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World Music Instrument: The Lao Khaen

We continue our series of reports on the fascinating variety of world music instruments with an article by Christopher Adler, Ph.D.

The khaen is a free-reed mouth organ of the Lao people who live primarily in lowland Laos and the Northeastern region of Thailand (also called Isaan). The instrument consists of two rows of bamboo pipes that are mounted in a wooden windchest. The number of pipes can be between six and eighteen, but the most common form has sixteen pipes. Into each pipe is set a piece of flat metal with a tongue cut into it—this is the free-reed that vibrates whether the players blows into, or draw air out of the instrument, producing a continuous sound. Each pipe has a small finger hole near its reed that acts as an air escape valve, preventing the pipe from sounding unless covered by the player. And so the instrument can sound as many pipes as the player can cover, making it a polyphonic instrument—although the conventional musical texture is a combination of one or more sustaining drones with a melody that may be ornamented or harmonically embellished.

A spirit healing ritual in Northeast Thailand. Photo by Supeena Insee Adler, used by permission.

A spirit healing ritual in Northeast Thailand. Photo by Supeena Insee Adler, used by permission.

As a native instrument with rural origins, unaffiliated with elite royal cultures in the region, the khaen is upheld as a symbol of Lao cultural identity throughout the region and among the Lao diaspora worldwide. The instrument has also been adopted by other ethnic groups in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, and is closely related to other free-reed mouth organs found throughout East and Southeast Asia.

Among the Lao, the khaen is traditionally played by both amateur and professional musicians to accompany solo singers called maulam in entertainment settings and sometimes also in spirit rituals. The music can be heard at temple festivals, in local markets, and in professional concerts, and is also taught in public schools and universities. Traditional performance genres are still maintained but are less popular than newer contemporary folk-pop fusions.

A maulam singer and dancers accompanied by a pong lang ensemble in Northeast Thailand. Photo by Mahasarakham University, used by permission.

A maulam singer and dancers accompanied by a pong lang ensemble in Northeast Thailand. Photo by Mahasarakham University, used by permission.

One such modernized form includes the khaen along with newer folk instruments as accompaniment to dance or singing. This ensemble, known as wong pong laang, is ubiquitous in Northeast Thailand at schools and universities and is presented nationally and internationally as a musical symbol of the Isaan region.

The khaen is also found in folk-pop fusion genre called lam sing, where the instrument appears as a visible sign of ethnic and regional identity, but is often sonically overwhelmed by other amplified instruments.

See the khaen in action on YouTube: Khaen Master Sombat SimlahLao Khaen Master Lung Kong |  Folk—Pop Fusion Wong Pong Laang

Christopher Adler, Ph.D is a former board member of the Center for World Music,  and is a composer, performer and improviser living in San Diego, California. In addition to being a Professor at the University of San Diego, he is internationally recognized as a foremost performer of new and traditional music for the khaen.