Khaen Repertories: The Developments of Lao Traditional Music in Northeast Thailand
Priwan Nanongkham

Kent State University
Ohio, USA


The khaen, a bamboo free-reed mouth organ is the predominant musical instrument among Lao people in mainland Southeast Asia. There is limited evidence of its origin but it appears to have been invented and developed over thousands of years in Lao culture. Due perhaps to its long history, the khaen is considered, among the other Lao instruments to have the richest musical literature. In terms of instrumental music, the music of the khaen is considered the “mother” of the Lao music. Its repertories are the basis of the other Lao musical instruments. Most of all, the khaen is a musical symbol of both Lao people in the Isan region (Northeast Thailand) and modern-day Laos.

Khaen music is based on aural tradition. The repertory is called lai, meaning pieces of music, modes, and keys, which can be classified into several categories. However, the highest art of the khaen repertory is improvisation based on a certain scale and modes. Khaen music is based on a five-tone collection (pentatonic scale) which can be divided into two kinds of modes: thang sun and thang yao according to its diatonic tuning system. Each mode can be played in three different keys. As a result, there are six sets of five-tone paths that can be played on the khaen. The improvisation on these six paths comprises the primary repertories of khaen music. The last developmental stage of indigenous khaen music is considered to have occurred during the second and third quarters of the twentieth century. The six primary repertories reached the pinnacle of high technique and virtuosity as well as improvisation. They became the most serious listening pieces before the decline of Lao traditional music due to the impact of westernization and mass media during the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Lao people sing lam or khup-lam (vocal musics) and play the khaen in keeping with the roots of their musical heritage. Besides functioning as informal individual instrument, the play khaen also accompanies the more formal vocal musics. The development of khaen music is based on these two functions. As in most cultures in the world, vocal musics played a more significant role prior to the rise of instrumental music. In Lao culture the khup-lam accompaniment is the most influential music in the development of the khaen repertories.

In northeast Thailand after World War II, a developing vocal genre began to reach its popularity. Influenced by a new-found capitalism, the lam klawn and other Isan traditional genres became “professions.” Khaen music, as an accompaniment of the lam klawn also reached the peak of its indigenous development as well before westernization impacted these traditional musics in the late twentieth century.

This paper will discuss the structure of khaen music and its indigenous development of both instrumental and vocal repertories from the early to the final stages of its development. The correlation between the roles, status and repertories of the instrument and changing social conditions across time will be examined as well.