Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Lao Culture: The Khene

An overview of the khene. This traditional instrument is also spelled as "khaen", "kaen" and "khen" based upon individual preferences, and variations are found throughout Southeast Asia, but for the purposes of this post, we'll look at the basics of the khene within Lao culture. 

A very special thanks to the work of Viliam Phraxayavong and others who helped gather some of the research on this interesting instrument.

The typical Lao khene is a free-reed mouth organ, traditionally capable of at least 15 distinct notes, depending on the type of khene in question. 

A khene is constructed of bamboo, with each pipe measuring approximately 5cm large and 250 centimeters long. There are size variations based on the desired sound range of the instrument.  The bamboo is typically 1 year old when harvested and dried for several weeks, then pierced by a small rod with a variety of cuts and incisions.

About 2/3rd of the length, a hole is cut where a tongue of silver or a silver/copper alloy is placed. This determines the melody range. The master khene maker will then add a console that allows the player to block or unblock particular holes to vary the sounds of the khene. 

While a khene can be made in a particular key, once that key is set, it cannot be changed. The other instruments in an orchestra have to be tuned to the khene, and not the other way around.

There are 4 main khene forms:

A "khene six" features 6 bamboo pipes and is used by children or for decoration, and is incapable of the full scale of notes in Lao music. 

A "khene seven" features 7 paired bamboo pipes (or 14 indivudal pipes) and is capable of a good range of low to high notes. It is considered ideal for group performances by khene players and suitable for traditional lao songs and for accompanying folk singers.

A "khene eight" on the other hand features 8 paired bamboo pipes (for a total of 16 individual pipes) It's similar to the "khene seven" but has additional tonal range.

The largest of traditional khene is the "khene nine" featuring 18 bamboo pipes and the widest range of tones.

Traditional Lao legend attributes the construction of the first khene to a Lao woman who was attempting to replicate the songs of the garawek bird. Once she thought she had perfected the instrument, legend holds that she went to either the local governor or the king's court and performed for him.  Eventually pleasing the official, he instructed her to call the instrument a khene. Sources dispute the actual phrase he said to her, but it is generally held to have been to the effect of "this is better/superior." 

In addition to its role in modern and traditional Lao music, the khene is being used notably in compositions by Christopher Adler, a musician in San Diego, and Randy Raine-Reusch, whose khene performances have been included on songs by Aerosmith, the Cranberries and Yes.

As an interesting side note, the Hmong have a similar instrument, the qeej, but most scholars like to differentiate the qeej from the khene based on its social purpose. In a 1998 article for the Hmong Studies Journal, Gayle Morrison asserted:
For the Hmong, the indisputable difference between their instrument and those of other ethnic groups is that the Hmong qeej "speaks." To the Hmong, the qeej is not an instrument designed to produce music; it is a bamboo voice that intones a highly stylized and ritualistic language. Thus "music' and "speech" are inseparable.

The qeej is an instrument that communicates with the spirit world. However, unlike most sacred instruments, it is neither mimetic of the sounds and rhythms of the natural world nor does it communicate in symbolic or metaphoric terms. It is an unusual instrument because of its ability to express musically the innate lyrical qualities of the tonal Hmong language.

Art of the States has several interesting examples of non-Lao composers working with the khene musicians interested in the khene's versatility may wish to examine.

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