June 29th, 2008 | Published in Artists
It is not my usual morning routine to get up at daybreak, so you can be certain it was very special occasion that I made the exception. 6am California time translates to 8pm Vientiane time, and the only time Aluna Thavonsouk had available in her busy schedule that week to talk with me on the phone about her exciting dual-career: cool pop-idol by night, dynamic businesswoman by day.
First, the music. If you have not already heard, Day 3 of “Where in the World is Matt Lauer” took NBC’s Today Show to the footsteps of the That Luang stupa in Vientiane, Laos. In addition to history, culture and cusine, the Today Show featured an introduction to modern Laotian music — a fusion of traditional instruments and contemporary beats. The Today Show singled out 29 year old Vientiane born singer Aluna as one of the artists in the forefront of the post-modern revolution in Laotian music.
Aluna’s self-titled first album, released in January 2005, included her playing the guiar, piano, keyboard even the harmonica. Aluna lent her talents to several national advertising campaigns for major telecommunication companies, including TIGO and Tango. Her voice is featured on the tracks of many well-known Laotian hip-hop and pop artists: L.O.G., Modern Dance, Kimmy, Nalin. Aluna did concert-tours throughout northern and southern Laos. She has traveled to the United States to perform concerts for the Laotian communities in Seattle, Chicago and Minneapolis/St Paul, and was a special guest at a charity concert in Los Angeles. She has been a cultural ambassador, performing in Pan-Asian concerts in Japan and throughout Southeast Asia. In her visits to Laotian people living in France, Australia, the U.S., Canada and in England, Aluna says, “I can still receive the warm welcome of Lao people in the Lao way/the Lao culture.”
Three years after the success of her first album, Aluna has embarked on the release of her latest work, simply titled “ALUNA Part II.” She dutifully thanks her family for her success. She learned to play instruments and compose music from her father and uncles at an early age and her family continues to be supportive of her career. In many ways, she is no different than any young woman growing up in the west, listenings to all kinds of music — Pop, Rock, Country, Blues, Jazz, Hiphop and R&B, Justin Timberlake, the Beatles, Maria Carey, Alicia Keys. She is also a proud fan of Morlum Lao. Laotian Artists that inspire her include Boungen Saphouvong, William Voradeth.
Aluna admits that being surrounded by the music and soap operas of neighboring Thailand since her teens, it is difficult to not be unconsciously influenced by it. But, she recalls that a certain point, when the Laotian government opened the door more to talented younger artists, both in song writing and singing. Laotians began to support unique Laotian music more and more. “That is everything to us, to me as an artist (a singer and a songwriter),” says Aluna, “and I believe that most of us are willing to improve our work to impress the Lao fans both in the country and outside of Laos.” Aluna’s goal is to take Laotian music to an international level and is actively looking for new sounds to represent a distinctive Laotian style.
On the delicate topic of politics in Laos, Aluna explains “I am quite happy at what we have here in terms of the censorship. I do not feel uncomfortable in expressing my thoughts and feelings in writing and singing songs at all. I am pretty sure that we have more than one way to say exactly what we mean to say.”
Aluna grew up in Laos and lived with her family in Vientiane most of her life. She excelled in academics and was awarded a scholarship to study in Australia, and received a Bachelor’s Degree from Deakin University in Melbourne. Her major in E-Commerce and Marketing has been instrumental in her second career. When not touring or performing live, Aluna helps with the daily management of her family’s business, Thavonsouk Hotels & Resorts in Vang Vieng. Formerly a quiet stop over between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, the small town of Vang Vieng has in recent years transformed into a bustling eco-travel destination. Tourists come from all over Europe and the world to experience the raging rapids, limestone hills, caves and caverns.
Aluna relates that “of course tourism brings in a lot of income to Laos … tourism has opened up Laos in terms of the culture, traditions and lifestyle,” but she adds that “with the interest and attention, tourism can also bring negative things.” Many fear that with the rapid growth in tourism, Laos may suffer the woes of Thailand’s tourism industry: prostitution, drugs and crime. “In my opnion,” says Aluna,”it really depends on how well we can manage, control and monitor the certain behaviors and characters of some tourists. If the rules, terms and conditions are well preserved and strictly followed, of course tourism will bring more positive impact than the negative things to Laos.”
When asked about her dual roles as performer and manager, Aluna explains the two different roles are not that different. “Both roles,” she explains, “are to make people happy; just in the different ways.” However, she admits that she does sometimes feels “weird” about it all. Although it has been three years since she started being recognized in public, she still can’t entirely cope with the fame, especially when customers come to the front desk to ask, “are you Aluna the singer?” She prefers to say it’s her little sister. She says that lately, her name appears on one of the well know guide books, exposing her job as the resort manager and and pop singer. “It is so weird when people are checking in and asking is Aluna here?” She finds her self wanting to just be a manager when she is at the resort, and just playing one role at a time. Aluna sounds exhausted when she decribes her workday:”There are situations that I have to run around serving from table to table, making sure that my customers get their food in time as well as checking if the tap water in their toilet is fixed. This is my role when I am at my resort. It is a long hour-working day from 6am to 10pm. Most of the make up I wear seems to fade away by half of the day and I can’t be bothered to put it on again … then I just become the typical Aluna, the manager. Some people have expectations, especially your fans. Most of them will prefer to see the image of you.”
Well, my impression of of Aluna is that she is an especially humble and funloving person. Despite my inability to stay wide awake for our the early morning chat, Aluna stayed in good spirits and jokingly hinted at interviewing herself. Such an overchiever.
It was by chance that the Today Show was in Laos at the pace where Aluna was releasing her second album, ALUNA Part II. Her first single, “Khaum HooSuek Bork” came up number 1 on most of the radio and TV charts in Laos. It also topped the charts of a Lao Music Program on a hit station in Thailand. The Today Show crew followed her to her live concert at the Mekong Deck, a modern restaurant and beer garden in Vientiane, just three days before the live show at the That Luang Stupa.
This summer Aluna adds televsion producer to her resume. She is traveling south with a camera crew to cover the “Malaysia Truely Asia” tourism campaign. Her show will be highlighting the “Rainforest World Music Festival.” Although she is excited about the fabulous opportunity to attend the event, she regrets that Laos was a bit late to join in
with the performance and hopes that maybe next year she can show-off her ability on the Khene. You go girl!
Don’t be shy. Visit Aluna’s official fan site at http://alunafanclub.com. The next time you visit Laos, you can also stop in at her family’s Thavonsouk Resort http://www.thavonsouk.com/. Don’t forget to be nice, you never know …
A version of this article appears in Lao Roots Magazine issue #5 (2008).