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
Within a few years Olsen’s playing was what Adler refers to as “basically indistinguishable from a modern Thai performer, which is quite an accomplishment for someone coming at it from the outside, as it were.” He won the respected khaen competition, released his first album in 2006, and began receiving his first taste of Southeast Asian fame.
The notion of an American arriving at a Third World country and then dominating its ethnic music elicits all sorts of glaring questions about appropriation and assimilation, but Olsen doesn’t care. After being widely accepted as a musical master, his primary aspiration seems to have transferred to cultural diplomacy. When he dug into the history of his instrument and learned of its Laotian origins, Olsen decided he wanted to become a proselytizing spokesperson for Laotian culture; he abandoned all Thailand connections to focus entirely on the lesser-known underdog style of Morlum Lao folk. His second album, all in Lao, took three months to record, and had a final budget of $4,000, which by American studio-a-day rates is absurdly low. The money was recouped by the record label, and Olsen’s songs were an immediate hit on Lao radio and in the karaoke bars.
“As soon as I learned about the history, I had to do the next album in Laos,” Olsen says. “I wanted to show my love for the khaen and Lao music. There are a lot of people in the world who have never seen or heard the khaen. That alone is a great reason to try to promote the culture. Now all my fans in America are Laotian, and they support me and my music.” Perhaps this change of national allegiance reveals that Olsen is as much an explorer as he is a virtuoso or civil servant. He readily admits to a certain Guinness book sense of pride for being the first to plunge his flag firmly in this cultural soil. “There are already two other foreigners in Thailand who sing Thai songs and are very popular,” he says, “and I thought I would try to be different from them so it didn’t seem like another foreigner trying to copy something that has already been done.”
But Olsen remains grateful for the deep niche he has discovered. He titled the new album Koi Huk Sao Lao (translated: I Love Laos Lady) as one of his proclamations of earnest love toward everything about the culture, including its women. His songs contain jokes about “whenever a white guy likes a dark-skin lady,” and he makes constant proclamations about finding and marrying a Lao girl. These albums and karaoke tapes are his offering to the Laos culture, and in exchange, they have accepted him as one of their own. The title of his recent VCD comes right out and says it: “Jonny Wants to Be Lao”; and one of his newest singles is a song called “Born in the Wrong Country.”
“It’s something the Lao people have been telling me,” Olsen says. “They say, ‘Wow, Jonny, you are just like Lao people. We think you were born in the wrong country.’ So I took this idea and told a songwriter in Laos to write a song for me and now it is one of my top hits.”
For more information on Jonny Olsen, visit www.myspace.com/jonnyplayskhaen.