Music is one of the reasons why we’re different from other creatures. While language has been around for about 3,500 years, archeologists have found evidence that flutes existed over 37,000 years ago. Musical instruments are a unique window into the culture that fashioned them. Little wonder then, when we are far from home, music can make us home.
Khaen - Laos traditonal instrument
In Laos, the quintessential instrument has to be the khaen. And yet this free-reed bamboo mouth organ consisting of rows of tubes fastened together is more than just an instrument. Like blues or jazz in the US, it’s a distinctive sound, evocative of traditional courtship rituals, wild festivals and sober gatherings, often as an accompaniment to a singer or Molam narrating local tales in song.
Traditional musical instruments can be representative of a rather stilted and idealized version of a culture. The changing uses of the khaen, though, belie such stereotypes. Khaen playing has always adapted to the shifting styles of the times, with traditional performance genres coexisting with more modern interpretations.
Nowadays, traditional instruments face competition, particularly amongst the young, from easily accessible and downloadable pop music. However, Kongdeuan Nedthavong and Jonny Olsen are two people, who in their very different ways, are determined to ensure that the music of the khaen continues to contribute to Lao culture while reaching new audiences.
Mrs Kongdeuan Nedthavong is the perfect illustration of how khaen playing continues to evolve. This former director of the National Library, and master’s graduate from Canada and France is breaking new ground with the khaen. Traditionally, this was a male pursuit with women only allowed to sing. Despite initial opposition, what began through secret lessons with a kindly teacher has blossomed into a lifelong love affair. Kongdeuan’s passion is palpable when listening to her stunning solo performances. She has performed in France and the USA and has featured in several major magazines. She also feels a real responsibility to ensure that traditional khaen playing continues to be an important part of Lao culture. To this end she is a founder member of the Laos Khaen Preservation Group which focuses particularly on encouraging young people to take up the instrument. “For children to have a chance to learn to play an instrument not only helps them develop new skills but also helps them to relax and be more creative.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Jonny Olsen’s experiences show that these distinctive old bamboo pipes can have an appeal outside the narrow confines of Laos and north-east Thailand. Jonny was first introduced to the music of the region by a friend he was working with in a Thai restaurant in Los Angeles. Then, on a visit to Thailand, he heard the khaen in a shopping mall. He was immediately captured by the sound. “It created a nostalgia like my soul had heard it before in a past life.” Jonny feels there’s almost a hypnotic quality to the rhythms that makes people want to dance. He believes the khaen has the potential to go more international. He has played it in a diverse and eclectic range of musical styles including reggae, classical, and even Indian folk music. What does the future hold for Jonny? Well, he’s keen to collaborate with many different artists in multiple genres internationally. He also sees himself teaching the khaen to other interested foreigners, as he’s currently doing via Skype, and maybe even write a book about Lao folk stories of the khaen.
By Somsouk Souksavath and David Fairhurst
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