle point in the wai khruu is the summoning and entrance of the “Old Father.” He often reveals himself through entering into a dancer or into the officiant of the wai khruu. Sometimes, however, he will show himself by passing through others in the audience or other participants in the wai khruu ceremony. Participants or audience members who experience this are seen as weak because they are not the facilitators of the wai khruu . Many of these participants have died during or directly following the possession experience.

After the Old Father has shown his presence, the Buddhist monks usually offer a blessing. Those musicians and/or dancers who have shown abilities not only to play or dance, but also teach, “receive the right” to be a teacher. They are usually blessed by means of water and anointed on their foreheads. Musicians’ instruments may also be blessed.

Next, the novice musicians experience the transmission of performance knowledge through nonverbal means (grasp-ing the student’s hands, holding masks over the student’s head, etc.). Experienced teachers work with specific students in these ritual moments to demonstrate a movement to new levels of understanding and musicality. Then, in the final portion of the wai khruu, students are transformed from outsiders to insiders (on deeper levels through the years) through initiation, acknowledgement of progress, and blessing.

Sounding the Center

This book focuses on several aspects of the ritual celebration of the wai khruu. To begin her exploration, Wong gives well-written definitions of Thai terms and ethnographic observations of two quite different wai khruus. She then goes on to discuss the importance of the present teacher’s role in passing on information. Wong also discusses the importance of the relationship between student and teacher, which is much like that of a child to a parent. This binding and bonding between the teacher and student takes place as the child is the passive recipient of knowledge, the empty vessel, and the teacher is the transmitter of knowledge, thus deserving deference and respect as he/she fills the emptiness.

The wai khruu ceremony is filled with music. At the center of this music ritual is the piiphaat ensemble. Wong discusses not only the instruments included in the ensemble, but also the repertoire of songs played in the wai khruu ceremony. Here, Wong moves between looking at the details of the strictly musical wai khruu, which omits the dance rituals, as well as the dance wai khruu which includes both music and dance.

She also gives due notice to the fact that in dance wai khruus every piece in the repertoire that is played is also danced: “The name of any ritual piece implies its dance and vice versa” (p. 107). The music and dance are not merely background entertainment; they are actions used to call or invite the teacher-deities of music and dance to join the ritual event. “They are the ephemeral doorway through which these deities can come and go, a frame of sound that is the sacred in motion” (p. 108).

Wong takes a detailed look at the levels through which a novice musician can progress. Here, she gives us a wonderful glimpse of her own journey in learning the wai khruu repertoire orally, quite a challenge for any Westerner. One piece can take many months to learn. There is no hurried pace, no “song a week;” one just keeps playing and learning progressive portions of a piece. Repetition is vital for this learning method. Accurate retention is key.

Perfection in playing is very important in many of the pieces, since these pieces are interacting with deities. The music piece, “Ong Phra Phiraap,” is the piece most feared and respected by performers. If the performers do not have enough skill to play this piece well, then another piece is substituted. If the piece is played poorly, Phra Phiraap (the deity whom it is for) will release his anger, which has been known to result in illness, accidents, and death.

The ritual music repertoire, then, functions for Thais as a musical prayer. It is formulaic in nature, invoking and supplicating deities (p. 135). The ritual text, however, (spoken predominantly by the officiant of the ceremony) is edited and altered by the officiant, who thus makes it his own. It is given a uniqueness and newness of life through each officiant’s unique expression of it. It is still sacred. It still holds power. It is, however, moldable. In contrast, the core of the ritual music repertoire must stay purely the same.

Wong discusses three of the great past officiants and some of their disciples. She weaves in a discussion of Thai history in relation to the arts. At several times in history, there were concerns that Thai classical music and dance might be lost. However, perseverance led to its resurgence, and the Thai kings played major roles in re-instating and validating it. Presently, there are both government sponsored and private organizations that are responsible for continuing to preserve the purity of the Thai music and dance forms.

In the second to last chapter, Wong moves outside of the wai khruu discussion to consider the ritual in terms of gender. She shares her own struggles as a feminist trying to enter and function in what she sees as a male-dominated and gender-defined Thai culture. This chapter focuses on three women and their possession by the Old Father. It seems that Wong is using these examples to make the point that a woman is able to invite the great spirit to possess her, thus becoming the central figure in the wai khruu ceremony. During the time of the women’s possession the officiant is usually silent and inactive. The female, possessed by the Old Father, becomes the central focus.

This chapter seems to be ill-fitted for such a lovely work because Wong moves from reporting on the material ethnographically, historically, and insightfully, to making broad brush-stroke criticisms of Thai culture and Buddhist practices. She chooses to include statements about discrimination against women and how the Buddhist religion promotes male domination and female exclusion. Thai culture does not usually appreciate such attacks on its religious foundation. Critique in this way is usually seen as showing disrespect. Even if Wong’s statements and insights are true, it might have been better to place her personal agenda in a separate article.

In her final chapter Wong discusses the changes that have occurred in the wai khruu over the past many years. She does articulate in this chapter the importance of knowing that Thai traditional music and dance forms are not an invented tradition, but are well rooted in the historical fiber of the Thai culture. She notes the interesting fact that in spite of culture change (especially Westernization) and tourism, the Thai wai khruu has maintained its value to the Thai.

Reflection

It would be difficult for Wong to cover every detail of the wai khruu in such limited space. She successfully tries to cover a large amount of material. However, she does miss some details of the wai khruu as defined by Montri Tramote (whom she writes about extensively) and his students. For example, Montri noted that the wai khruu is not only a means of paying respect to past and present teachers; it is also a way of transferring merit (a Buddhist practice) to the late teachers. This is a very important aspect of the wai khruu ceremony and should have been noted.

One other example of unaddressed detail is Montri’s instructions for blessing participants. Wong observed that either a candle or a finger is used for anointing the foreheads of participants. Montri maintained that each finger has a specific meaning and that it is important to use specific fingers for anointing. The Ring Finger, in Brahmin tradition, is identified with goodness and beauty and, according to Montri, should be the finger used for anointing the forehead with white paste. The Thumb (the wedding-anointing finger) is also used for support. Such details, though seemingly small, are important aspects of the Thai wai khruu.

Conclusion

Deborah Wong’s book, all in all, is a well-written and accurate glimpse of the Thai wai khruu ceremonies for music and dance. This book, for the most part, is inviting and insightful. There is also an accompanying CD, which makes the sounds she seeks to describe come alive.


Morton, David. 1976. The Traditional Music of Thailand. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press.
Tramote, Montri, Dontri Tramote, and Silapee Tramote. 1994. The Wai Khru Ceremony in Thai Classical Music. Bangkok, Thailand: Office of the National Culture Commission.

    --reviewed by Mary Beth Saurman

Published in Vol.2, No.1 of

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Artists in Christian Testimony
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