By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Jonny Olsen, a 28-year-old L.A. native and former semipro skater, has spent the last five years of his life transforming himself into the only white pop star in Laos. Among his fans he is known as a master of the khaen mouth organ, an ancient folk instrument, and as the only falang (white foreigner) to win the prestigious khaen championship in Khon Kaen, Thailand. His music videos, which are widely viewed on YouTube, reveal Olsen dancing like a baby-faced, grinning Tom Hanks, puffing on what looks like a bundle of pan flutes that emits a sound somewhere between a harmonica and a reedy accordion but without the Americana warmth of either. In some of these videos he wears traditional sashes (Pakaomas) and a touristy Laos T-shirt, gyrates among scantily, leather-clad Thai women, lifts his khaen to the sky, and raises the roof, as the kids back home might say.
Since first traveling to Southeast Asia in 2003, Olsen has spent most of his time living there, making karaoke videos (a.k.a. VCDs), playing on Thai talk shows, and recording with fellow Southeast Asian pop stars. He is called MawlumMawkhaenFalang, which means, in part, that he is proficient in a traditional, regional music called morlum, a sound that has evolved from twangy, stripped-down folk into the lush and sometimes treacly pop style of Olsen’s current music. “The khaen is sort of a lost art,” Olsen says. “It only appears in pop music these days, and at first, people were surprised to see a white guy doing this. I’m the first white dude to ever play it this way in Laos.”
On the phone, Olsen speaks with the jargon and drawl of his Valley skater self. He stumbles over words and then explains that, after years of ignoring his English, he’s losing his handle on the “grammatical structures” of his native tongue. He’s calling from his mom’s house in Northridge, where he’s been living and working as a video-game tester since the Laotian immigration laws forced him to leave the country earlier this year. While in the states, he tours the country, playing Laotian community centers and ethnic temples in places as unlikely as Tennessee, Virginia, Texas, Michigan and Alaska. In footage of these concerts, Olsen can be seen hyping up the crowd, crooning, cracking jokes — all in Lao. People almost lose their minds when he starts playing the khaen. They start doing some sort of traditional-looking line-dance jig. Most of his income is derived from performing at these venues, where he is greeted with leis being placed around his neck and praised as if he were the Great White Hope of Laos. Olsen likes this. He considers himself a sort of ambassador and preservationist, playing an obscure instrument that, even in its own culture, has been cast aside for the guitar and relegated to being the hobby of old men.
Since Olsen abandoned his skateboard career at age 18 (when he was known as Bad Ass Jonny), he has focused on music. While living in L.A., he often played at downtown DIY club the Smell, sometimes as Master B.A.J. (“a solo project for me to rap about skateboarding and other political situations”) and sometimes with his friend Brendan Fowler, also known as the musician BARR and the co-editor of ANP Quarterly. At 19, after coming off a bad breakup in New York (where he was living during 9/11), Olsen’s childhood friend and roommate Dean Spunt (now of the band No Age) helped him to land a job at Vegan Express, a Thai restaurant on Cahuenga Boulevard. He took the job because he's a vegan, but the restaurant environment quickly led Olsen to an infatuation with Southeast Asian culture. “He was staying with me and my friends, so I got him a job at the restaurant where I was working,” Spunt says. “But he got really deep into that culture, and kept getting deeper, even when I left the job.”
In 2002, Olsen took a typical see-the-sites Thailand vacation with his Vegan Express co-workers. While hunting for souvenirs in a Thai mall, he compulsively purchased a small, plastic khaen, which he later realized was a kid-sized toy version. “As soon as I got it, I was dying to play it,” he says, “and I ran into this private room where no one could see me and as soon as I heard it, something clicked. It reminded me of something I heard when I was a kid.” On the following nights, he dreamt about playing the instruments for princesses while floating through the air, which he took as a prophetic signpost toward his future. “When Jonny came back from Thailand that first time, he brought that instrument, and he would just play it nonstop,” Spunt says. “He didn’t do anything else.”
Through the San Diego composer and experimental khaen-player Christopher Adler, Olsen learned of Ratree Sivilai, a teacher in Thailand. He returned there in 2003 to study with Sivilai in the small village of Huasai. The villagers had never seen a white foreigner, and would pet Olsen’s alien arm hair. To better integrate himself into the culture, Olsen relinquished his veganism. For four months, he spent every night practicing. He understood almost nothing the teacher said, but recorded the lessons, replaying them for days until he could reproduce all the tones the teacher made. In this way, he learned how to sing the sounds of the language before he learned how to speak. “I stayed inside all the time, practicing these songs, trying to sound as native as I could possibly get,” Olsen recalls. “Some others would play a bunch of notes, and they don’t know what they’re playing. I know exactly what I play.”