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.”
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.
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“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.