The name khaen (or kaen, khen, khene, etc.) is often applied to many different Southeast Asian mouth organs, but it is most associated with the raft-shaped instruments of Laos and Northeast Thailand.
The instrument consists of a carved wooden windchest, through which are inserted a number of bamboo pipes packed closely together in two rows. The khaen hok has six pipes, the khaen jet has fourteen pipes, the khaen baet has sixteen pipes and the khaen gao has eighteen pipes. Of these, the khaen baet (an example of which is pictured above) is the most common. Recently, a ten pipe instrument called khaen sip has been developed by Professor Samret Commong, for the purpose of teaching traditional music to schoolchildren.
The pipes of the khaen are sealed into place with a black insect wax called kissoot (or khisut) and bound together with a tough fibrous grass called yah nang. Each pipe contains a small free reed made from old coins that have been hammered into very thin sheets.
The reeds are very carefully placed at the one-quarter point of the effective length of the pipe, which gives a particular timbre to the note produced, strongly reinforcing the second harmonic. There are tuning slots cuts into the side of the pipe that faces inwards. The scale of this particular instrument corresponds with a two octave A minor scale and traditionally there are five pentatonic modes that are used: G A C D E G, A C D E G A, C D F G A C, D E G A B D and D F G A F D. There is also theoretically a sixth mode, E G A B D E, but this is not traditionally used as it causes some fingering complications. Here is a short (non-traditional) piece in this mode:
The six pipe khaen hok is often considered a children's toy, having a range of one pentatonic octave:
The khaen is often used in small ensembles and as an accompaniment to vocal music, but there is also an established solo repertoire for the instrument. It is one of the few Asian free reed instruments to have had an English language tuition book written for it (Introduction to Playing the Kaen, by Terry E. Miller).
Traditional Music and Songs in Laos: The Voice of the Lao Khen - audio files
Acoustics of the Khaen, by James Cottingham and Casey Fetzer
A YouTube Playlist devoted to the khaen.
A Brief History of Mouth Blown Free Reed Instruments
What Is A Free Reed?
Origins Of The Free Reed
Eastern Free Reed Instruments
A Selective Discography Of Asian Free Reed Instruments
Western Free Reed Instruments
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