Don’t think that making a khaen is easy

Some people think it must be quite easy to make a khaen, the simple looking traditional Lao musical instrument. In reality, it isn’t easy at all and the instrument can only be made by experts.
On a recent hot afternoon in Vientiane, khaen maker Mr Amphay Khanthavongsa sat quietly outside his home in Phonthan village, Xaysettha district, as he assembled one of the instruments. 
The 58-year-old has been using his free time to teach students at the National School of Performing Arts how to play traditional instruments such as the reed khaen.
“This instrument is light, not heavy, but I it takes a lot of work to make just one,” he says.
“Even before I started learning how to make a khaen from my teacher at school in 1980, I could play the khaen from the age of 10. People with experience in this, including the craftsmen who were our teachers, have almost all died. Those remaining today are their disciples and students, and I am one of them,” he adds.
Mr Amphay was among more than 10 people who learnt how to make a khaen from a teacher named Mr Konh, but only a few of them finished the course. 

Khaen maker Mr Amphay blows into a bamboo tube to test its sound.

“It is very difficult because there are 16 to 18 bamboo tubes in one khaen, which a player blows into to produce sounds. If you’re not patient, it won’t be possible for you to learn how to make a khaen,” because you have to bore holes, scrape and polish the bamboo, blow into the tubes while listening to the sounds, and fine tune things till you get the right sound.”
The khaen, he says, imitates the heavenly sound of a mythical bird that local people refer to as nok karaweek or “bird of paradise”. The word “khaen” means better.
Like many other peoples, the Lao use myths to explain the origin of certain aspects of their culture. Not unexpectedly, the Lao have myths concerning the origin of the khaen.
Perhaps the most well known is that of the artists who make and play the khaen around the country.
The khaen played by the Lao people is very beautiful and its sweet music creates happiness among people of all ages. This instrument has been part of people’s lives for such a long time that it cannot be separated from their identity because its music is in everyone’s spirit and it has become part of the country’s heritage.
Mr Amphay says it takes an experienced person about three days to finish one khaen, although some experts can produce one in just a day. A small khaen sells for about 400,000 kip, a medium one for 600,000 kip and a large one for 800,000 kip.
“Previously, girls only wanted to play music from other countries and weren’t interested in the khaen, but now some young people are learning how to play it at the National School of Performing Arts. Many people didn’t like to play traditional music but now it’s one of the most popular types of music in the country,” he adds.
Laos is celebrating the music of the khaen in the run up to Lao New Year next month after receiving a certificate from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) in Paris that recognised the instrument as part of the world’s cultural heritage.
The khaen is indigenous to the people of Laos and has been used by Lao people for entertaining at events for centuries.
The new Hongkad Khaen was the first instrument to be developed with modifications, and can be played alongside other, more common, instruments. This instrument was developed by the President of the Hongkad International Group.
Dr Hongkad Souvannavong, also the inventor of the Hongkad Xylophone HKX-1, has conducted specialised research and is an expert in traditional Lao architecture, decorative arts, textiles, music and the languages of ethnic groups.
“I’ve been playing musical instruments, both traditional and international, for a long, long time, including the xylophone, khaen, percussion, xor, khong, guitar, violin, saxophone and piano,” he says.
“I have travelled to China, Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, France, the US, Korea and Japan to play the khaen and introduce our culture to other people.”
The first professional American khaen player, Jonny Olsen, released his debut album in Vientiane 10 years ago. The album was called “Jonny Yak Pen Khon Lao” (Jonny Wants to Be Lao) and it was also released in the US.
Mr Olsen performs country and morlam (folk) songs with the khaen. He has been studying the khaen and the Lao language for many years.
He has fallen in love with Laos, its people and culture, and this is reflected in the songs on his album, including “Kerd Phit Born” (Born in the Wrong Place), “Sieng Khaen Thaen Jai” (The Sound of the Khaen replaces the Heart) and “Seun Ma Fon” (Please Come and Dance).

By Times Reporters
(Latest Update March 30, 2018)

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