The literary, musical, dramatic and visual arts of Laos are mostly inspired by local traditions and religions. Although, there are certain regions of the country, such as towns that border the Mekong River, that take in outside influence from places like neighbouring Thailand and Myanmar. Also, similar to other areas of South East Asia, the themes, stories and religious symbols are becoming more localized.
Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism have had a significant impact on the intellectual and cultural life of Laos. The stories related to Hindu myths and Buddha is popular in sculptures and carvings and witnessed in most of the religious places. Plus, many of the performing arts like dance have taken great inspiration from stories or poems that hold religious significance. The majority of these dramatic performances is used to mark a religious or historical celebration and likely to be seen at festivals on the Laos family tour.
The local Loa people are involved in plenty of rural and regional art forms that consist of gold work, silver work, ivory carving, wood carving, basket making and weaving. Also, the musical instruments can vary with the different communities with is split between the upland and midland minority communities, as well as the rural Lao.
The khene is the national instrument of Laos and it resembles a mouth organ at approx 80 cm that include 7-8 pairs of connected bamboo pipes using a hardwood reservoir that is hollowed-out and makes space for the air to be blown into. The sound created by this instrument is quite similar to the violin and a popular choice to use in instrumental ensembles, to accompany singers, or as a solo instrument. Also, there is a large version of this instrument that stands at approx 2 metres – but is only practical for the musicians that have the ability to play with powerful lungs. The khene is popular on all types of musical tracks, from the wedding music and ritual songs.
Other instruments that are common with the rural people are the cymbals, drums, bowed and plucked lutes, and assorted flutes.
Beyond the musical instruments, Laos also has a varied choice of regional vocal traditions. Plus, a lot of the music played is through oral tradition and often not written down.
Similar to most other Asian artistic traditions, the performing arts in Laos dates back to ancient community and religious activities. The ability to communicate with the spirits has long been a standard part of the day-to-day life of the local people. So, the ethnic Lao and most of the ethnic minority groups are still seen to demonstrate the traditional ritual dances in various areas of the country.
For the tourist on the Laos tour packages for the duration of the Lao New Year festival it is possible to witness an animistic dance that relates to Nha Nheu and Phou Nheu and guardian deities. This event is held in the northern city of Luang Prabang at the Wat Wisun.
Other traditional performing arts include the healing rituals which include the Lao folk genres like the lam siphandone and lam saravane which still includes the healing dances and acted out by the female shamans.
A common theme is to perform the sung storytelling that is intended to help with teaching morality, as well as to help with spreading a wide range of cosmologies, legends and myths that mostly relate to the ethnic groups.
Sung storytelling was also a common technique used by the monks to help spread Buddhism and recite tales related to Jataka and texts of a religious nature. Many of these tales were inscribed on palm-leaves made into a manuscript.
The local classical orchestra is referred to as the piphat and is split into a few categories which include the Sep Noi and Sep Nyai. The Sep Noi orchestra is created to produce the popular music and perform with the help of two bowed string instruments. Also, the Sep Nyai is favoured for performing the formal and ceremonial tunes and likely to include instruments like cymbals, a few large kettle drums, an oboe, a xylophone and several gongs.
Classical court music was once popular in the country until the mid-1970s, when the communists took control. This type of music disappeared because it was seen as elitist and at the time transferred the khene into the classical orchestra to help in creating the more unique Lao flavour.
Laos has been able to preserve many of the ancient musical traditions that have largely been lost elsewhere in the world, including in a country with rich traditions like India.
Folk music and dance
Laos has plenty of ethnic minority groups that continue to protect their unique dance and music traditions. Most of the music is performed to celebrate special events or milestones of individual community members, as well as to propitiate the spirits. The different folk music and dance makes use of a variety of instruments such as the wind instruments like the buffalo horns, wooden trumpets, and transverse and vertical bamboo flutes; percussion instruments like the chimes, bamboo clappers, wooden bells and bronze gongs and drums.
The most popular instrument that falls within the wind instrument category is the khene and is favoured by both the Tay-Tai speaking groups and the Lao ethnic majority.
The use of bronze drums is said to hold significant ritual significance in many areas of SE Asia, including neighbouring countries like Cambodia and Vietnam. These drums are widely used in ritual ceremonies for the Lolo-Burmish and Mon-Khmer groups.
Contemporary visual arts
The arrival of contemporary visual arts first arrived in the country at the time of the French colonial era. This introduced the western style of water-colour and oil painting. It wasn’t long before a Western art school open in the country; this was run by the French artist Marc Leguay. Many of the paintings used vibrant colours to portray life in Laos and he is still remembered for the designs created for the postage stamps in the 1950s for the Royal Lao Government.
One of the places to visit on the Laos customized tour to showcase the future of Laotian art is the National Faculty of Fine Arts which is in the capital city, Vientiane.