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cultural review

Thai Cultural Night a Success

By Jonathan Richmond

The Siam Chronicle

Thai Cultural Night 2005

Thai Students of MIT

Walker Memorial

Sept. 17, 2005

Fresh from two years in Thailand, where I attended many traditional Thai events, I was struck by the quality of the orchestra of the Thai Students of MIT, who provided the highlight of “The Siam Chronicle,” a Thai cultural night. The orchestra produced precisely the authentic combination of sound colors to make their performance uniquely Thai in this event held by the MIT students together with their friends from Harvard.

This band’s fiddles had an earthy sound, reminiscent of bagpipes or a hurdy-gurdy. A wooden flute was penetrating and pure while also soft and delicate. The complex mix of percussive sounds from cymbals, gongs and drums gave the music a seemingly endless drive.

Ensembles like this one often play at Buddhist temple fairs in Thailand, where entertainment is tied closely to religious themes, and the MIT band was as concentrated as an assembly of monks focused on meditative chant. The mix of sounds, produced with standards of professionalism that equal the quality of many celebrated ensembles I have heard in Thailand, had a hypnotic quality profound in its beauty that perhaps represented a segment of the inevitable and seemingly endless journey through the Buddhist cycle of life.

A shadow puppet show was also notable. The Thai version often goes on all night, even through rain storms (I was once amongst a dwindling audience still watching the event in Nakhon si Thammarat at 2 a.m. during a rainy temple fair weekend). Performances with the puppets, manipulated from behind a screen and illuminated with a lamp, tell a range of moral tales, often with vivid depictions of good and evil, and provide a means to convey culture from one generation to the next. It was good to see the art brought skillfully to life in Walker.

There was a great deal of dancing during the evening — perhaps too much, as Thai dance requires perfect synchronization of a series of classic gestures, all of which must be delivered with fluidity and grace. In the most successful number, a northeastern dance, the guys quite explicitly try to convey to the girls what they want of them. This was done with much wit and had the audience in stitches.

There were one or two other notable performances during the evening, but frankly, many of the numbers did not come together because the degree of difficulty was beyond the performers, who could not achieve the perfection cruelly demanded to make the art come to life. Luckily, however, we were not in a royal court, and nobody was taken out and flogged or decapitated!

Thai food samplers were provided during the evening. Although rather bland, they were appreciated by the crowd, whose members were probably best left innocent of the fact that, subjected to authenticity, they would probably be in tears and with tongues and throats mercifully numb, if not burning with agony.

The Thai students produced a stylish program book with a great deal of useful information as well as a cover design that was uniquely Thai. And, overall, the evening was delightful. The success of the event was not just in its artistic contact, however, but also in a social setting that served to bring people together. Largish tables were packed into the sold-out hall and, helped by the servings of Thai foods, strangers from all countries of the world took the opportunity to meet and engage in animated conversation. The Thai students were completely charming, welcoming each guest and proving to be genial hosts, and they did just the right thing to showcase what it means to be Thai in a context of uniting the community in friendship. Korp kuhn krup!