Folklife Center receives gift of Laotian cultural history

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(Host) This weekend, a Laotian couple from Brattleboro will host a special celebration of their music and culture. They’ll also offer a unique gift to a Vermont organization to keep that culture alive for future generations.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(Keese) There are two comfy white sofas in their Brattleboro living room. But Souphine Phathsoungneung and his wife Phady sit on the floor when they make their music.

Souphine is 78, Phady in her late 50s. They came to Vermont from Laos, by way of Thailand, almost 25 years ago. Their Thai friend, Aew, helps explain the longish set of tied-together bamboo pipes Souphine is playing.

(Aew) “This is a Kaehn, it’s a wind instrument. It’s called Kaehn.” (Begins to play.)

(Keese) The song Phady is singing is a new one, written for her by Souphine. It’s a welcome to their celebration at the Guilford Firehouse this weekend.

Souphine and Phady are donating a set of sacred Buddhist texts translated in English. The books will help their descendents – and anyone else who’s interested – study and preserve Laotian and Thai religious teachings.

But instead of making their gift to a temple as they would in Laos, they’re giving the books to the Vermont Folklife Center. Souphine says he’s grateful to the Folklife Center for taking an interest in his culture and helping to keep its music going in Vermont.

(Aew) “They give grant for Souphine to teach Phady in Lao opera. And he say, I want to pay back, for thank you.”

(Keese) Souphine was born in Thailand but became a famous folksinger in Laos in the 1960s. He led a series of troupes. They’d travel from village to village performing songs and folk operas composed by Souphine.

(Connie Woodberry) “It’s the way they carry news from one town to another, it’s the way they keep history, it’s the way they remember people in their families. And sometimes the songs can be pretty raunchy and very funny.”

(Keese) Connie Woodberry has worked extensively in Southeast Asia and with Southeast Asian refugees in Vermont. During the sixties, Woodberry says the United States was quietly involved in a war with Laotian communists, the Pathet Lao. Because he was so well-known, the U.S. government enlisted Souphine’s help. They hired him to go to the villages with songs about the virtues of democracy and the evils of communism. He met his wife Phady in one of those villages.

Phady sings about their struggles as refugees after they fled to Thailand when the Communists took over Laos. In 1980 the U.S. government helped Souphine’s family settle near Chicago. But they soon moved to Brattleboro, where they had relatives who said it was more peaceful and friendly. While raising their four children, Souphine worked as a janitor at the Brattleboro Retreat. Phady worked in a rice cake factory in Putney.

Connie Woodberry says they kept their tradition alive through alliances with other Thai and Laotian families.

(Woodberry) “And Souphine’s been a really important part of that because he remembers a lot of the ceremonies and he knows the songs, and he knows the history, from all the singing he’s done.”

(Keese) Souphine’s artistry was a secret to his other Vermont neighbors until it came to the attention of the Folklife Center. The Center is interested in all the immigrant traditions in Vermont.

They gave Souphine a grant to pass his musical tradition on. When no apprentice from the younger generation stepped forward, he decided to teach Phady. Last year, Souphine wrote and produced a new Lao opera. It’s that opera that will be performed at the celebration Saturday.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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