Monday, November 30, 2009

Yes, They Khene

Last Sunday, around 7:30 P.M., we received a phone call from Duang's brother, "Number 4", asking us to attend a performance that he was giving in Udonthani that night at 9:00 P.M. I always enjoy the shows as well as the very interesting people watching opportunities that the audiences always provide so we accepted without hesitation.

Well it turned out that the performance was not exactly in Udonthani, as in the city of Udonthani, although we had to drive through the city to get to the location. However, the village was in Udon Thani Province so perhaps it was our misinterpretation. Fortunately his girlfriend waited for us in her car inside the city so that we could follow her to the performance.

The performance was held in a small farming village typical of this area of Isaan - in the middle of the rice paddies, narrow streets, and a combination of raised wooden houses and concrete block homes.

Upon arrival we realized that this was another funeral celebration. Several awnings had been erected with guests seated at tables that had bottles of beer as well as whiskey set upon them. Some young women and young men were busy bringing food to the guests.

Off to the side of the awnings and next to the house was a long table. Upon the table were three "bahn" (Thai) "hehan" (Lao). These are handcrafted spirit houses made largely out of banana stalks and bammboo. They are quite ornate and are used as and in offerings to the spirits. Next to each bahn was a framed photograph of a deceased family member. Small yellow candles were burning in front of the photographs.

The people of Isaan, the ethnic Lao Loum, believe that the spirits of deceased people need to be nourished with food and drink. As part of their Buddhist beliefs, the people believe that they can assist their ancestors in the after life by earning "merit" for them. Buddhists believe that we are in a continuous cycle of of birth, death, and rebirth until we reach enlightenment. Until we reach enlightenment, our new life's status is determined on how we lived our last life and how much "merit" we had gained. Living relatives can earn merit for themselves as well as for their specified departed loved ones by making offerings in their name and honor. Often these celebrations are held one year following the person's death however the ceremony is quite often delayed until the family can save enough money to afford it.

Part of the celebration involves having a group like Duang's brother's to perform. It is quite interesting to see go-go dancers, electric guitars, and electric organ perform in an event associated with death. One thing for certain is that at these events there will be playing of the khene.

The khene is a free reed bamboo musical instrument. It is the quintessence of Lao culture and the Lao experience. The khene, which is also spelled "kaen", "khen", and "khaen" is a mouth organ comprised of several bamboo tubes of various lengths, each with a free reed inserted in them connected to a hardwood chamber. The instrument has been around for thousands of years and is considered the mother of Lao music.

Kaens come in various sizes but all sizes share the similarity of being constructed of two rows of bamboo tubes. There is a 6 tube size, 14 tubes, 16 tubes, and 18 tube size. The length of the khene is related to the number of the tubes with the 18 tube version also being the longest of the instruments.

The khene is played by blowing into the central chamber and using the fingers of both hands to change the notes. The instrument is related to the harmonica and accordion of Western music. The sound, to me, is a very rhythmic "sing-song" sort of like a "Hee-Hawing" or braying of a donkey. I find the music to be rather hypnotic and I can easily accept as well as recognize its ancient heritage.

As part of the morlham shows that are widely held throughout Isaan, a portion of the show is focused around the traditional music of Laos or more specifically "Lao" people. Laos is a political demarcation determined in a large part by the European colonial powers. The ethnic Lao people, in particular the Lao Loum, Low Land Lao, inhabit Northeast Thailand as well as Laos. The shows typically start off with rocking electrified music complete with go-go dancers. After about three or four of these songs, which seem intended to get every one's attention as well as to stir them up, the tribute to the Lao traditions starts. The recognition of today's music's origins as well as honoring the Lao Loum heritage involves singing with only a khene as accompaniment. The songs initially are performed by either an older man or woman. They sing traditional songs in the traditional style. The traditional style involves an introduction that involves the extended pronunciation of words in a sort of warbling tone. Each word is stretched out using the singer's complete range until it seems that they will run out of breadth. After the introduction, the singer sings in such a manner that their voice is almost as much an musical instrument as singing the words. As much as I detest American "Rap" and "Hip Hop" (I won't call them music), the traditional Lao music is similar in that it tells stories with the verses often being created on the spot. I am pretty certain that the violence and vulgar lyrics of the modern form is not used in the Lao.

For funeral celebrations the traditional portion is a greater part of the performance. I get the feeling that the traditional music serves as a link and bridge to the past a manifestation of the bonds that keep the family traditions alive. After several traditional songs, the band will play several modern songs - several of which utilize the khene. Since the khene is not an amplified instrument, the khene player will either stick a microphone in his belt or the singer next to the khene player will use their microphone to ensure that the audience can hear the khene.

After completing the modern music set, the performance returns to a very traditional ritual. The relatives of the deceased go up on stage and kneel facing the audience. The relatives have offerings of food, drink, and items such as sahts (woven reed mats) and mohn (ornately decorated small rectangle pillows)set before them along with a framed photograph of the deceased. A singer then will perform several traditional Lao songs in the warbling lament style with only the amplified khene providing the accompaniment.

After the offering ritual, the show returns to it's modern music. The khene player provides great entertainment during the modern songs. Whereas during the traditional music, he was very still and respectful, during the modern songs, he, as we used to say back in Rhode Island - "He gets down and dirty". The khene player dances and prances around the stage while playing. Quite often he accentuates a hard drum beat of the song with a severe pelvic thrust usually in time with similar motions by the go-go dancers. At times the khene player will jump into the air and move his feet through a bicycle motion while playing. On some songs that have fast driving beats, he keeps time to the beat with a flury of pelvic thrusts while playing. No one gets offended. In fact the more antics like this that he does, the more the audience goes up to the stage to give him money.

Yes he khene ("can" - a play on words, they are pronounced the same) and he does.

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