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Music for the Few: Nationalism and Thai Royal Authority


The khrueangsai pii chawaa ("Thai stringed instruments with Javanese oboe") ensemble in central Thailand is a unique and highly-regarded ensemble known for its repertoire, idiosyncratic tuning, high level of technical difficulty, and exceptionable virtuosity. Khrueangsai pii chawaa is reserved for very special royal functions including processions and dramatic performances of royal literature. Royal authority indirectly controls the performance and transmission of the ensemble and its repertoire, which is now maintained professionally only by the Fine Arts Department of the Thai government. At present only a few musicians are capable of performing or teaching the repertoire and performance style for this ensemble. The selection of new students is competitive and politicized. The khrueangsai pii chawaa ensemble is rare and kept largely outside of the gaze of ordinary spectators in Thai society. Nonetheless, a few individuals in institutions outside of Bangkok have tried to build khrueangsai pii chawaa ensembles, challenging the limits of authority and exposing tensions within the musical community. I argue that royal authority functions to keep this musical ensemble endangered by design, so that those chosen to participate maintain a powerful control over the tradition and repertoire and thereby preserve their unique social status.

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