The Gospel in Phleng Choi – เพลงฉ่อย
A Way to Reach Thais for Christ with Traditional Folk Drama and Music
Phleng choi is a subtype of folk songs called phleng peuan bahn, which literally means “songs of the village.” Phleng choi originated in Central Thailand, when villagers would get together during and after the harvest season to hold festivals, relax, begin courting, and generally celebrate. There are many different types of songs, differentiated by tempo, occasion, and purpose. The Garland Handbook of Southeast Asian Music lists several common characteristics:
1. Most songs alternate male and female singers (repartee) and soloist and a chorus of onlookers (call and response).
2. Songs are sung without melodic instrumental accompaniment; some genres use simple idiophones.
3. Two types of poems occur: improvised poems and memorized traditional poems. […]
5. Whether the words are serious or not, the manner of performance and attitude are lighthearted. […]
7. All aspects, textual and melodic, are orally transmitted.
8. Melodies coincide in length with the lines of the poetry, realize the lexical tones of the words, and rarely exceed a single octave in range. Styles of ornamentation vary from place to place. The scales used are typically pentatonic, but often concentrate on three pitches.
9. Rhythm and meter vary on a continuum from free-speech rhythm to strict metrical organization, always duple.
Phleng choi likely developed as a festival style sung in celebration during Buddhist ceremonies or other occasions. It is not used at temples now, but continues on as a common form of singing in entertainment halls, improv comedies, TV shows, and, of course, the regular village celebrations.
Why Phleng Choi
Phleng choi is very popular as a style of entertainment for two reasons. First, nearly all of the poetry is improvised and singers are expected to make up their lines on the spot. Second, singers are rated based on their wit, intelligence, style, fast thinking, creativity, and improvisation skills. The audience will wait on each word to see how the play turns out (because although stories may be reused, the performances are nearly always original scripts), and clap along in time to keep the beat moving. The performers will sing back and forth, sometimes in witty banter, sometimes in a question-and-answer format, but always in a fast-moving conversation.
Because of the increasing prevalence and influence of Western music, the form of phleng choi is changing. Performances for TV are more likely to be partially memorized with room left for improvisation, rather than being completely original. Phleng choi performers are also decreasing in number as many young musicians learn Western rather than Thai styles. Even so, phleng choi is still instantly recognizable among the Thai people. It remains a common entertainment offering in cities and villages alike.
Incorporating the Gospel Message in Phleng Choi
The idea to set a discussion about the Gospel in phleng choi style was originally suggested by one of our Thai producers. In addition to being already well-received, phleng choi lends itself well to a presentation of the Gospel because the conversation style is rapid and open. In regular singing, performers are allowed and encouraged to say what they think outright in a way that would be considered over-the-top for the polite conventions of a normal Thai conversation. The boldness of the song style is half the attraction. This openness allows performers presenting a Gospel message to explain the message of love, sin, redemption, and salvation and not fear losing their listeners.
Because the Gospel is a serious topic that deserves our greatest care and attention, we do not intend to trivialize the Gospel in order to make it more attractive to listeners. Rather, the phleng choi style and the topic will be cast on a well-crafted discussion, witty enough to keep the listener interested, and when presented in a lighthearted and relaxed context, will not only make the performance an interesting experience, but endear the Thais to the message.
Lourdes Holmes, a missionary to Thailand since the 1960s, has talked and witnessed to thousands of Thais about Jesus Christ. She compiled a list of the most common questions Thais ask about Christianity. The answers will be crafted by Dr. Richfield Cudal, a seminary professor and missionary to the Thais for almost a decade. The Q&A will be drafted into a script by one of our Thai Christian translators in Chiang Mai and edited by a Thai Pastor in Bangkok. The draft will be given to the Artistic Director who formats the script into the dialogue style appropriate for phleng choi. The final draft will be submitted to our Thai producers and will be produced into a play recorded by skilled actors and singers that will be listened to by Thais all over the nation — in their own language and style.
This project is a first of its kind in Thailand.
The phleng choi Q&A draft is now being translated and formatted. By the end of August, 2015, the draft will be edited and submitted to Thai producers from the Bunditpatanasilpa School of Thai Cultural Arts and the Silpakorn University School of the Arts for production. Production hopes to be commenced October 2015 with a projected date of completion on December 2015.
HARK Publications is a ministry of HARK Ministries Inc., a recognized 501(c)(3) non-profit organization based in West Palm Beach, FL. Individuals, churches, corporations may sponsor this project by donating through our online-giving webpage.
Previous projects have included the Thai-Psalms and Thai-Hymns Projects of which 10,000 CDs have been sold and distributed to Christians throughout Thailand and the world.
Donations and contributions may also be sent to: HARK Ministries, P O Box 61, Palm Beach, FL 33480, USA.
Terry Miller and Sean Williams, The Garland Handbook of Southeast Asian Music (New York: Routledge, 2011), 161-172.