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Wai Khru Dontree: Where Music Gods and Human Meet

1 September 2017

Every year Thai musicians and traditional Thai music lovers get together to attend the Wai Khru Dontree ceremony. This exclusive ritualistic ceremony covers many aspects of Thai beliefs. Wai is a typical custom for paying respect, Khru means teachers or the master of knowledge which covers both human and supernatural/ gods. The term Dontree is simply for music and anything related in the musical world, including musical instruments, songs, and the arts of performing. Hence Wai Khru Dontree could be interpreted as a ceremony paying homage to music deities and teachers, which manifest the great passage of Thai traditional music education.

There are no clear records about the history of Wai Khru Dontree but the ritual has been practised in central Thailand and neighbouring countries i.e. Laos and Cambodia for many generations. For the Thai case, Wai Khru Dontree was much developed through the great support of triple cultural domains: Royal court – Music house – and Buddhist temple. Ancient holy text of Ongkran Wai Khru is mixed between Pali and Thai words which authorised only to the selected master of the ceremony, phitheekorn, to perform the rite. The system of waiKhru could be well observed in the complexity and muchsemiotics operations. The participants of the ceremony will prepare Khruang sangwei: arranged flowers, decorated boiled eggs, cooked foods, raw foods, sweets, fruits, spirits, cigarettes, white cloths, gold & silver candles, joss sticks, incenses and other offering matters to dedicate to the Khru. The most important abstract offerings and also prestigious part of the ceremony is sacred music phleng naphat performed by the piphat ensemble. The main function of Wai Khru music is to produce invitation soundscape to the gods and spirits to be presented at the ceremony. The students of all levels will join the ceremony and pay respect to their gods and teachers by presenting them with auspicious offerings. Professional musicians will undertake this ceremony seriously throughout their musical life.

Usually the ceremony will take place on the selected Thursday. The ceremony lasts long from early morning to late night. Buddhist monks will be invited to chant paying respect to the triple gems whilst offerings are made to various gods of music – Hindu Gods – Music and Dance divines – Local Gods, etc. The master of the ceremony, phitheekorn, who is considered to be most knowledgeable man of the event and usually wears white dress like Hindu’s priest, will give a recitation of ongkarn Wai Khru as a devotional calling upon spirits of music gods to come down to the earth and accept the offerings and foods. His holy text will alternate with the sound of phleng naphat. There are series of phleng naphat repertoire which related to the sequence of Khru’s entrance to the ritual space. It is to be noted that some sacred songs in this ritual are under strict rules, not all musicians could be freely learned or allowed to play in other casual performances, even making informal rehearsal without knowing the true value. Among the notable phleng naphat, the most important sacred song one is ongprapirab, an instrumental song in rubato melodic structure and complex rhythm. There are also songs to accompany Khru’s feasting and signify Khru’s blessings and returning to heaven after receiving a great meal. The glittering sounds of piphat stimulate the overall atmosphere, unite the universe of fantasy and reality world – sprits and human beings – become one.

Leader of the ensemble, usually the teacher or the most senior musician, will make an obeisance to the spirits of music with lights the candle, burns joss sticks, presents flowers with foods, drinks, and money in front of the taphon drum. He will then pray for the success of all the performers, and ask for forgiveness if some mistake may happen during the performance. When the ceremony is done, the music will then begin with the confidence and pleasure of all performers.

The strong tradition of Wai Khru Dontree is still continuously practised and in modern Thai music society, even in modern music institutes where new curriculums and new methods of learning have been applied. Beliefs and applicabilities in Wai Khru in Thai society will be everlastingly long and will always be a great quintessence of Thai music education.

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