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OTHER ITA SITES:
Bamboo Flute Makers Of Ban Laos – The Heritage Of Generations
The bamboo flute makers of Ban Laos or Bang Sai Kai, as it's officially known, are descendents of migrants from Laos who have settled in Bangkok since the Rattanakosin days when the capital was established more than 200 years ago.
Laos communities have lived in Thailand for centuries. Long before the days of nation states and national boundaries, there was frequent migration across the Mekong River. Most of them settled in north eastern Thailand that's contiguous with present day Laos. It's no coincidence that the north-eastern Thai or Issarn dialect sounds very much like Laotian.
The bamboo flute makers in Ban Laos (Laos Village) however started off as musicians when they first settled on the Thonburi side of Bangkok. Later, they took to making flutes instead, an instrument as old as music. The wisdom of this cultural heritage of two centuries has been preserved to the present day.
I asked the first group of villagers for the location of the bamboo flute maker's house.
"Which house? Many houses here make flutes."
Then I realized it's a community of bamboo flutes makers, several households! This is evident from the piles of bamboo stacked by the lane leading to the homes.
A pleasant and friendly atmosphere pervades the neighborhood. Everyone knows everyone else. When I mentioned Khun Jarin, they pointed further down the lane.
"Khun Jarin isn't here. His daughter's in the shop."
The significance of that remark didn't sink in yet. When I approached another group of neighbors and asked for Khun Jarin's home, a middle aged lady sprang to her feet and identified herself as his daughter. She invited me to her home and workshop. This is her story.
Sadly, Khun Jarin the master craftsman, passed away last year (2006) at the age of 77. As the eldest in the family, Khun Nitaya has continued the family tradition in the very house where she was born.
She spoke fondly of her neighborhood that's more than 200 years old and glowed with pride when she mentioned that Wat Bang Sai Kai, the neighborhood temple, was built by the Laos community. Then she spoke of her main passion; the craft of the bamboo flute makers.
It all starts in Saraburi, a province 100 km north-east of Bangkok, the source of raw material for the bamboo flute makers. The bamboo comes from the foothills in the famous district where Buddha left his footprint.
Bamboo is cut and dried in the sun for 7 -14 days in the hot season and longer during the rainy or cool season. The bamboo has to be turned over continuously to ensure thorough drying until they turn from green to an even light yellow.
Next the bamboo is cut to various lengths based on the type of flute required; shorter lengths for a higher pitch and longer for a lower pitch. The eyelet at the bamboo joint is cut away.
Polishing of the bamboo tubes is carefully done with grounded bricks covered by the sheath of the young coconut fruit.
Designs on the surface are made by skillfully applying a ladle dipped in molten lead. As an illustration of how designs were made, Khun Nitaya deftly drew straight lines down the length of the bamboo along which designs are embossed.
Holes in the flute are then drilled based on precise dimensions and spacing. The flute is filled with bees' wax and a heated rod is inserted through to melt the wax. This coats the uneven inner surface with a layer of wax which hardens on drying. A consistency of sound is ensured. On completion the holes are cleared of wax.
Flutes aren't confined to bamboo. With the advent of mechanical drills, flutes were made from solid wood and later PVC tubes. These bamboo flutes are made to order and sold nation wide to individual musicians and shops selling musical instruments.
What about the future of the bamboo flute makers? Who is going to take over from her? All her children, nephews and nieces were trained in the skills but who will continue? The most likely person is her 16 year old son who is a professional musician. Yes, he plays the flute.
Khun Nitaya's love for her work is clear as she showed me various flutes and sportingly played a few bars on one of them.
Lastly, she provided me with a booklet on details of the flute making process, the types of wood used, the types of flutes, the finer points in adjusting the sounds of the finished flute and the history of her community.
This document is virtually a comprehensive bamboo flute makers manual. But it's going to take more than just a manual to acquire this centuries-old handicraft. It's got to be in your blood.
I must record my deepest appreciation to Khun Nitaya for her admirably warm hospitality. She displayed a deep pride in her profession and willingly provided me with all the information on the craft and tradition of the bamboo flute makers of Ban Laos.
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