The Khene is a reed musical instrument so loved and readily recognised by the people of Laos that it has become part of their every day life similar to other instrumental terms such as table, chair, food. Many Lao have learned the word "khene" or heard the instrument being played since early childhood, but few know much about its origin or how to play it. However, some Lao scholars have been able to retrace where the word "Khene" came from in the form of legend.
The Origin and Meaning of the Khene
It is said that long ago, there was a Lao widow who liked to imitate the birds' songs. One day, she followed the well-known hunters of her village to a hunting expedition into the deep forest which took many weeks. She knew almost all the birds in her district by name and by their singing. Among them, there was a species of sparrow called "Nok Karavek" which had its own very distinctive song. To record this special sound, the widow made a wind instrument using the mouth to blow air into. She first used a rice plant stalk, then changed to using a small set of bamboo pipes joined together. As expert in sound imitations, she finally succeeded with this bamboo instrument which she could blow into and imitate the rare and unique song of the "Nok Karavek". To make it known to other people, the widow offered the instrument to the governor of her district. It still had not been given a name. The governor asked her to play and was pleased by the extraordinary melodies which come from the instrument. It is very different from many other musical instruments which had been presented to him. And the governor said in Lao "Gnang Khene Dair", meaning literally "this is much better". At the end of the audience the governor told the proud and ingenious widow to call the new instrument of music KHENE or "BETTER".
How is the Khene made?
Khene is made from a special kind of bamboo, similar to reed, of 5 centimetres (cm) large and 250 cm long (the length and size depends on the desired levels of sounds). The bamboo is harvested when it is about 12 months old and left to dry for a few weeks. The Khene maker or "Khene expert" would use a small steel rod to pierce a hole in the knots inside the bamboo, then cuts an incision of 10 cm about 2/3 of the length of the bamboo, with a blade or a sharp knife. On this hole, a silver (or mixed silver and copper) little tongue with a triangular cut in the middle is be placed: the size of the triangular cut determine the melody level. The Khene maker will then make a small round hole a the side of the bamboo tubes in such a way that when all the pipes are assembled through a timber console, these round holes would allow the fingers of the Khene player to block or unblock them to vary the sounds.
Types of Khene
There are different types of Khene. Khene SIX made of six bamboo tubes. Khene Six is for the use of children or for decoration, as it does not have full scale of notes according to the solfege. It has only five notes si, do, re, fa, sol. Khene SEVEN is made of 14 bamboo tubes in 7 pairs and has low to high notes: do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si. Khene Seven is commonly used to play Lao traditional songs as well as accompanying folk singers. Most importantly and attractively Khene Seven can be played in groups forming a symphony of Khene players. Khene EIGHT is made of 16 bamboo in 8 pairs. The 7 pair is similar to Khene Seven plus one pair that has the sound of do and re. This Khene Eight is mostly played to accompany folk singers and other types of singing. Khene Nine is the biggest and the longest of the series. It is made of 18 bamboo and can be as long as 250 cm. Besides the usual eight pairs of notes, Khene Nine has in addition do and re high.
The Khene in Lao Society: its musical, artistic and spiritual attractions
Studies made by Associate Professor of Musicology, Mr Charoenchay Xonphayroj of Srinakhoneviroj University of Mahasarakham, Thailand, shows that the Khene is used in some parts of India and the Middle East in different forms. According to the history of the TAI group of people of the Tibeto-Mongolian branch such as the Black Tai, the White Tai, the Red Tai, the Lu, Yao, Hmong, the Lao in Laos, the Lao in the North East of Thailand, the Lao of Xieng Mai, the Khene is found extensively used among them as part of their life. One Lao poem has stated that: "A PERSON LIVING UNDER A STILTED HOUSE, EAT STICKY RICE AND PLAY THE KHENE IS LIKELY TO BE LAO OR ASSOCIATED WITH LAO PEOPLE".
In the 14th century the territory of LANXANG (old name for Laos) on the right bank of the Mekong River extended to the present province of Khorat or Nakhornrajasima in Thailand. Wars between the two neighbouring countries resulted in the deportation of many Lao people living on the left bank of the Mekong River by the Thai to populate the right bank and to use as their labourers. The Lao deported to Siam, thus, took along with them their rich culture and musical traditions. Many were eventually taken further south to central Thailand by Thai authorities. Wherever they went, the Lao were able to preserve their love for the Khene.
The Many Uses of the Khene
The Khene can be played solo as in traditional Lao music or in combination with other musical instruments to accompany modern songs. The Khene can also be performed in a full "Khene Orchestra". Usually, however, it is more popular in rural areas and is commonly used to accompany folk singers or drama actors.
Laos was called "Le Pays du Sourire" by Auguste Pavie, the first French Consul-General who successfully brought Laos, the Kingdom of A Million Elephants, under France's protection and later made it into a colony. French Catholic missionaries who went to Laos in the middle of the 19th century before Pavie had studied the behaviour, traditions and customs of Lao people. They found the Lao to be peaceful, attached to their beautiful natural environment and a carefree life style. Hard working in their rice fields during the rainy season, but also hard at having fun after the crops are harvested. They liked to travel around the country for trading or helping in community activities in the nearby villages, entertaining each other through folk singing and playing the Khene.
Since 1975 revolution, the sound of the Khene, traditionally used for love and courtship, has also been an instrument to help mobilise the people into communal work for the benefit of the nation. Since the recent opening up of the country to the free market economy, the Khene has assumed its traditional role as a national musical instrument of LOVE and courtship.
The Khene and Molam Among Refugees Outside Laos
The spread of the use of the Khene into Thailand from the deportation of Lao, as discussed above, has been followed more recently by more than 300,000 Lao refugees who had sought refuge from the current regime in many countries around the world. Again, they have taken with them their rich traditions, arts and music. In the new countries, they gather in community organisations to help each other or if the community is large enough they build up Buddhist temple as a rallying point to seek spiritual refuge and to celebrate important occasions with music and entertainment. The Khene again finds its way to these gatherings, and has played a central role as part of the temple orchestra or has been used to accompany folk singers.
Today, the sound of Khene is not only heard in Laos and Northeast Thailand, its traditional base, but also around the globe although it has probably lost some of its impact. Living in a Western industrialised society, Lao refugees have to work hard to earn a living, and so have less opportunities to learn the Khene or to play it. Still, whenever they can they gather at Buddhist temples or in the community halls, and renew their love for the sounds of the Khene. It is difficult to set up a Lao traditional musician orchestra as most of the musicians are not professional or there is lack of qualified teachers. Nevertheless, the attachment of Lao people to this special musical instrument means that it will continue to be played at social functions and religious ceremonies, thereby ensuring its survival and ongoing attraction.
FRANCE-ASIE, Presence du Royaume Lao, Pays du Million
d'Elephants et du Parasol Blanc, Mars-Avril-
LAO REFUGEE YOUTH, Learning the Khene (Lao
Refugee Camp, Nakhone Phanom, Thailand, 1986).
CHAROENCHAY XONPHAYROJ, How to Play Khene
(University of Mahasarakham, Thailand, 1986)
VIDEO, History of the KHENE, Cultures and Traditions
FRANCE-ASIE, Presence du Royaume Lao, Pays du Million d'Elephants et du Parasol Blanc, Mars-Avril- Mai 1956
LAO REFUGEE YOUTH, Learning the Khene (Lao Refugee Camp, Nakhone Phanom, Thailand, 1986).
CHAROENCHAY XONPHAYROJ, How to Play Khene (University of Mahasarakham, Thailand, 1986)
VIDEO, History of the KHENE, Cultures and Traditions Series
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