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]] The khene (also spelled "khaen", "kaen" and "khen"; Lao: ແຄນ; Thai: แคน, RTGS: khaen, pronounced [kʰɛ̄ːn]) 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 of Laos and Northeast Thailand, similar instruments date back to the Bronze Age of Southeast Asia. It is also played in some parts of Cambodia. The Chinese adopted mouth organs at an early point, and the now-obsolete yu may have been similar in construction to the modern khaen. The Chinese today call their most widely used mouth organ sheng.

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, Lai Noi, Lai Soutsanaen, Lai Po Sai, and Lai Soi. 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.


Mythological origin

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.[citation needed]


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 notoriety 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.


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 can't 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.


  • Khaen Repertories: The Developments of Lao Traditional Music in Northeast Thailand Accessed 13 May 2005.
  • 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

External links




Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary



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Alternative forms

  • khaen
  • khène
  • kène


From Lao ແຄນ (khëën).


  • IPA: /kɛːn/




khene (plural khenes)

  1. A traditional musical instrument of Laos, being a type of bamboo mouth organ.
    • 1951, Norman Lewis, A Dragon Apparent, Eland 2003, p. 296:
      There are processions led by dancers with castanets and accompanied by musicians playing the Kène.
    • 1997, Dolly Brittan, The Hmong, Rosen Publishing 1997, p. 32:
      The khene was once used to call warriors to fight. Now it is used for ceremonies.
    • 2000, Simon Broughton et al., The Rough Guide to World Music, Rough Guides 2000, p. 171:
      The Lao khaen, however, is the most sophisticated of all the bamboo mouth organs – it takes great skill to play it properly.
    • 2001, Mervyn Brown, War in Shangri-La, Radcliffe 2001, p. 155:
      I then suggested that he should play a tune on the khène while I improvised an accompaniment on the ukelele.


See also

  • kèn (traditional shawm of Vietnam)


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