The Lao Khaen Mouth Organ

29 May


The khaen is a bamboo free reed mouth organ from Laos. It is often called the ancient harmonica. It can be dated back as far as the bronze age. The sound of the khaen is very unique and no other instrument’s sound can quite match it. It is an ancient like synthesizer.  According to Lao legend, the khaen was created by a woman named Nong Giew Gaew, who was trying to reproduce the sound of the ancient mystical garawek bird . The ancient king of Laos had heard the bird in the forest and wanted someone to make an instrument of the same sound to represent the Lao people. She cut a piece of bamboo and inserted a free reed into it. When playing it, she realized that it sounded much like the garawek bird! She went to the palace and began playing for the king on her newly invented instrument, which was still nameless. At the end of her first song, she asked the king if he liked it. He said it was ok, and told her to continue playing. After her last song, she asked the king again if he was pleased. His reply was “Tua nee khaen dae,” which means “This time it was better.” He then had her  call the instrument khaen, which means better.

The khaen looks similar to a panpipe flute as where there are tubes secured and stacked together. There is a windchest in the middle where air can be blown out and sucked in. The air that passes through enters in and out of the free reeds. A black sticky substance called “kisoot,” which comes from an insect, is used to seal the air in the windchest. The earliest known khaen had a total of 6 pipes (three on each side). The khaen also is made with 7, 8, and even 9 pipes at the most on each side. The most common and standard one today is the “khaen paed” (eight tubes on each side), a total of 16 pipes.


The khaen uses a particular kind of bamboo called “Mai Hia.” It only grows in certain climates. Nowadays, khaen makers have a ruler to measure out the size of each bamboo pipe, but in the past they measured by using their elbow to the end of their hand. The size of the pipe along with where the holes are cut out on the top and bottom of the pipe, determine the pitch. Those holes are cut on the backside of each pipe so that they do not show when then pipes are placed into the windchest. In the past, khaen makers would just use their ear to tune but now they mostly use an electronic musical keyboard to match the sound. There are small circular holes on the front of each pipe where you put your fingers over to play each note. If your fingers do not cover any of the holes, then you will hear no sound.

The reeds are made from copper, silver, and gold. They are usually a mix. If there is too much of one metal, the reed will be too heavy and thick. The free reeds determine how easy you have to blow to make the khaen loud. If the reeds are thick and heavy, it will require more air. Some khaen makers have a technique to shave the reed, making it more lighter and flexible, so that it requires less air to make the volume louder. Some khaen makers make their own metal but others use metal from things like drum symbals. The metal is heated up and pounded out flat and thin. The khaen maker then uses an elephant bone to place the metal on to be cut. A sharp knife along with a hammer is used to cut the tongue of the reed on the surrounding reedplate. The metal reed is  fixed at one end, set in or over a slot that is fractionally wider than the reed itself. As a result, when pressure (or suction) is applied, the reed swings freely though the slot to set up a vibrating column of air which gives voice to the instrument.

The windchest also called “dtao” in Lao, is made from a wood called “Mai Doo.” It has an herbal like aroma to it. The wood starts out as a chunk off of the tree and then is made into a  rectangluar shape. The windchest is carved, and sculpted into a horizontal cylinder. Then it is shaped at the end to represent a woman’s breast. There is a nipple at the end of the windchest that is used to tie a string to. The string has “kisoot” on it and you can use it to place over certain holes to create a drone. There is a hole cut out in the front of the windchest so you can breath in and out. Space is carved out for the pipes to be placed vertically through the windchest. Kisoot, a black sticky substance, is used to keep the pipes situated and to keep the air tightly sealed into the windchest.

It takes some time to get the reeds to be “broken in” so to speak. The air that is blown out should match the same force as being sucked in. If it does not, the reed will surely become out of alignment. If this happens, then the pipe must be pulled out and the tongue of the reed should either be pushed down or pulled up. The way you can tell if the reed is not alligned correctly is if you blow out or suck in really softly and hear a strange out of tune type sound. The sound of the khaen could be effected by the weather. Also if the weather is too hot, the kisoot can melt. If the weather is too dry and cold, the kisoot can harden up and then crack off. It is good to keep your khaen in a case or a cloth bag. A rifle case can easily fit a khaen inside. of the making of the Lao Khaen Mouth Organ


Each note has a corresponding octave to it. The standard khaen today has 8 tubes on each side for a total of 16. Your thumbs are used to cover the holes on the top pipes near where you put your mouth over the hole in the windchest. Your right thumb is used to cover the first pipe on the top right side which is the lower octave of A, and the left thumb on the top left side for the higher octave of C. Your right index finger is used to cover two holes on the right side- the lower octave of C and G. Your left index finger is used to cover two holes on the left side- the lower octave of B and D. Your right middle finger is used to cover two holes on the right side- the higher octave of A and B. Your left middle finger is used to cover the lower octave of E and F. Your right ring finger is used to cover the higher octave of D and E. Your left ring finger is used to cover G and the high octave of F. Your right pinky is used to cover the highest octave of A and your left pinky is used to cover the high octave of G. The fingering of the khaen along with the different modes shows that is unique and different from other mouth organs found in Asia.


The khaen is tuned to a certain key but can also play in another key if the mode of the khaen is changed. There are 5 different modes of the khaen. Lai Po Sai, Lai Soi, Lai Sootsanaen, Lai Noi, Lai Yai. There is a possibilty of a sixth mode which is called Lai Sey. If the khaen is in the key of Am then the Lai Yai mode will be in that key. If you switch to Lai Noi, the khaen then changes key to Dm. When the modes are played, there is always a note that is held down for a drone. For Lai Yai, the high octave of E along with the highest octave of A is held down for the drone. For Lai Noi, the highest of octave of A is held down for the drone and at times so can the high octave of D. For Lai Sootsanaen, G on the left side along with the higher octave G is held down for the drone. For Lai Po Sai, the higher C is held down along with the higher G on the left side for the drone. For Lai Soi, the higher D and highest A is held down for the drone like Lai Noi, but Lai Soi does not use F in the mode. It is possible to switch through all the modes just by replacing your fingers over certain holes. Certain modes fit together nicely like, Lai Soi-Lai Noi, and Lai Sootsanaen-Lai Po Sai. These modes can be used to adjust to the Morlum Lao Folk singer’s voice. – Video of Jonny playing all Lai Khaen Modes together


The khaen is played as a solo instrument, with Ponglang (wooden xlophone from Northeast Thailand), or used as an accompaniment for Lao Folk music which is called Morlum. A typical khaen solo would be one of the “Lai Khaen” modes. They also have certain melodies that mimic certain sounds in nature. For example, they have a piece entitled “Lom Phat Phai,” which means the wind through the bamboo forest. Or “Lom Phat Phao,” which means the wind through the cocount palm trees. There are others like  “The Bee Flying Around a Flower.” And also “The Sound of a Train.”  When the khaen player plays with the Morlum Folk singer, the music is highly improvised. There are certain themes that present themselves throughout the music but the order can be spontaneous. Therefore, the khaen player and Morlum singer must practice together for a while to get it down correctly. The oldest form of Morlum is called “Lum Gawn.” “Gawn” means poetry in Lao. Lum Gawn was and is still used as a way of teaching. Lum Gawn consists of Lum Tang Sun and Lum Tang Yao melodies. The khaen player will usually play Lai Sootsanaen, Lai Noi, and Lai Yai throughout the performance. If the singer does not match up to Lai Sootsanaen’s key, then Lai Po Sai, or Lai Soi can be used because they both follow the Lum Tang Sun scale. There is Morlum all throughout Laos from the North down to the south. In the North, they call it Khap. In Luang Prabang, you can hear the native melody of Khap Toom. In Xum Nuah, they have Khap Sum Nuah. In Xieng Khuoang, they have Khap Xieng Khuoang, or some refer it also to Lum Puan. Then in Vientiane, they have Khap Nguem. When you get to the south, they start to say Lum. In Savannakhet province, they have four different melodies- Lum Khonsavan, Lum Ban Sok (Named after a village), Lum Phu Thai (A melody of the Phu Tai tribe), and Lum Tangvai (A melody of the Katang tribe) . In the Khammouane province, they have Lum Mahaxai which is named after a village. In Salavan province, they have Lum Salavan. In Siphandon (4,000 islands) they have Siphandon. There is also Khap Sohm which is similar to the melody of “Lum Phi Fah,” which is an ancient Shaman ritual that is still performed in some villages of Northeast Thailand and Laos. Each folk melody also has a dance that goes along with it. – Video of Jonny playing Khaen with his Lao teacher Somdee Luangnikorn


These days, not too many of the young in Laos are interested in playing or making the khaen. Pop music is a relatively new thing to Lao people in Laos. More and more kids become Pop singers and less and less become Morlum Folk singers. There are however still few left out in the villages but as time progresses and Laos develops more, the future of the khaen is uncertain. A lot of the old master khaen makers are dying out and hardly any of them have any apprentices to continue on the tradition. The goal is to make a documentary about the khaen and focus on the khaen making so that the future of the khaen will be more secure.  The khaen should be more available and of high quality. This can only be done by raising awareness and getting people involved to make the khaen, one of the most important symbols of Laos, live forever.

Written by Jonny Olsen “ຈອນນີ້ແຄນລາ­­­ວ”


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