Above the Fray: Traditional Hilltribe Art Takes a Step

Dear Friends,

Welcome to Above the Fray: Traditional Hilltribe Art’s Blog: On The Fringe

For our regular readers, Above the Fray is excited to introduce some design changes. Our website just got updated, and we are also modifying our communications by moving from our “Quarterly Newsletter,” which for years has been available by “snail mail” and email pdf, to this new blog, aptly titled: On The Fringe.  We hope you will continue to connect with us here for our stories and photos – please feel free to friend us on Facebook as we will be investing more time in our social media communications as well.

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Maren and Josh traveling up the Nam Ou (River) in Phongsali Province, Laos.

Also, we are excited to welcome a newer audience as Above the Fray reaches out to expand contacts and interest.  Two exciting events will draw some curious eyes:

First, the Textile Museum of America (in Washington DC) is in the midst of a brilliant southeast asian textiles exhibit, and next week it all culminates in a conference where the folks who “Ooooh” and Ahhhh” the most over these textiles – like Maren – will be to share their passion, information and company.  Maren (and a good friend from the Seattle Weaver’s Guild) will be eager to learn and share with some gifted experts.

Two weeks later, the famous Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles in Bangkok is holding an international symposium on royal and other traditional textile arts of Thailand and greater SE Asia – Maren just got her plane ticket yesterday! The world’s greatest experts in these textiles will be presenting, and it gives Above the Fray a chance to put a “real face” forward internationally.  We know we have much to share, especially since we have “in the village” experience (and pictures, and textiles!) and well-developed personal and business relationships with many of the artists who today represent the highest level of expertise.

In between these two world-class events we will have our first showing in San Francisco, at the “Textile Bazaar” sponsored by The Textile Council of the Museums of San Francisco (on Sunday, November 3rd).  We’ll post separately about that event!

Above the Fray will also continue to hold its “Fine Silks and Tribal Arts” Events in the Pacific Northwest, and dates/locations for this upcoming season’s events in Portland and Eugene will be announced in the coming days.

Please stay in touch!  And onward to Zall’s newest venture below:

Breakfast of Champions (by Zall – age 13)

Breakfast of Champions

As always happens when establishing business relationship and friendships in Laos, you get invited to a meal.  This was the case with Mr. Vilay and his wife.  We had offered them a ride from Luang Prabang to Xam Neua, a 10-hour van ride or a 13 to 20 hour bus ride (depending on whether the bus breaks down or not).  So, since we were hauling so much stuff with us for the business, and it is extremely hard to fit in a bus, we decided to rent a van from for the drive.  We had two more seats and offered them to the couple.  Of course, when we arrived in Xam Tai, they immediately invited us for a meal at their house.

Anticipating my first bite of hairy water buffalo tripe!

Anticipating my first bite of hairy water buffalo tripe!

The next morning, we got up early and headed down to the Vilays’ house.  While we admired his wife’s shop of textiles, Mr. Vilay spent over an hour laboring over a big pot cooking outside above a fire.  After a long and hungry wait, we were led into the house and plopped down in front of a traditional ankle-high table.  After a couple minutes of waiting, two big steaming bowls of a clear-brown soup came in and were put on the table, followed by dishes of chilies and cilantro, which my father loves, but everyone else has troubles with.

Water buffalo parts in all their glory!

Water buffalo parts in all their glory!

Then the last dishes came out, big piles of juicy… well, two different kinds of buffalo stomach (one was hairy, one looked like a brain), buffalo liver, and small amounts of fatty meat.  I was handed a large piece of the hairy stomach first, which looked like a curled up giant white worm. Since Ms. Vilay presented it to me with her chopsticks, I of course had to eat it.  I gave our hosts a big smile and bit half of the worm.  It didn’t come apart with my first bite, so I continued to bite it – again, and again, and again. It was the slipperiest, chewiest, most rubbery thing I’d ever eaten (and that’s saying something).  I managed to cut in half after the tenth bite and chew it up until it was in about four pieces.  I could feel the little hairs against my tongue, and I knew I either had to swallow it or throw up. My brain made the decision for me and I managed to choke it down.  I could feel the relief spread to my face.  I gave Ms. Vilay a smile and a nod and went directly for the sticky rice.

“I know,” I thought, “I’ll try the soup.”  Usually I expect soups to have vegetables – we have been treated to many soups in Laos made from spinach and other greens.  It smelled a bit funky, but I scooped my spoon into the shared bowl.  It tasted like – uh … intestines.  Which made sense since it had been made, my dad said afterwards, by squeezing the inner lining of the intestines into boiling water.  My dad looked at me and squiggled his eyebrows.  I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or not.  I restrained myself, swallowed quickly, and delved back into the basket of sticky rice.

My parents, Mr. and Mrs. Vilay, and our translator Ngot around the fancy, new, metal table.

My parents, Mr. and Mrs. Vilay, and our translator Ngot around the fancy, new, metal table.

Upon looking up from the rice, here comes Ms. Vilay again with her chopsticks, and a big thumb-sized piece of boiled liver.  The lining from the saggy liver draped across the gut like an old plastic bag.  I took a polite bite of the soft meat, and again put on my best smile.  My stomach rushed up to my throat, and I put the remaining morsel on the side of my plate.  I just got the mouthful down thanks to another handful of rice.  I couldn’t manage to eat much more; my stomach was now quite completely upside down.  Instead we moved onto the beverages.

Our hosts brought a bottle of lao-lao –  traditional, and powerful, rice whisky.  Let me remind you that this was at about 8:30 in the morning.  Mr. Vilay poured himself a shot of lao-lao and raised his glass and thanked us in Lao (“Ngoc!”) for coming to his home and hoped that our friendship can continue for many years to come (at least that seemed to be the gist of his toast).  The shot glass went all around the room (once for me, three times for everyone else).  Next, instead of something like orange juice, he brought out 2 big bottles of Beer Lao (tastes like regular beer) and he poured everyone, including me, a big cup.  Everyone was expected to empty their cupful immediately and hand it back to be refilled for the next person.  Around the cup went – once, twice… Needless to say, after a while, we had to politely tell him that we couldn’t drink a lot (more) in the morning.

After lunch with Sukavit (right) and her niece, Phut.

After lunch with Sukavit (right) and her niece, Phut.

After several goodbyes, smiles and handshakes, we departed to visit our next hosts.

We headed next to Sukavit’s (a long-time business partner and friend) house for more shopping and lunch.  My stomach rumbled dramatically for a couple of hours as my parents looked at and bought many of her things.  Then came another traditional Lao meal.  A narrow tarp was rolled out across the floor, and out came bowls heaped with plain boiled chicken, sticky rice, spicy chili sauces, fresh vegetable soup, and plates of steamed unseasoned greens.  I could have bowed down to Sukavit.  She had remembered our desire for bland food, and, full of pride, she even remembered that we prefer “bo peng neua, bo ghena” – no monosodium glutamate, no salt (do they love their salt!).  I wolfed down a teenager’s worth of lunch, gaining the smiles of Sukavit and her family, and breathed a big, full sigh of relief.

I realize now that my teen-age tastebuds are pretty well set in their ways.  It’s a challenge to open up my mind (and throat) to new flavors and textures, and sometimes just the thought of a new food sets me up for not having an open mind.  For example, the buffalo stomach didn’t really taste bad at all – it was the rubbery texture and the thought of it that was most challenging.  Sometimes I wish my mind wouldn’t override my stomach!

The Trials of Southern Laos……And The Calm of the North

The Trials of Southern Laos…

Our families’ March exploration of southern Laos and our return to the now familiar northeast proved a contrast in adventure and learning. We began in the south by flying into Pleiku, Vietnam, and a cursory research of the tribal art in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.  A rickety day-long bus brought us cross-border to Laos, where we spent a week exploring Attapeu and Sekong Provinces.  The south of Laos proved a challenge to our expectations and patience.

Cows grazing in front of a Soviet ground to air missile used in the Vietnam/American war and behind a fence made in part from bomb casings.

Cows grazing in front of a Soviet ground to air missile used in the Vietnam/American war and behind a fence made in part from bomb casings.

Southern Laos is one of the poorest regions of the world – it is a land still haunted by the atrocities of unexploded ordnance and agent orange from the Vietnam War.  Many of its jungle inhabitants, such as the Lavae people, practice slash-and-burn agriculture, which is proving itself unsustainable in the clash of modern technologies and traditional practices.  The forests are diminishing, and in an effort to protect the environment and elevate people’s living conditions, the government of Laos is relocating some ethnic groups.  The plus side has these people being introduced to sustainable farming techniques, schools, western medical care and the world through television.  The negative is that people’s deep cultural roots and traditional arts are being upended, and sometimes forgotten.

A Katu coffin in Laos made in the shape of a Naga (mythical river serpent) is stored under a rice storage shed until needed.

A Katu coffin in Laos made in the shape of a Naga (mythical river serpent) is stored under a rice storage shed until needed.

Katu weaver displaying her beaded scarf.

Katu weaver displaying her beaded scarf.

A few large trucks rumble by, hauling rock and sand to a newly dug irrigation canal.  Our hired translator, Mr. Si, takes us to several local weavers’ homes.  The simple, authentic Alak designs are beautiful, and these textiles are sold in the town’s market and in Laos’ capital, Vientiane, providing Pa’am with needed cash.  But the people no longer raise their own cotton; the art of spinning and dying cotton for their traditional clothing is now forgotten.  The benefits of Chinese poly-cotton – bright, enduring, washable – have supplanted the ways of previous generations.  One has to look back 2-3 generations in the south to consistently find the traditional handspun, naturally-dyed cottons.  When something is gained, something is always lost.

Travel in southern Laos is so slow it seems silly.  Buses creep along, stopping at every outstretched arm, and average perhaps 20-25 km/hr.  What looks on a map to be an hour’s drive inevitably manages to take an entire afternoon.  And getting frustrated just makes it hotter.  The saying is that the eager Chinese sell the rice seed, the industrious Vietnamese plant it, and the patient Laotians watch it grow.  It’s true.  However, the Lao pace both has the ability to hypnotize us into a delicious, patient trance as well as toss a brick into our western desire for some sort of business efficiency.  Again, something gained, something lost.

A Ta-Oy woman carving a protective mask in her village in Laos.

A Ta-Oy woman carving a protective mask in her village in Laos.

We did have some successes in the south. In a Katu village in Sekong Province we had the fortune to find some loin cloths and other textiles with tiny glass beads woven (not embroidered) onto the weft threads to form unique and striking designs. Attapeu had some exquisite aged baskets, and an old man in an unsigned shop in Sekong had some superb Katu and Nghe true cottons and old J’rai rock-bead necklaces.   We also discovered a tiny, off-the-track Ta-oy village in Champasak Province where we watched a couple of talented wood-carvers shape protective spirit masks.  A woman in that village also brought out a small collection of older boar-tooth adorned protective amulets. We were reminded, once again, that when you slow down, you gain a deeper opportunity to appreciate the skills and talents of the locals and share their time and stories.

Katu couple in Kadok model a  locally-made ceremonial  beaded skirt and blouse, loincloth, and shoulder cloth (over a t-shirt).

Katu couple in Kadok model a locally-made ceremonial beaded skirt and blouse, loincloth, and shoulder cloth (over a t-shirt).

…And The Calm of the North

The north of Laos weaves a different story.  Houaphon, Luang Prabang, and Xieng Khuang Provinces are home to very different people, primarily Tai Daeng, Tai Dam, and Hmong.  These ethnic groups, although they also endured the cruelties of the late 20th century, have maintained and even strengthened their cultural art forms.  Here we find silk raising, natural-dyes and silk weaving the predominate textile forms, and the millennia-old silk weaving traditions are revered by both the locals and by the “weaving geeks” of the world.  In addition, both handspun hemp and cottons can still be found.  Perhaps these peoples have maintained their traditional arts because they settled into agricultural ways earlier and developed a tradition of trade with Chinese, Vietnamese, and other Lao neighbors.  Markets (and thus market savvy) for their wares and skills have reached beyond their own insulated tribal group for generations.

A young girl in Muang Vaen displaying the cotton shawl she wove.

A young girl in Muang Vaen displaying the cotton shawl she wove.

In the north, poly-cotton thread is readily available and used for some types of textiles (such as high use door-curtains and many skirt borders) but the intricate healing and shaman cloths, and most of the scarves and shawls, are 100% locally-raised, naturally-dyed, hand-woven silk.  In weaving villages, young girls are introduced to the intricacies of the loom as they learn to walk.  More complex weaving design-work, such as ikat and supplemental warp and weft weaving, are common (and amazing!).

A woman reacts to receiving photos of herself from our last visit.

A woman reacts to receiving photos of herself from our last visit.

On our 6th visit to our most favorite village, Xam Tai in Houaphon Provice (a Tai Daeng village), we are greeted by master-dyer Souk who pridefully demonstrates the art of creating a broad rainbow of vibrant colors from the jungle’s natural materials and refusing to allow chemical dyes, despite their ease of use, into her work.  She continues to hone her dyeing skills, showing off to us on this trip some new subtle color variations she has recently developed.  She also beams when she shows us some unique and striking new design-elements she recently created.  The textile artists in this region are steeped in tradition, but are also unafraid to develop and enhance the art form.  At “Above the Fray” we are most proud of showcasing Souk’s magical masterworks; her textile arts are unmatched.

Rice fields awaiting the monsoon rains.

Rice fields awaiting the monsoon rains.

We were warmly greeted in Ban N—— (showcased in Winter, 2010); the village women crowd around with gleeful smiles and laughs as we handed out copies of the photos we had taken of them and their art on our previous visit.  Unfortunately, being March, there are only a handful of healing cloths available.  The residents are busily preparing for the rice planting season which will commence with the first rains; once planted, the women will return to their looms to wait out the wet season.  “Be sure to call next time,” one village elder says to us.  “We will keep things here until you arrive.”  The incongruity of their thatched-roofed huts and their modern telecommunications still surprise us.  The elders also show off the village’s new cement irrigation and mini-hydro system afforded in part (if not fully) from the cash that the talented weavers bring to the village.  Markets for their talent and wares, they’ve discovered, exist well outside their narrow valley.

A beautiful  scarf modeled by its weaver.

A beautiful scarf modeled by its weaver.

We also found that Muang Vaen (showcased in Spring, 2008) has grown over the last two years.  A dozen larger new homes have sprouted up, and the 30 kilometer dirt road to this outpost was recently re-graded.  Motorcycles (110 cc models are the preferred transport for all up and coming families in Laos) zip about, and the small local stores seem top-heavy with Pepsi, shampoos, and television sets.  While we in the West may shudder at the advent of such choices, it is an indication of a more stable economy and a more educated, healthier population.  They too want their children to thrive in a rapidly modernizing world.