Khene: The Mouth Organ of Laos

The khene or khaen
The khene or khaen
Traditionally dressed khene player
Traditionally dressed khene player

Click to enlarge

Khene player proudly displaying his instrument of choice. Courtesy flickr.com
Khene player proudly displaying his instrument of choice. Courtesy flickr.com
As a tradition, crowds of people will gather during a celebration to raise donation money for their wat or temple. Courtesy of flickr.com
As a tradition, crowds of people will gather during a celebration to raise donation money for their wat or temple. Courtesy of flickr.com

What Is the Khene?

One Lao poem has stated that: "A PERSON LIVING UNDER A STILTED HOUSE, WHO EATS STICKY RICE AND PLAYS THE KHENE IS LIKELY TO BE LAO OR ASSOCIATED WITH THE LAO PEOPLE".

One of the most unique instruments in the world is Laos' own khene (pronounced caan). The khene is an essential accompanimet to Lao Lum or a lyrical freestyling of songs sung by a Mor Lum or master singer or storyteller. Although most lum music is upbeat, some can be categorized as a sort of blues music, in which the singer is pining for a loved one or is telling a story of tragedy. The khene is use in many types of Lao celebrations not up to and including weddings, funerals, Buddhists ceremonies and celebrations, and of course dances and concerts.

Unique In Its Own Way

Perhaps the most interesting characterstic of the khene is that is its free reed which is either made with brass or silver. The khene does share some semblance to the Western-free-reed instruments as the harmonium, concertina, accordion and the well-known harmonica. But of course none of these instruments are not usually made with bamboo.

Using a pentatonic scale in one or two modes (thang sun and thang yao, which literally means shor-way and long-way in Lao) with each mode having three possible keys. The khene also has five different lai, or modes including Lai Yai, Lai Noe, Lai Soutsanaed, Lai Po Sai, and Lai Soi. Lae Po Sai is considered to be the oldest of the Lai Khene and Lai Soutsanaen is known as the "Father of the Lai Khaen." The khene can be played as a solo instrument (Dio Khene), as part of an ensemble (Ponglang), or as a n accompaniment as stated before, to a Lao or Isan Folk Opera Singer known as a mor lam (or mor lum) [Wikipedia].

The kaen or khene is the national instrument of Laos. The best way to describe the khene is that it's a mouth organ whose pipes are all connected with a small, hollowed-out reservoir which air is blown and reeds are placed inside. The khene is associated with the ethnic Lao and the Issan (or Isan) of Northeast Thailand and dates back as early as the Bronze Age of Southeast Asia. A similar mouth organ instrument in nearby China is the sheng.

Close-up of proper khene playing technique. Courtesy flickr.com
Close-up of proper khene playing technique. Courtesy flickr.com

The Mythological Origin of the Khene

Legend has it that a woman who was trying to please the King of Laos wanted to reproduce the sound that the garawek bird made while walking through the forest one day. Having realized that her journey was long and arduous and that she couldn't safely continue on due to the fact that dusk was approaching, she decided to then create an instrument that imitated the melodic bird whose sound was based solely on her memory. She began by cutting a piece of bamboo and placed a reed inside it.

When playing it, she came to realize that it did in fact sounded like the garawek bird and so with some improvements until she believe it sufficient and when she was ready, she went to the palace and began playing her new unnamed instrument to the King. After her first song, she asked the king if he enjoy her song. He told her it was all right and for her to continue playing. After her second song, she asked for the King's if the second song was better. He then replied with, "Tia nee kaen dae," which translates to "This time it was better." He then told her to call the instrument the khene, or "kaen." The name of course is still used to this day.

Traditional Lao Khene Lessons. Courtesy Laoembassy.com
Traditional Lao Khene Lessons. Courtesy Laoembassy.com

Khene Music Abroad

One of the best khaen soloists in the world is Sombat Simla. Although blind, he has been playing khaen since the age of 6 and continues to dazzle listeners throughout the world (I featured one of his solos in a video). The music of the khaen has also attracted some non-Asian performers as well, includng Universtiy of San Diego's Professor Christopher Adler, who composes for the instrument and English musician Clive Bell (UK); Vancouver-based composer/performer Randy Raine-Reusch of Canda, who played khaen on Aerosmith's Pump (1989), the Cranberries The Faithful Departed (1996), and Yes' The Ladder; and Jaron Lanier (USA). Since the early 21st Century, the California native and ex-patriate Jonny Olsen is the first farang (foreigner) to win a khaen championship in Khon Kaen, 2005 (Wikipedia). His music was also featured in this article.

Tuning

It has seven tones per octave, with intervals similar to that of the Western diatonic natural A-minor scale: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. A khaen can be made in a particular key but can't be tuned after the reed is set and the pipes are cut. If the khaen is played along with other instruments the others have to tune to the khaen.

Almost There! (Hub 21/30)

The National Flower of Laos
The National Flower of Laos

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Comments 40 comments

shamelabboush profile image

shamelabboush 7 years ago

In this hub, I was introduced to strange terms that baffled me, but the musical instrument itself sounds amazing. Greatly written hub dear dohn121, great style.


dohn121 profile image

dohn121 7 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York Author

Thanks, shamelabboush. Until I began researching the khene, I had no idea that it was used as an accompaniment to the music of Aerosmith and the Cranberries. It really is awesome.


Ultimate Hubber profile image

Ultimate Hubber 7 years ago

This is a wonderful instrument. Really impressive!

Thanx for informing the rest of us about it.

BTW Laos has a beautiful national flower!


dohn121 profile image

dohn121 7 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York Author

Thank you, UH. I'm seriously considering learning how to play the khene. I don't think it'll get me a lot of chicks or anything, but it would definitely be cool to know how to play it. Our national flower is very unique--it reminds me (not to poke fun) of an egg, sunny side up! I wonder what it smells like...


mayhmong profile image

mayhmong 7 years ago from North Carolina

That instrument looks so much like ours!

http://www.tourismlaos.gov.la/Hmong.JPG

I love the folktale behind the khene.

Glad it was a girl who played it?!


dohn121 profile image

dohn121 7 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York Author

You're absolutely right May. Although I read about the Chinese Sheng instrument, I haven't actually seen one as it has somehow become obsolete. It's quite possible that your instrument is the sheng or a hybrid of both the khene and the sheng! Maybe you should write a hub on that! (Hint, hint). You know I'll check it out!


glassvisage profile image

glassvisage 7 years ago from Northern California

This is great! I wonder if I've ever heard the music of this instrument before. I love how proud you are of your culture, and I think that it's great that you're spreading knowledge of it around on HubPages!


dohn121 profile image

dohn121 7 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York Author

I was surprised to find khene (or khaen) music used in Aerosmith's "Jaded" among other songs. It certainly has a unique sound that is rarely heard throughout the world. I hope that it becomes more in popularity with the passage of time. Sharing with others the beauty and mystery of Laos is one of my intents! Thank you for taking notice :D

Thank you very much for your comment, glassvisage.


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 6 years ago from Houston, Texas

I had never heard of a Khene. Always love learning new things...so this was right up my alley! Listened to the last video. I liked the sounds made with a Khene. Imagine it takes more than just a few lessons to master playing it.


dohn121 profile image

dohn121 6 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York Author

You are absolutely correct about it being a challenge to play. One of the things that I do want to achieve in my life is to learn how to play the Khene or Khaen. I really would like to someday, just that I have so many obligations right now! I grew up listening to this instrument and hope that others will give it a go from writing this hub! Thanks, Peggy!


Health Tips Woman profile image

Health Tips Woman 6 years ago

This is an instrument that I have never heard of. I can imagine it would be difficult to learn to play. Great hub!


dohn121 profile image

dohn121 6 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York Author

Thank you, HTWoman! I'm glad you like it. I tried playing it as a kid, but didn't quite grasp it. However, I now want to seriously learn...Where to find the time?


prettydarkhorse profile image

prettydarkhorse 6 years ago from US

hi Dohn, I can imagine how this one sound, wonderful as any other wind instruments. There is something unique and sacred to instrument which can be found locally to a certain group of people, it is connected to their rich history and tradition. Like any other Asian country, Laos is rich in tradition aside form of course eating stick rice, I love rice LOL, and I love the way you write! Have a good day always!

Maita


dohn121 profile image

dohn121 6 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York Author

I'm glad you enjoyed this, Maita. Thank you for reading this. I really would like to learn how tho play the Khene one day, but I just have too many other obligations presently. There are just not enough hours in the day for me to accomplish everything. I just love and have always enjoyed the sound of the Khene since I was a kid. Thanks again!


GeneralHowitzer profile image

GeneralHowitzer 6 years ago from Land of Salt, Philippines

Great Hub ha Dohn... We also have lots of indigenous musical instruments there...

So you are also part of the crazy HubChallenge...


dohn121 profile image

dohn121 6 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York Author

Well, no. I did one of the first Hubchallenges when I joined back in July. I did finish in exactly 30 days :D I'm thinking about doing one for either December or January...I'll have to see what my schedule looks like first. I'm glad you stopped in. Thanks for doing so. I'll do my best to support you in YOUR challenge ;)


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia

How do they get so much sound from reeds? It sounds more like a stringed instrument. Great hub!


dohn121 profile image

dohn121 6 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York Author

I know, it's pretty amazing, isn't it? It almost sounds like two instruments playing simultaneously, doesn't it? I'd love to learn how to play one day, but my writing robs me of all my spare time ;) Thanks, habee!


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 6 years ago from The Land of Tractors

This is so interesting and detailed. My husband's current job is to ship musical instruments from countries in Asia and Africa for a Musical Instrument Museum opening in April 2010 in Phoenix. I hope they will have a khene and a sheng instrument on display there!


dohn121 profile image

dohn121 6 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York Author

I might sound bias when I say this, but this really is my favorite instrument as it is so versatile. That really is fascinating that your husband does that. Yes, I do hope that they do display it, so in that way you'll be able to see it up-close. Thanks for the feedback!


Mystique1957 profile image

Mystique1957 6 years ago from Caracas-Venezuela

Wow, Bro! For me all Asian cultures,instruments and music make me soar! Perhaps it is this unique Oriental way of life where respect, honor and age are considered indispensable within society. Sadly, Western cultures are still behind regarding these traits. They are essentials deeply rooted in the spirit and soul of every Asian! Very great hub! I feel Happy because I`ve learned something new!

Two Thumbs up!

warm regards,

Al


dohn121 profile image

dohn121 6 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York Author

Hey, Al. Thank you for commenting! When I was a kid, I really wanted to learn how to play the Khene, but the guy that taught it lived 45 minutes away and so being in a large family (I have two brothers and sisters) with only my father's station wagon at the time, which made my learning to play the Khene virtually impossible. When I became old enough to drive, I became much more interested in football girls and work/money and so did not have the disposable time to learn. Now, I just enjoy hearing it at ceremonies and even YouTube! Thanks so much for taking an interest in reading about the Khene! It sure is a versatile instrument.

Thanks for the thumbs up ;)

Dohn


Krsnamayi 6 years ago

Thanks! My husband and I love the khene! It's been a welcome site for me on the streets of Thailand!


dohn121 profile image

dohn121 6 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York Author

You're welcome! I enjoy hearing it during Lao festivals and am regretful I never learned to play it. Thank you for reading this!


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa

I really enjoyed reading about this instrument. As a music lover I like learning about new things and this was really great. Thanks a lt.

Love and peace

Tony


dohn121 profile image

dohn121 6 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York Author

Thanks so much for reading this, Tony. One of my objectives while here at HubPages is sharing Lao culture with everyone and the khene is certainly a unique component to such. Thank you again for stopping in. I'm happy to have introduced it to you.

Warmest Regards,

Dohn


Michael Shane profile image

Michael Shane 6 years ago from Gadsden, Alabama

Very awesome hub! I wonder where I could get one of these?


dohn121 profile image

dohn121 6 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York Author

Thanks, Michael. I found the site as another Hubber asked me that very same question. I'm going to hunt it down for you and will contact you soon with the info. Thanks for visiting!


Souvanh 6 years ago

Khene is my best lao Instruments i am in New zealand and work from home always listen to khene CD i bought from laos

2 years ago when i went to visit my parent.


dohn121 profile image

dohn121 6 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York Author

It really is difficult for me to find just simply khene music over here in the States. Thank goodness for YouTube! I have an aunt in Australia who I'm planning to visit and I understand that there are current many Lao and Laotians in Oceania. Korp jai!


John Schucker 6 years ago

You can get a 7 khaen, i.e. 14 tubes total, and an instruction book on how to play it, from Lark in the Morning. The book is in English, in case that matters.

http://www.larkinam.com

Hope this helps.


dohn121 profile image

dohn121 6 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York Author

Hello, John. Thank you so much for helping with that link. I'll be sure to add it to this page. Admittedly, a few people have contacted me about buying a khaen--now I actually have a solution to there inquiry, so thank you for that. Thank you.


Themoontickets profile image

Themoontickets 5 years ago from USA

Yes, very interesting! I also can play in special instrument. this is Russian balalajka! =)


dohn121 profile image

dohn121 4 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York Author

Thanks Themoontickets. The balaljka is very cool and unique indeed!


Cameron Cogdill profile image

Cameron Cogdill 4 years ago from San Diego, California

i love the way this thing sounds, do you have any idea where I can buy one (short of laos)?


dohn121 profile image

dohn121 4 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York Author

Thanks, Cameron Cogdill. I'll try my best to find you the link in which to buy the Khene. As soon as I do, I'll post in on this hub article so others may do likewise, so check back periodically.


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 4 years ago from Houston, Texas

I came back and this time listened to some of the other videos where people were playing the Khene. Will share with my followers so that others may learn of this interesting musical instrument. Thanks!


dohn121 profile image

dohn121 4 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York Author

Thank you Peggy W for reading, commenting, and then sharing this with others. I get homesick whenever I hear khene music. There really isn't anything like it, so please do share this with others.


aljohn alpas 3 years ago

I like this picture and I love It


Sunthorn Skulpone 2 years ago

When you said "......Using a pentatonic scale in one or two modes (thang sun and thang yao, which literally means shor-way and long-way in Lao) with each mode having three possible keys......."

What are the three keys of each mode?

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