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Considering how widespread instruments such as the harmonica, the accordion and the reed organ have been over the last century and a half (the harmonica is often described as the most popular instrument in the world, in terms of units manufactured and sold each year) and the long history that free reed instruments have had in Asia, surprisingly little has been written about them. Much of what has been written is grossly oversimplified and often simply inaccurate. The usual "history" relates that a sheng was brought over to Europe in the 18th century and this started a wave of experimentation that lead to the development of instruments such as the reed organ, the harmonica, the concertina and the accordion. Whilst this is not exactly untrue, it ignores many facts - the free reed had been described in the West prior to this event, the sheng is just one of many free reed mouth organs from Asia and the mouth organ is just one of a wide variety of free reed instrument types. I am hoping that the articles presented here will go some way to filling the gaps in the history of mouth blown free reed instruments (there have been several books written on the reed organ and the various bellows-driven free reed instruments), although I make no pretence at completeness.
Many problems have faced organologists (those who study musical instruments) who have enquired after the Asian free reed instruments. One is that similar names are often used for both free reed instruments and non free reed instruments. For example, in various parts of South East Asia, the word pi is used to denote various oboe-like double-reed instruments, as well as various free reed pipes. Similarly, the word klui is used in Thailand as a generic term for pipes, including both free reed pipes and simple flutes. Also, many free reed instruments, particularly free reed pipes, when they are being played can look very much like flutes or clarinet-type instruments.
The instruments in this article are presented starting with the more simple ones and working toward those of greater complexity. This does not necessarily assume that the instruments described evolved in this manner. Although it is likely that in many cases complex instruments evolved from more simple ones, it is also entirely possible that certain instruments are in fact simplified versions of more complex ones. I would also like to point out that I ascribe no superiority to those instruments of more complex construction - the music played on the simple enggung can often be as moving as the music played on the more "sophisticated" sheng.
It may also be worth noting that the way in which words from Asian languages are rendered in the Western alphabet can vary a great deal and there are also many different languages and dialects found in most countries in Asia. For example, the people called the Hmong are often known by the Chinese name Miao. In older Western texts, this was often spelled Meo, or Miau, although Hmong people themselves render their name in the Western alphabet as Hmoob. Likewise, the traditional mouth organ of the Hmong is known to them as the qeej, which is sometimes rendered phonetically in the Western alphabet as gaeng or kheng. The same instrument is frequently called by its Chinese name of lusheng, or by variations of other names commonly used for mouth organs in South East Asia, such as khaen, ken, kyen, khÌn, k/nh, etc. Obviously, this can get quite confusing, so I apologise in advance. In some cases I have chosen to use Han (Mandarin) Chinese names as a sort of standard term for certain instruments - I would like to make it very clear that in so doing, I mean no disrespect to any of the various minority groups in China or the rest of Asia. (Note: On some pages I also give instrument names using Asian characters. If you do not have Asian character sets installed in your browser, they may appear as little square boxes, question marks or blank spaces.)
Finally, unless stated otherwise, all photographs used in this article are of instruments from my own collection and all audio examples are of my own playing.
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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