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MUS 311: Thai Ensemble to Return in Spring 2020

Above, Fall 2019 MUS 311 students perform on instruments they’ve made through the semester.

(Re) Made in Hawai‘i

What is the Thai Ensemble (MUS 311)?

The course is unique, drawing inspiration from rural Thai and highland ethnic groups in Thailand, where the repurposing of natural and recycled materials into musical instruments is woven into various rural musical traditions. A classic example from the Karen people (the focus of Dr. Fairfield’s MA and PhD work) is the 6-stringed Tehnaku harp. The instrument shows the adaptation of tradition to new materials (musical and physical): motorcycle brake cables are untwisted and become steel strings, deer-skin is now routinely replaced with galvanized metal from gas or candy containers. The resulting metal-on-metal sound quality has become part of the signature gruff and raspy aesthetic. The premise of the course explores (by having students make instruments in class before learning to play them) aspects of ecomusicology, ethnomusicology, and organology in an applied and performative learning environment.

handmade instruments
Pictured (no particular order): ching (small chime/cymbals) made from teacups; klawng double-headed drums (body from bamboo and a coffee maker, heads are rice bags stretched tight—mahalo to Bangkok Chef for donating the bags!); khlui flutes made from PVC pipes; tehnaku (untwisted bike brake strings and rice-bags); koe-lo (bamboo slit drum); sueng (plucked lute made from wine case and bike strings); upright bass made from cat litter box and weed wacker string….and more!

About the motivations and setting: “Greening” the curriculum

The draft of the next strategic plan for UHM calls for a raised level of attention paid to our outdoor environments and an active integration of these into the campus experience. Fairfield sees this as an opportunity to challenge students to think more about waste, nature, music, culture, and how music allows us to unpack, reinforce, and challenge those labels. He is also working to collaborate with other wings of the music department (e.g., the choir, under the direction of Jace Saplan, is performing a classic Thai protest song accompanied by the ensemble) as a means of further integrating ethnomusicology and ecomusicology into the general study of music at UHM. The response this semester has been encouraging. Fairfield notes,

“The students are diving right in, rethinking and scavenging items otherwise overlooked and destined for the landfill. They have come to class with canisters that we turned into banjos, old rubber bands that became mallet heads for a xylophone, bamboo from their backyards, plastic cups, and more. I told them up front: take my class and you’ll never look at rubbish the same way again. I can see it starting to set in, and it’s all happening within a musical framing. Music helps us rethink our values, our consumer behaviors, and our responsibility to the ‘āina.”

About the Instructor

Dr. Benjamin Fairfield received his PhD in ethnomusicology from UH Mānoa in 2017. He and his wife served as Peace Corps volunteers in Chiang Mai, Thailand from 2007-2009. He has studied, performed, recorded, translated, and co-published with various musical colleagues in northern Thailand. Currently he is UHM affiliate faculty, East West Center program associate, UH Press journals managing editor, and prepping for a Fulbright in 2020, where he will work with Karen musician Chi Suwichan Phattanaphraiwan on developing a tehnaku curriculum. He is also a tired father of two.

Where you can hear and see the instruments & ensemble?

The ensemble will perform in two official venues. The main performance is at the UHM Music Department Pau Hana Concert (Dec. 8, 3pm, Orvis Auditorium). The collaborative piece with the choir will be showcased at the “Resilient Spirits” Choir Concert at St. Andrews Cathedral on 11/22. Both events are free and open to the public. Pictures and videos of Fairfield’s trial-and-error prototype instruments can also be viewed at his dedicated Instagram hashtag, #MUS311.

Want to join the ensemble?

The course is renewed for the spring semester, meeting on Wednesdays at 2:30pm. CRN: 88957. There are no prerequisites (musical background is helpful but not required). Please sign up ASAP to secure your spot!


A selection of Instagram posts from Dr. Fairfield: