The khene (//; also spelled "khaen", "kaen" and "khen"; Lao: ແຄນ; Thai: แคน, rtgs: khaen, pronounced [kʰɛ̄ːn]; Vietnamese: khèn; Khmer: គែន) is a mouth organ of Lao origin whose pipes, which are usually made of bamboo, are connected with a small, hollowed-out hardwood reservoir into which air is blown, creating a sound similar to that of the violin. Today associated with the Lao people of Laos and Isan, similar instruments date back to the Bronze Age of Southeast Asia. In Cambodia, it is used among the ethnic Lao population of the province of Stung Treng and is used in lakhon ken, a Cambodian dance drama genre that features the khene as the premiere instrument.
The most interesting characteristic of the khene is its free reed, which is made of brass or silver. It is related to Western free-reed instruments such as the harmonium, concertina, accordion, harmonica, and bandoneon, which were developed beginning in the 18th century from the Chinese sheng, a related instrument, a specimen of which had been carried to St. Petersburg, Russia.
The khene uses a pentatonic scale in one of two modes (thang sun and thang yao), each mode having three possible keys. The khaen has five different lai, or modes: Lai Yai (A C D E G), Lai Noi (D F G A C), Lai Soutsanaen (G A C D E), Lai Po Sai (C D F G A), and Lai Soi (D E G A B). Lai Po Sai is considered to be the oldest of the Lai Khaen and Lai Soutsanaen the "Father of the Lai Khaen." Khaen can be played as a solo instrument (Dio Khaen), as part of an ensemble (Ponglang), or as an accompaniment to a Lao or Isan Folk Opera Singer mor lam.
Annea Lockwood composed music for this instrument.
According to Lao legend, the khene was created by a woman who was trying to reproduce the sound of the garawek bird which she heard while on a walk one day. The journey was long and difficult, so she decided to invent an instrument that would bring the sound to her. When she returned to her village, she experimented with many different instruments, including percussion, wind and plucked and bowed strings. Finally she cut a piece of bamboo and inserted a reed into it. Upon playing it, she realized that it sounded much like the garawek bird. She continued to improve the sound until she felt it was worthy for the king's ears. When she was ready, she went to the palace and began playing for the king on her newly invented instrument, which was at this point nameless. At the end of the first song, she asked the king if he liked the piece. He said it was fair, and instructed her to continue playing. After her last song, she again asked the king if he was pleased. His reply was "Tia nee kaen dae," which means "This time it was better." He then instructed her to call the instrument, according to his words, the kaen.
In Thailand, one of the top virtuoso khaen soloists is the blind musician Sombat Simla. The instrument has also attracted a few non-Asian performers, including University of San Diego professor Christopher Adler, who also composes for the instrument; English musician Clive Bell (UK); Vancouver-based composer/performer Randy Raine-Reusch (Canada), who played khaen on Aerosmith's Pump (1989), Cranberries' To the Faithful Departed (1996), and Yes's The Ladder (1999); and Jaron Lanier (United States). Since the early 21st century, the California-born khaen player Jonny Olsen has achieved familiarity in Laos and Thailand by appearing on numerous Thai and Lao TV Shows and performing live concerts in Thailand and the U.S. Olsen is the first foreigner to win a khaen championship in Khon Kaen, Thailand in 2005. American artist Stephen Molyneux played the khaen on his releases "The Arbitrary State" (2010), "The Stars Are the Light Show" (2012), Horsehair Everywhere "When Eyes Walk" (2013) and in select live performances. Molyneux bought a khaen in Bangkok after developing an interest in the instrument while traveling in Laos and Thailand.
It has seven tones per octave, with intervals similar to that of the Western diatonic natural A-minor scale: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. A khaen can be made in a particular key but cannot be tuned after the reed is set and the pipes are cut. If the khaen is played along with other instruments the others have to tune to the khaen.
- <http://www.jiras.se/lakhaon2010/kraythong/info.html>; pictures of performance with the instrument can be seen at <http://www.jiras.se/lakhaon2010/kraythong/index.html>
- Referred to as 'Ken Theatre' or lakhaon ken in <http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0013/001352/135258eb.pdf >
- Miller, Terry E. Traditional Music of the Lao: Kaen Playing and Mawlum Singing in Northeast Thailand (1985). Contributions in Intercultural and Comparative Studies, no. 13. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.
- Miller, Terry E. An Introduction to Playing the Kaen (1980). Kent, Ohio: Terry E. Miller.
- Lilly, Joseph An Introduction to the Khaen of Laos:The Free-Reed Journal Articles and Essays Featuring Classical Free-Reed Instruments and Performers
- Educational Video about Khaen What is the khaen and how it is played
- Khaen Baet and Khaen Hok
- Khaen Repertories: The Developments of Lao Traditional Music in Northeast Thailand Accessed 13 May 2005.
- Audio samples
- Traditional Music and Songs in Laos: The Voice of the Lao Khen
- Art of the States: khaen Three contemporary American works featuring the instrument
- Jaron Lanier using his invented style of playing, extraordinary.