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AwHui (Dance-Music) and Ethnic Identity among the Lahu Na Shehleh of Northern Thailand

Jacquetta Hill, Nannaphat Saenghong, Kate Grim-Feinberg, and Monica FA W Santos

This article introduces cultural beliefs and practices of the people of five Lahu Na Shehleh villages of Northern Thailand, with a special focus on their dances and music, which they refer to as AwHui.1 The term AwHui refers simultaneously to dance and music, understood as unitary.2 After an introduction to the cultural context in which Lahu Na Shehleh dancing takes place, we describe the structure of the dances in relationship to the musical structure. We also document the Lahu Na Shehleh's growing recognition of cultural loss, especially of their music-dance practices, which, in conjunction with key rituals, sustain their social and political solidarity, their good health system, and their sense of identity. Finally, we address the possible place of our scholarly work in supporting the villagers' current motivation to organize cultural conservation efforts that will address their problem of cultural loss.

     The Lahu Na Shehleh are a minority within an ethnic minority in Thailand, a condition that feeds the complexity and challenge of cultural conservation everywhere. On the one hand, they confront the forces of assimilation into Thai national culture and, on the other, the very real threat of disappearance in the merging of categories of kinds of populations. This happens not only in scholarly writings but also through government documents and media labeling. For several centuries, the Lahu have encountered, appropriated from, and defended themselves against powerful political entities—the Chinese, the Tai, the Shan, the Burmese, and now the Siamese. For two centuries, they have had to deal with foreign and domestic Christian missions (Walker 2003). Currently, with a shift in Thai national policy toward more cultural preservation, they now fear most of all, not Thai National Buddhist assimilation, but the obliteration of the religious foundations grounded in their dance-music practices by the proselytizing of global Christian missionaries, especially from other Lahu converts (Nishimoto 2000).

     The cultural complex in question—the dance-music and accompanying ritual practices that comprise their religious and medical system—is critical to Lahu Na Shehleh villagers' sense of their own identity. In addition, the recurrent rituals associated with the dance-music renew and strengthen not only social solidarity among households in each Lahu Na Shehleh village and local cluster of villages (Jones 1968) but also the networks of households among the many Lahu Na Shehleh villages across Northern Thailand.

     Following a brief account of the immediate cultural contexts in which Lahu Na Shehleh dance-music occurs, we summarize the preliminary results of our analyses of the AwHui. Developing a sound understanding of Lahu Na Shehleh conceptions and practice of the AwHui was a primary objective and focus of the analyses, further details of which can be found in the accompanying article "When One Good Shot Is Not Enough: Writing Lahu Na Sheleh Dance With Labanotation" (this issue).

Dancing Circles

On return visits to mountain villages of the Lahu Na Shehleh, it is a good idea to check the number of fenced dance circles in the village as soon as possible after arrival greetings are over. That tells one how many villages the Lahu Na Shehleh residents consider to be on the settlement site, whatever Thai government officials or the nearby development station officials think is the case. In this manner, the central place of dance-music in Lahu Na Shehleh culture is clearly signaled by the political geography of the village. Every village has an earthen dance circle surrounded by a fence, and each dance circle indicates the existence of a separate religious-political unit.

Village dance circle


Figure 1. Video: Village Dance Circle

     Each dance circle in the settlement has its religious leaders—a priestly married couple, the KehLuMa and KehLuPa, and its own village chiefly couple. (The Lahu are renowned for their gender equality; see Du 2002 and Hill 2004.) Changes in the number and location of dance circles, or lack of changes, are clues to recent political-religious histories of peace and harmony or conflict and upheavals in the settlement, as well as to changes or continuity in a village's religious and political leadership. The fenced dance circle, CaKhuiKui, is iconic of Lahu Na Shehleh culture more broadly, and ritual practices involving the circle, along with its dance-music, create iconic links with Lahu Na Shehleh identity. The CaKhuiKui is a sacred piece of village architecture that on sight signals that this is a Lahu Na Shehleh village—not any of the other varieties of Lahu nor any other highland minority village. The significance of the dancing and associated ritual activities for the construction and performance of Lahu identity was confirmed in an interview with Ca Thaw, the (male) priest of Huey Muang village. In the video clip in Figure 2, he makes clear in his answers the essential connection between the conduct of the dance and being Lahu Na Shehleh.

Village dance circle


Figure 2. Video: Identity and the Dance

A transcript of relevant discourse in Figure 2 reveals the following questions and answers:

Ca LaGu: Is dance important to the Lahu [that is, Lahu Na Shehleh]?

KehLuPa (male priest): If you do the ceremony, you must do the dance. Rain or no rain, you must do the dance. Our ancestors said we must do at least seven circuits around the TehPvu at the CaKhuiKui.

Nannaphat Saenghong: If no one wanted to dance, what would happen?

KehLuPa: If they don't want to dance, then they practice a different religion.

Nannaphat Saenghong: If the day comes when nobody dances, will there be Lahu Na Shehleh?

KehLuPa: There would be no Lahu. You become whatever you practice.

In short, dance or change your religion!

     There are potent religious connections between the altar (BoBa) in the priestly couple's house, the altars of all the main houses in the village, and the dance circle with its flat-topped earthen mound (TehPvu) at its center. Any ceremony requiring a dance is preceded by sacrifice of a pig and a feast. The dance must begin with lighting of sacred beeswax candles in the BoBa of the priest's house, which are attached to a special basket of the sponsoring household and carried to the fenced dance circle by a member of that household accompanied by a musician and the great naw (free-reed mouth organ), the NawKuMa. The dance can begin only after the basket with burning candles is placed on the TehPvu, and both carrier and musician have kowtowed (squatted, brought clasped hands to forehead, and bowed their heads three times), and then danced seven circuits counterclockwise around the TehPvu, to the music of AwHui A (see following article, "When One Good Shot . . ." in this issue). This sets the direction of movement throughout the rest of the dance. The dance must always end with the musician playing the NawKuMa (sometimes the NawTsui) while circuiting the TehPvu clockwise, and, followed by the carrier of the basket with burning candles, the musician hurries back to the BoBa of the sponsoring household where, with sacred chant and appropriate moves by the PehTuPa, (ordinary prayer chanter) or the KehLuPa (priest), the candles are extinguished and a second feast follows.

     The houses with these altars become sites for the mutual exchange of the emblematic sticky rice cakes during the New Year ceremonial season. Each such household sends out a team of its youths and young adults to carry out the exchanges—in one's own village and every other Lahu Na Shehleh village visited during the New Year. The recurrent ritual exchanges renew social solidarity among households in each village and in regional networks of households among the many villages.

     Thus, religious connections are made apparent in the well-defined movements of sacred objects such as the burning beeswax candles and the sticky rice cakes during this ceremonial season. The dancing and its music constitute a religious-medical event that brings AwBu—good health, protection from ill fortune, and harmony in social relations. These anticipated outcomes justify the extensive financial investment in sponsoring and participating in these ceremonies. They are considered to be occasions for social participation as well as aesthetically significant events.

Who Are the Lahu?

The Lahu are a Tibeto-Burmese-speaking highland people with villages widely scattered through the highland borderlands of southwestern China, eastern Burma, northern Laos, and North and Northwestern Thailand. Recent population counts estimate there are three-quarters of a million Lahu in total, of whom approximately 50,000 to 70,000 now reside in Thailand, living among a mosaic of villages that house other distinctive ethnic populations. Until the 1970s, Lahu were highland-swidden farmers, who moved every five to six years in search of new land and the security to cultivate it (Walker 2003). Now "settled down," culture and economic change are rapid.3

Figure 3. Map of Thailand, Village Location (Google Maps, Village location approximate latitude, longitude 19.173596, 99.409683)

     The Lahu Na Shehleh view of the Thailand-based Lahu is that they are made up of two main groups. They refer to themselves as the Lahu Na or Black Lahu, and name all the other Lahu Pa Li. The Pa Li, in turn, call the Lahu Na Shehleh subgroup, not Lahu Na, but simply Shehleh. The latter is not, however, a name favored by the Lahu Na Shehleh villagers themselves.

Figure 4. Views of Lahu Groupings

     In contrast to this local categorization of ethnic groups, most linguists and anthropologists view the Lahu in Thailand as consisting of four subgroups: Black Lahu, who call themselves Lahu Na; Red Lahu or Lahu Nyi; Lahu Shehleh who also refer to themselves as Lahu Na; and a fourth very distinctive Lahu dialect group, the Yellow Lahu or Lahu Shi (Bradley 1979; Matisoff 1988). Respecting the villagers self-reference, we shall use the name Lahu Na Shehleh. It is well to note that, while all Lahu groups have much in common, including linguistic similarity, the Lahu Na Shehleh are distinctive from others in important ways, especially in their rituals, dance-music, and musical instruments.

     While such differences may seem inconsequential to outsiders, the fact that Lahu Na Shehleh differ from other Lahu in their dance-music takes on special significance when we realize that these differences are not generally recognized in academic circles. The specific dances and associated music for each of these ethnic groups have not been described and analyzed in published sources to date. For example, although German ethnomusicologist Gretel Schworer conducted research on Lahu free-reed mouth organ music among several Lahu subdivisions, she based her reports on individual interviews with musicians and chanting ceremonies, but never considered performances of the music with its dances in their social contexts (Schworer 1982).

     In the literature, Lahu Na Shehleh practices are often grouped with the Red and (other) Black Lahu peoples and regarded as essentially the same. For example, the section on the Lahu in The Garland Handbook of Southeast Asian Music (Uchida and Catlin 2008) makes no mention of the differences in the Lahu Na Shehleh dances, even though the authors describe the dances of other Lahu. The reader is thus left to assume there is nothing distinctive about Lahu Na Shehleh dance-music and to conclude, inaccurately, that Lahu Na Shehleh dance-music is the same as that of other Lahu groups. This erasure is significant because it endangers the Lahu Na Shehleh's growing desire to preserve core features of their distinctive cultural practices.

     Paradoxically, from two distinct sources of evidence, the villagers themselves and anthropologist Paul Durrenberger,5 we know that Lahu Na Shehleh dances are actually more akin to the dance-music practices of another Tibeto-Burmese-language-speaking minority, the Lisu, who live in nearby villages in the mosaic of ethnic minority villages of the Northern Thai highlands. Our own interviews with Lahu Na Shehleh musicians and dancers confirm this. They tell us that, when they go to nearby Lisu villages to participate in dances, they can join in immediately, in contrast to their experience at Pa Li villages where they must first learn new dance steps and their relationship to the music. Equally interesting, the use of the small free-reed mouth organ, the NawKehLeh, now most favored by the five Lahu Na Shehleh villages for dancing (but not for religious ritual) was adopted from the Lisu in the early 1980s. It was not borrowed from the other Lahu groups (Pa Li) who use only the smaller Naw musical instruments.

     Thus, Lahu Na Shehleh dance-music becomes of special interest not only because it is so intimately embedded in religious practices and their sense of a distinctive group identity (and, therefore, necessary to a rich and accurate ethnographic understanding) but also because of the long-term goals of the Lahu Na Shehleh themselves. We feel it is important to document and present in detail the full character of the music-dance practices in support of the villagers' own moves toward their conservation and preservation as a distinct historical reality, rather than let them disappear through the reductive external process of combining indigenous categories.

Cultural Context of a Dance-Music Event

The Lahu Na Shehleh dance called CaKhui is one event in a series: animals are sacrificed and eaten during the daylight hours, accompanied by compulsory ritual practices performed at the BoBa or altar, seeking AwBu—good health and fortune, abundant crops, and harmonious human relations from the leading spirit GuiSa (Hill 2004). Except for the first four days of the New Year celebration, dances take place in the evening, beginning around 8 p.m. and ending when dancers tire, with ritual closure and a return to the altar of the sponsoring household to conclude with feasting on food that remains from the afternoon feast. Dancing in this context is simultaneously a religious, social, participatory, entertainment, and aesthetic event.

     At Lahu New Year, which happens with the new moon, often around the time of Chinese New Year, all the villages in this "multivillage" community (Jones 1968) visit one another to dance, feast, and pay formal ritual calls on the households with altars (Plath and Hill 1993). Indeed, the schedule of Lahu Na Shehleh village New Year festivals throughout the Northern Thai regions depends on coordinating the celebrations and visits across the region. By religious interdiction, physically demanding work in the field is suspended for this period, beginning on the day of the dark of the moon and ending on the day of the full moon. So, there is energy and enthusiasm to spare for New Year activities and ceremonies.

     The essential condition for a fulsome New Year celebration is a good harvest of the main crops, rice for staple food, and corn for cash. Cash from these sales provides for the purchase of abundant food and materials for fancy dress and costuming. In the village, there is near frenzy of sartorial activity by the women, who are the tailors and seamstresses of Lahu Na Shehleh society, as they sew and appliqué new garments. Rice for the feast and for feeding visitors must be secured, if not from one's own harvest then by purchase. The favored food of New Year season, pork, gets devoted attention. One must fatten the pigs one has on hand and scout out nearby farmers who have a supply of the right sized pigs for New Year feasting, especially for guests.

     On the night of the dark of the moon, the formal New Year season begins, initiated by the making of sticky rice cakes, first in the house of the KehLu, followed by all the other houses in the village. These rice cakes are used in paired exchanges throughout the New Year among houses in the Lahu Na Shehleh village to symbolize religious solidarity, not only among the households of a village but among the households of the multivillage community and among households of Lahu Na Shehleh villages throughout the Northern Thailand region. On the night of the new moon, the first New Year's dance, an all-night dance, begins the period of the New Year season known as Female (big) New Year, KhawLuiMa.

     During the New Year season (or KhawSuiCa) when visitors from other villages join in, the dance circle becomes packed, and dancing reaches the year's annual crescendo of visual and musical excitement and enjoyment. Costumes and women's fashions are a special passion at New Year festivals. The women's long jackets in white-bordered and multicolor appliqué outline the movements of their close-order steps, as radius after radius of women dancers wheel around the central candle-laden baskets, like colorful spokes of a Ferris wheel around its hub (see Figure 1).

     As more and more dancers arrive, the men form short lines clasping hands, their rhythmic steps marking a percussion beat. The single dancing musician sets the AwHui, that is, he decides which sequence of dance-music units or AwHui will be enacted.

     As momentum builds, the women's precision steps take on the quality of close-order drill, keyed to the loud slaps of the men's feet as they step to the duple (4/4) beat of the music. The circling parade increases in speed as strings of dancing men join with hands clasped into one long, curving line behind the musician, taking giant steps with swinging foot movements that rise to leaps. Outside the circle, the sound can be heard throughout the village, sounding somewhat like a disciplined military corps on parade. The excited cries of the men—"CaKhui Chaw Ja" [Dancing is great fun!] "CaKhui Da Ja" [Dancing the very best!]—spread the news that this dance is a parade full of enthusiastic delight. Out of the crowd of moving bodies arises a rhythmic composition built up from slaps of the men's feet and brushing rasps of the women's sliding steps—an ordered beauty of orchestrated bodies and sounds, a dance of unusual dimensions in the northern hills of Thailand.

Music in the AwHui

For analytic purposes and because of Western disciplinary specializations that separate music from dance, we first discuss some features of the music as it relates to dancing, before turning to the dances themselves.

     Five basic kinds of instruments are played for dances, four wind instruments and one string instrument. The vertical flute, called the Seh, will not be discussed here because it is seldom played for dances, although it is often played for entertainment and relaxation by women. Three of the wind instruments are free-reed mouth organs, with five pipes penetrating a gourd 'sounding chest.' The pipes are held in the musician's hands and fingered to control the musical tones.

Figure 5. Two NawKehLehs

NawKehLeh (Ca MmPaNeh)

NawKuMa (Ca SaRaBui)

NawTsui (Ca Dui)

Tu[ng] (Ca Paw)
Figure 6. Audio of Four Musical Instruments

     The NawKuMa is the tallest and most sacred of all instruments and is used to play sacred ritual music for ceremonial purposes. The music of the NawKuMa usually and preferably opens and closes the dances, but its bass pitch is used to play only one melody for an actual dance AwHui. The NawTsui, of medium size compared to the NawKuMa, is used to play several dance tunes, as well as for ceremonies. While higher pitched than the NawKuMa, its timbre is still subdued. Like the NawKuMa, it is far less favored for dances than the third and much smaller NawKehLeh. The shorter bamboo pipes of the smallest Naw play a higher pitch, sounding a sweeter, louder melody than the other two Naws. Dancers find its melody a beautiful sound that they can readily hear, so its music is the most popular among dancers. The string lute, called the Tung, with its edgy, banjo-like sound, delivers a clear, peppy beat. Before the early 1980s when the NawKehLeh was adopted, the Tung was the favored dance instrument in the hands of a good musician. The music for chanting rituals, played only by the NawKuMa and the NawTsui, was played at a very slow tempo, sounding almost nonmetrical. At times, this music was recognizable as very slow, nonmetered versions of dance melodies.

     No drums, gongs, cymbals, or other percussive instruments are used by the Lahu Na Shehleh, in contrast to the music of other Lahu subgroups (see Walker 2003, plates 46 and 47). Instead, the male dancers keep a metronomic pulse throughout the music, using their feet to create a rhythmic slap step to the ground, sustaining an audible, tight rhythmic structure. The men's slap step and the brush foot sound of the women's steps between counts are the percussive instruments of Lahu Na Shehleh dance music. These can be heard in the video in Figure 1.

     One after another, for as long as each can sound his instrument, a single male dancing musician provides the music for the dance. After the first compulsory AwHui (AwHui A; see Figure 8), the choice of musical pieces is up to the musician. The musician's own repertoire of AwHui, his musical skills and his endurance, set the order and duration of AwHui in his portion of the dance. An exception to this usual practice of one musician at a time occurs during New Year, when more than one visiting musician is circuiting the TehPvu for each visiting village and when the crowds of dancers at New Year dances require more than one musician to be heard clearly. Among the Lahu Na Shehleh, only men play for the dances, unlike the Red Lahu subgroup where women also play (Schworer 1982).

     Based on a careful reassessment of Sarah Mosher's musical transcriptions and Grim-Feinberg and Saenghong's movement transcriptions, we found that there is no single melody for every dance sequence; rather, there are several different melodies that can go with a dance sequence, but each melody must have the same pattern of beats so that dancers can keep their pace and place for that particular dance sequence.

Dancing the AwHui

People who grow up participating in Lahu Na Shehleh dance circles can master numerous AwHui without any conscious awareness of their structure. It is apparent that we are dealing with tacit, embodied knowledge that dancers and dancing musicians have acquired through experience and practice but that they do not articulate verbally (Dougherty and Keller 1982).

     From the Lahu Na Shehleh perspective, we know that the dance and music components of AwHui are inextricably linked. Lahu Na Shehleh dancers say that the music tells them which sequence of steps and phrases to perform, when to switch sequences, and which sequence to switch to at any given moment. The dancing musician makes these musical decisions, and the other dancers follow along without missing a beat. His coordinated unpredictability may be an example of "formulaic variation" common in participatory dance-music events (See "When One Good . . ." this issue; and Turino 2009: 113).

     Saenghong, our Lahu dance consultant, worked with Grim-Feinberg in creating a Labanotation score of Lahu Na Shehleh dance (see "When One Good . . ." for more details on this process). The score is based on analysis of several hours of village dancing on video, in addition to one-on-one dance lessons with Saenghong teaching Grim-Feinberg at the University of Illinois. Grim-Feinberg's Labanotation score identifies the units of steps (that is, body movements) that combine to make up an AwHui and are consistently set to regular beats, following a consistent cadence. Labeling the combinations of steps "dance phrases" in the absence of any indigenous term, she established that each dance phrase ends with a pause of indefinite length before the next phrase begins. The pause lasts approximately the amount of time it takes the musician to take a breath before continuing with the next phrase. Dances are made up of different combinations and sequences of phrases. All phrases are made up of combinations and sequences of ten possible steps. Grim-Feinberg and Saenghong have so far identified thirteen phrases and sixteen dances, or AwHui, based on combinations drawn from those ten steps (see Figure 7). While our ethnomusicologist, Sarah Mosher, discovered earlier that the melodies that musicians play for the same dance may have musical differences, analysis of the dance movements showed that the music must have a cadence that fits the particular sequence of phrases and pauses that dancers hear as a given AwHui.

     In the dancing we documented with video, we identified sixteen AwHui and thirteen phrases. There may, however, be additional AwHui and additional phrases in the repertoire that we were unable to document.

Figure 7. Component Structure of AwHui

     This structure has a generative quality when one considers all the possible ways that ten steps could be combined within different sequences to form larger phrases, and then all the ways that these phrases could be put together to form different AwHui. While there are some limitations in which steps may be juxtaposed, nevertheless, the possible number of AwHui that dancers might have to keep track of is enormous.

     Figure 8 shows the phrases of AwHui A, transcribed in Labanotation. In each transcribed phrase, the left column shows the women's steps and right column the men's steps. The direction of reading is from bottom to top. Letter labels for AwHui and their constituent phrases are used for analytical purposes only. Since Lahu dancers and musicians do not name or label AwHui and their components, we labeled them in our own way using alphabetical order, starting with the first AwHui identified in the videos (AwHui A) and continuing in alphabetic order according to the order in which they were performed. We have labeled each AwHui with a capital letter and each phrase with a lower case letter.

Figure 8. AwHui A Dance Phrases

     AwHui A starts with what we have called "phrase a," which consists of movements that take two counts to execute. We have added count numbers (in parentheses) for analytical purposes, but our understanding is that Lahu Na Shehleh dancers do not regularly count as they dance. Once they have performed the first two counts (phrase a), the dancers go into phrase b, which takes eight counts. They then repeat phrase a, followed by a four-count phrase c. The numbered counts notated in each phrase represent a regular, steady rhythm, in contrast to the pause at the end of each phrase whose duration is not a predictable fraction of a count. AwHui are performed cyclically, and both dancers and musicians can start and end at any point in the cycle, depending on the dancing musician's choice. AwHui A would be a repetition of phrases abacabacabacabac. The cycle could, however, start with phrase b or c and end with phrase a or b. Our identification of the conceptual beginning and end of an AwHui is based on Saenghong's experiential knowledge.

Figure 9. AwHui C Dance Phrases

     AwHui C in Figure 9 shows only the women's movements, and the reader can identify in the repetition of phrases a, b, and c, the same components of AwHui A. In AwHui C, however, the phrases are performed in a different order, and with a new phrase "f," added in the middle. The repeated cycle of AwHui C would be bafacabafacabafacabaf.

     Figures 10 and 11 identify each of the ten steps that are utilized to compose all the phrases. As with phrases and AwHui, labels for the steps are our analytical labels rather than names used by dancers. Dancers do not give names for the steps they perform, only sometimes using one of the movements to refer to a particular AwHui. Also, as with phrases and AwHui, we drew on Saenghong's embodied knowledge as a Lahu Na Shehleh dancer to make distinctions among steps. We have notated in Figure 11 each regular variation that we identified among women's and men's versions of each step. In several instances the variation is in the timing of the step. Two of the women's versions of "And" steps start after the strong beat or count. The gap in our notation here does not indicate a jump (as one would normally assume when there is a gap in the support column of a Labanotation staff), but rather that the step in question begins after the beat.

Figure 10. Ten Dance Steps

Figure 11. A Labanotation Version of Ten Steps

     In the dance, the women and men are always moving in the same direction, but the men travel farther around the outside of the circle, while the women do smaller and more controlled movements as they travel around the inner circle. The women's and men's steps reflect these spatial patterns. The steps that we call "Together/T" and "Brush/Br" are performed only by the women. When they perform an in-place "Together" step, the men perform forward-moving steps. Men also perform a "Turn" step that women do not perform. Men always turn in one direction to do one particular step and then turn back again to face forward in the circle. Turning between steps allows men to shift their facing so that they continue to travel around the circle whether they are stepping to the front, side, or back. Women, in contrast, progress around the circle only when performing a forward step. Women's back steps move them in reverse, while men continue to travel around the circle and women's side steps stay more or less in place in relation to the path of the circle.

     Differences in women's and men's steps also reflect the ways that each group marks the cadence of the AwHui. The women-only "Brush" step is performed with feet close to the ground between small steps, making a sound that marks the off beat. While women perform a "Brush" between steps, men lift their legs high and take large steps that land with a resounding slap, marking the down beat. In Figure 1, the viewer can both observe and listen carefully for the slaps and brushes of men's and women's steps in the Lahu Na Shehleh dance circle. As mentioned above, here we can hear how the body movements themselves play the role of the percussion instruments that are used by other Lahu subgroups.

     The remaining seven steps are performed simultaneously by women and men, with gendered differences in their execution. For the "Right Back" step, we have only provided notation for the women's version. This is because Saenghong confirmed the existence of this step based on her experience, but we were not able to locate it for men in a video or through conversation with a male dancer. Based on our knowledge of AwHui structure, we believe that men do perform a "Right Back" step simultaneously with women, but the men's dance pattern of continuing to progress around the circle even while stepping backward leaves us unsure of precisely how they perform a "Right Back" step. Logically, men could turn toward the outside of the circle to execute this step, but this hypothetical movement looks awkward and inconsistent with the aesthetic of the dance, leading us to believe that men have an alternative version of a "Right Back" step.

     The dancing musician decides how many times dancers repeat an AwHui sequence. There is not any set order in which the AwHui are always performed (except for the first and last AwHui, which is always AwHui A). He might play the music for it just twice, or he might repeat it a dozen times. The dancing musician can switch to a different AwHui at any point in the current sequence. He might switch after going through the whole sequence, or he might switch to any other AwHui that he knows how to play at some point in the middle of the sequence of phrases that make up the AwHui he has been playing. Dancers must listen constantly to know whether to repeat the pattern or switch to a new pattern. As soon as dancers hear the musical switch, they must figure out quickly which pattern of steps comes next, without missing a beat in the music.

     Expert dancers are able to make the switches we have described mainly by listening to the dancing musician. Even dancers who are not expert, including people like Saenghong who do not live in the village full time and do not participate regularly, pick up on the switch quickly by watching and feeling the movements of more expert dancers around them, in addition to listening to the music.

     Further transcription and analysis of this dance-music are described in "When One Shot Is Not Enough: Writing Lahu Na Shehleh Dance with Labanotation;" but, clearly, there is more work to be done to provide an adequate account of the dances and dancing. However, Grim-Feinberg's identification of the "phrase" as the unit of steps and body movements that combine to make up the AwHui, and recognition that the phrases are consistently set to regular beats or counts, is a major step forward in understanding the structure of Lahu Na Shehleh dance-music.

     Further, Grim-Feinberg's discovery that every phrase is marked by a pause in the body movements, which was not notated by Mosher in the music, is a second significant step toward understanding the structure of Lahu Na Shehleh dances. While the melodies that musicians play for the same dance may have certain musical differences, they must have the right cadence that fits the particular combination and sequence of phrases that comprise a given AwHui.

     At this point, the question of what value this kind of detailed analysis has for Lahu Na Shehleh purposes arises. We turn now to consider this question in the larger context of Thailand's government policy toward culture diversity and the involvement of the villagers in utilizing the work described here to further their interests in conserving their cultural heritage through organizing culture learning centers.

Thai Policy and Local Cultural Conservation

Current Thai government policies regarding cultural preservation and transmission of local cultures support the ideal of culture learning centers and provides limited funding, as well as information and guidelines for organizing those centers. The Thai government's policy toward cultural diversity was pushed forward by several forces, but there were three main ones (Leepreecha 2003). There has been a proliferation of NGO's (nongovernmental organizations) promoting localism in their emphasis on the value systems of cultures and local wisdom as an alternative approach to economic development. UNESCO (the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) and OECD (the Organization for Economic and Cultural Development) introduced the life-long learning concept into Thai economic thinking, especially during the rescue from the Asian financial crisis of the 1990s. The economic and governmental structural reforms of the 1999 constitution led to decentralization of some political powers to local administrative bodies.

     Thai government policy toward conservation of cultural diversity began to change in 2008. The Thai prime minister's statement in his 2008 inaugural speech to the Council of Ministers iterated a policy of support for "cultural learning spaces for the public," for the "promotion and preservation of Thai culture in all its aspects, including local traditions and wisdom" (Royal Thai Government 2008). In 2008, the National Culture Commission published a handbook titled Standard Principles and Practice of Cultural Learning Centers, which states that centers "can be a place or center containing knowledge and activities that relate to cultural life which has value for people in communities; . . . and [that] emphasizes the transmission of knowledge and understanding of that particular cultural life to people in their community and to people outside their society" (Office of the National Culture Commission 2008). National culture learning centers would be funded by the government, but "peoples" culture learning centers are funded by local, personal, and private sources. An additional source of Thai government funds is channeled through the Ministry of Education's Office of the Commission on Basic Education (K-12) and then to the Provincial Educational Service Areas and on through administrative district levels to local schools as discretionary funds to be used by school principals (Khru Yai) to support local educational projects. For example, in 2009, the principal of Huey Muang Primary School decided to allocate this discretionary budget to a culture conservation project. In sum, the movement toward culture learning centers provides important opportunities to local communities and ethnic minority groups to create and show pride in their own local practice and culture.

Lahu Village Culture Conservation

This new policy stimulated a cultural conservation project through the small discretionary school funding, one that engaged Lahu village experts in dance and music to teach elementary school-age Lahu children to dance and to play the music for dancing.

     Early in the first decade of the twenty-first century, two villages among the five with whom this project has been involved had collected artifacts for the purpose of establishing a village museum. That beginning readily transformed into a strong interest in establishing cultural learning centers, especially as villagers' fears of cultural extinction heightened. This is occurring in response to a flood of new forms of media, including Internet technology, television, CD's, DVD's, karaoke machines, and cell phones with connections to radio and television. In addition, many young people experience long periods of absence from social and cultural participation in village events due to schooling and urban wage work. All these factors are portents of imminent change. Paradoxically, however, many Lahu Na Shehleh currently feel most threatened by the growing presence of, and pressure from, the Christian proselytizing efforts of other Lahu, well financed and backed by foreign international resources.

     The interest in establishing culture learning centers raised the question for us of ways in which the project to record and analyze Lahu Na Shehleh dance and its music could contribute to preservation efforts. By the summer of 2009, our analysis of the music and dances had reached a stage of development sufficient for us to try out the idea that the movement transcriptions might be useful to the villagers in teaching and learning in contexts where expert dancers and musicians, as well as the appropriate context for participatory learning, were not readily available.

     We visited the village again in late summer of 2009 en route to the United States from a conference in Yunnan, China. We seized on the unexpected presence of NaDuLui, an expert woman dancer who happened not to be working in the fields that day. We showed her a short example of our work and interviewed her about its potential usefulness to the villagers (or lack thereof). To her great pleasure, we showed NaDuLui video clips of the dancing in her own village during past New Year festivals. Saenghong then showed her the Labanotation transcription of the same dance, in colors, explaining and demonstrating how the dance steps and movements were iconically represented in the graphic signs of the Laban script.

Lahu dancer and Labanotation


Figure 12. Video: Lahu Dancer Views Labanotation

     NaDuLui quickly grasped the idea of how the dance movements and choreographic structure were represented in the color-coded Laban script. She explained that the movement in the video and its iconic transcription could be understood better than written words and learned readily by villagers like her who could not read or write a spoken language. However, she emphasized that both the video recording of the dancing and audio recording of the music would be needed alongside the Labanotation. This interview confirmed that the movement transcription, along with visual and auditory representations, could indeed be meaningful and useful to learners who had neither the live presence and performances of experts from whom to learn the dances and dancing nor the dancing and musical events in village context in which to participate while learning.

     After returning to our university, through cell phone conversations we learned of another village venture with cultural transmission of dancing, this time in the local primary school at the initiative of the discerning school principal. Since the Thai government issued its policy in support of local culture preservation, it has been implemented through the allocation of funds to local government units channeled through provincial governments and to local schools channeled through Provincial Educational Service Areas. The principal of the Huey Muang Primary School used these discretionary funds to hire a local Lahu woman dancer (who was already employed by the school for other services) and a Lahu male musician to teach the children from first to sixth grade the Lahu Na Shehleh dances. Indeed, the venture was so successful that plans were voiced to hire the Lahu musician in the next school year to teach a group of Lahu boys to play Lahu instruments for dancing, using the four types of instruments used for dance music. This elementary school principal wisely respects the legitimacy of Lahu expertise in dance and music in her choice of instructors. Yet the following year the funds for this purpose just did not materialize.

     The Lahu children tried out their new dancing and musical knowledge at New Year time in the dance circle under the eyes of older youths, parents, and elders of their own and other Lahu visiting villages. Village elders were especially impressed with the young students' excitement about Lahu dances and dancing. To them, it was remarkable that their children were so interested in Lahu Na Shehleh dances and in continuing to dance, a heartfelt desire of the Lahu Na Shehleh people.

     Figure 12 above shows the enthusiastic response of a village dancer to a sampling of our video and Labanotation analysis, further confirming villagers' interest in organizing a more permanent culture conservation establishment within the villages. While this flurry of current activity is no assurance of long-term support from the Thai state, it illustrates how quickly local communities will take up even small flows of resources for culture conservation enterprises when offered the opportunity. Yet, the history of development of this kind of enterprise in Thailand, as well as in other global locations, warns that much more effort and investment will be required to design and establish a self-supporting organization to place culture conservation on sustainable grounds (Hendry 2005).

     As a scholarly study, this brief analysis of Lahu Na Shehleh dance and its music is a productive first step into issues concerning the writing of non-Western dance forms and their music. This particular study provides a ground of precise data that we hope will contribute to comparative studies of the arts of dance and music of other highland minorities in Northern Thailand.


Research and startup fieldwork for this article was funded in part by the Center for East Asia and Pacific Studies at the University of Illinois. We thank those who participated and contributed to the research at different times over its several years of duration: Patricia Howard, Valarie Barske, and Sarah Mosher, as well as Patrick McCall for German translations and musical knowledge; and Prof. Emeritus David W. Plath, for his expertise and contributions to the video ethnography. Finally, we thank Joan Cole for her thoughtful, creative expertise in digital imaging and web design, making a multimedia article possible. With special gratitude, we thank all the villagers of the Lahu Na Shehleh of Wingpapao District for their cheerful hospitality and generous, unstinting contribution of cultural knowledge to our project. A special thanks goes to Ca LaGu (Sombat) a second translator, as well as key informant, and grip to our documentary videographer, David Plath.


1 See Hill, Saenghong, and Grim-Feinberg (2011) for an earlier version of this essay.

2 The combining of music and dance into a single category is common in many non-Western cultures: see Ronstrom (1999) and Van Zile (1999).

3 In this case, being settled down authored in a new future for the villagers—that is, closer attention from the Thai Interior department than from the military department. Royal Thai agricultural development programs (most often supported by U.S., European, and Australian foreign aid agencies as opium cash crop replacement programs), changed their future from periodic, itinerant villages, breaking up, then coalescing in a new territory of forested land to villages settled on permanent sites. Not only did their agricultural practice have to change to mechanized tilling and chemical fertilizing, but the nature of their relations with surrounding highland Thai and the Thai State became radically different. Their strategy for dealing with interethnic conflict and group-to-state conflict changed from precipitous departure to more remote areas, to strategic local maneuvering such as cultivating interethnic friendships and political involvement with local Thai politicians. Notably, the colorful New Year ceremonies with feasting, music, and dance have become occasions to cement friendships by inviting local Thais and political figures as guests. While the villagers have lost one future, they have taken on another.

4 Google maps are a link. Select "Thailand" to go to the national geographic area and "village" or the longitude/latitude to go to the more local area where the villages are located.

5 This fact was identified via still photos and audiotapes loaned to us by anthropologist Paul Durrenberger who studied the Lisu in Northern Thailand in the 1960s. See Durrenberger 1971.

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