Khene: The Mouth Organ of Laos
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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.
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.
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.
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.
More Information on the Khene
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