Monday, May 16, 2011

Village Spirit Festival

The other day I was putzing around in the garden. The rainy season has begun and every morning the effects of the evening’s tropical storm have to be cleaned up: branches falling from the big old trees, leaves scattered everywhere. It’s kind of like cleaning up after a drunken party thrown by nature.

The storms are wonderful. For some reason, the spirits in this land have made everything perfect in that it only rains heavily once I am safely indoors. The nights are a cacophony of thunder and heavy raindrops, as loud as bullets, smashing on the roof. The sight is wonderful as the lightning opens up the tropical skies, throwing the tall standing palm trees on the horizon into a sharp, ghostly relief.

As the sun sets in monsoon season the crickets and birds in the trees go into high command and the jungle garden screeches with the life of them.

It rains in the house, too and our kitchen floor is like a swimming pool. Strangely enough, our landlord takes this seriously and promises to fix it, a first in Vientiane history if the stories of other landlords are to be believed.

So the other day I was in the garden, cleaning up pieces of branch when a very loud music started down the road. I say road, but if you have been following then you know it really is a dirt track.

The music was thankfully not the usual Thai pop music some neighbours like to play; computer generated emotions and mournful sorrowful voices, inspired by promises of quick sales and a place on the top ten. This was the real deal, instrumental music played on ancient wood and reed, and people ushering great strident lalalalalala’s out of their throats. The music was exactly what I love to hear – the repetitive percussion, the whirling Dervish quality, the hypnotic power.

And so I went down the street to see what it was. The people in the tenement house next to us probably thought I was going to bitch that the music was too loud since I bitch at them when they play their computer generated pop garbage at full blast.

What I stumbled onto was a spirit ceremony in which the village spirits are given homage once a year. I discovered that I had a Lao-American neighbour who explained all of this to me.

I had long wondered where the village Spirit House was and now I know. A large marquee had been set up and the musicians sat on chairs. The centre of the marquee was built into a kind of alter around which the people danced.

Tony Money (his real name) explained to me that people came from all around the city to dance. Not just anybody could dance, though, they had to be people who had a certain spiritual pedigree; a specific connectivity with the spirit world. Indeed, these spiritual supernovas were arriving en masse. They would dress in colourful shiny garments and start to dance until possessed.

Old ladies leaped around, their bodies like jumping jacks, their faces as passive as marionettes. When the spirit left them they would collapse, breathless, and wait for their own selves to return to them.

This was something I would expect to see way out in the countryside, distant tribes’ people worshipping obscure forest spirits. But this was in the centre of the city, the capital city. It was then that I realized that there were layers upon layers of culture and faith in these people who surround us, and a wall of mystery I could only pierce if I learnt the language.

Imagine that there is a group or a caste of sacred dancers throughout the city who go from village to village to be possessed and swept away by the local spirits. Once a month fortune tellers come to the village Spirit House to read futures. Holy men and women walk among us, invisible and anonymous.

In true Lao fashion, I was made to feel right at home. Beer, food, drink and conversation. During intermission they put on a CD of captivating music and when I expressed my admiration for it someone ran to give it to me.

Other than people indicating to me where not to step or stand I was more than welcome to take photos and films. Filming them I realized, and not for the first time, how privileged we are to live here among these gentle and unusual people. I can never thank destiny enough for having brought our steps here, to Southeast Asia.