Khaen playing back in fashion  

Back in 1975, learning to play the khaen was not very popular among students at the National School of Performing Arts in Vientiane. It seemed that the tradition would die out and that young people were ready for change, preferring to forget the habits of their elders.

Teacher Khamsene gives a lesson.

It took about five years to turn things around and convince young people to attend classes and learn how to play Laos’ most iconic instrument, ensuring the age-old tradition would be kept alive.
Since 1980, the number of students wanting to learn has increased considerably and, starting in 2010, awareness of and interest in the khaen has surged.
Khamsene Philavong began giving lessons in 1977 after himself spending seven years studying the instrument at school.
“I’ve been teaching the khaen in school for almost 40 years now. I’ve taught many famous people as well as foreigners,” he said. 
“There are two schools in Vientiane that teach people to play traditional instruments - the first is the school where I teach and the other is the Education Arts College,” he added. 
Khamsene was giving a lesson when he met with a Vientiane Times reporter. “I don’t know why young people did not like learning the khaen at school or playing in the community four or so decades ago,” he said with frustration.
From 1975 until 1980, interest in the khaen waned, even in local communities. People preferred Western instruments such as the guitar and organ, which were gaining in popularity with the change in musical styles.
“At that time, there were some players but they were mostly elderly,” Khamsene said.
His parents sent him for lessons in the khaen at the National School of Performing Arts after he finished primary school in Kaengyan village, Hadxaifong district. 
As the years passed, he set his sights on going to the National University of Laos like many other young people. He passed the entrance exam but in the end he never enrolled.
“I continued to study the khaen at the National School of Performing Arts until I graduated and became a teacher in 1977,” he said.
When he started teaching, he had a hard time convincing students to learn to play the khaen because many saw it as an instrument associated with poor people. And khaen players cannot participate in an orchestra because they are unable to play certain notes. 
The National School of Performing Arts will only teach the skill to those who show some talent.  About 100 people have come to the school to test their aptitude for the instrument, but there are only a few who are capable of speaking the language of the khaen and bringing out its voice.
“I can tell if someone is talented or not. I only need to look at their hands to see if they are strong enough to play,” said Khamsene.

“It’s hard to start learning how to play when you’re an adult. The best time to start learning is as a child,” he added.  

By Times Reporters
(Latest Update June 22, 2018)

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