LAOS TRADITIONAL MUSICS
THE KAEN ( KHEN )
The kaen is quintessentially Lao. Music of the kaen is to Lao culture what the Blues, Jazz, and Bluegrass are to American culture. Traditionally, the kaen is the instrument of choice in courtship rituals; it is common for a young man to serenade his love interest with kaen music. The kaen is often played at special events, such as baci ceremonies, births, funerals, homecoming, house-warming parties, and during festivals (‘boon’). It is often performed as an accompaniment to lum or as part of an ensemble; in these settings, the kaen’s complexity is overshadowed by the voices of the maw lum and other instruments. When played solo, however, it becomes obvious that this instrument is complex and requires many years of training to master. With increased global telecommunications, Lao traditional music has had to compete with Western music for the listener’s ears. As a result, the kaen has had to compete with the electric guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards for the musician’s interest. Interestingly, much of contemporary lum uses synthesized sounds of the kaen. LHF intends to play a role in reversing this trend by creating projects to promote and preserve the music of the kaen.
The notes on any given kaen can be found in (and are a subset of) Western music; The notes are tuned to exactly one scale — the major (diatonic) scale. That is, it contains tones (whole step) and semitones (half-step), where the interval between every note is a whole step, except between the 3rd & 4th notes, and 7th & 8th notes. For example, if the kaen is tuned to the C Major scale, it would contain the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, such that the interval between E & F and B & C is a half-step (semitone). In the F Major scale, it would contain the notes F, G, A, B flat, C, D, E, F. Again, the interval between the 3rd & 4th notes (A & B flat) and 7th & 8th notes (E & F) is a half-step. How ever each kaen is tuned, these relationships between the notes hold. It is, therefore, unnecessary for the kaen player to change fingerings when switching from one kaen to another differently-tuned kaen. The result would only be that the music is transposed from one key to another. This is equivalent to using a capo on the guitar, which allows the guitarist to play music in different keys without changing his fingering. A note about whether the kaen is on a major or minor scale. This is a non-issue, since for every Major scale, there is a relative Minor scale which is based upon the 6th note of the Major scale. That is, the C Major scale is equivalent to the A Minor scale; F Major is equivalent to D Minor; G Major is equivalent to E Minor, etc.
This should also be noted that, for optimal results when learning the kaen, the instructor and student should use kaens that are tuned to the same scale.
Styles of play
The Lao classical music is similar to Cambodian and Thai classical music, what sets Lao classical music apart from the others is the kaen. In folk music, namely lum, the kaen plays to stylized rhythms with improvisation (“luke soy”). Each style or rhythm’s origin can be traced to a region of Laos. For example, lum siphandon, sarawun, kawn savan, putai, and tung wai originated in the southern region; lum mahaxai and bahn sawk originated in the central region; kup toom originated in the north, namely Luang Prabang. The complexity of the luke soy speaks to the kaen layers mastery of the instrument. In short, the kaen is performed in both classical and folk music (and, to some extent, contemporary music – lum wong).
Layout of the Kaen
There are several types of kaen; each is named for the number of pairs of pipes that it has. The most common type is kaen 8 (kaen paed). The following is a layout of kaen paed in the key of C. Each note is usually played in pairs (or three’s in the case of A and G). The exception is when playing luke soy, when notes are played as singles. Another exception is when complementary (different) notes are played together. These topics will be covered in future articles.
The Lao violin (‘saw’) is a two-string bowed lute, very similar to the Erhu and Gaohu of China, where the saw is thought to have originated. As a matter of convenience, we refer to this instrument as the Lao violin or saw, although it is not unique to Laos; the saw is commonly played in Asia. In Lao traditional music, the saw is only one part of an orchestra, which comprises several types of percussions (gong and kawng wohng), mouth organs made from bamboo (kaen), wooden xylophones (lanahd), cymbals (sing), hammered dulcimer (kim), and vocals.
The bow is played between the two strings. In a typical saw ensemble, there are four saws, each tuned an octave higher than the next to cover a range of pitches. From the lowest pitch to the highest are: Oh, Ou, E, Leow. The saw is relatively simple, with 10 fingering positions, but is capable of evoking a wide range of emotions.
As in all musical instruments, tuning is absolutely important. The low string of one saw is the same note as the the high string of the next saw below it, although the they are 1 octave apart. That is, Leow’s low string is the same note as E’s high string; E’s low is the same as Ou’s high; Ou’s low is Oh’s high. On each saw, the high string is tuned 3 and 1/2 steps higher than the low string. For example, if the low string is tuned to B, then the high string is tuned to F. In an ensemble, it is common practice to let E be the anchor; once E is tuned to itself, everyone else tunes to it directly or indirectly. As a result of this tuning arrangement, each saw is played differently to produce the same note as other saws.
The tablature system for guitars is applied to the saw. Tablature shows the placement of fingers (left hand). Therefore, it does not does not require the saw player to know how to read music. On the other hand, rhythm is not precisely conveyed by this system; it requires the player to know the song’s rhythm to be able to play it. In the future, we will transcribe songs in standard sheet music to achieve precision. We have developed an interactive system that allows visitors to our website to create and edit tablature for the saw (membership is required). This system allows the user to convert tablature from one saw to another. It also allows users to copy songs from each other. The ultimate purpose of the system is to create an open environment for saw musicians to create, share, and promote Lao music.
The bar is numbered and has two lines. The top line corresponds to the high string; the bottom line corresponds to the low string. The hyphen denotes a sustain (holding the note); the more hyphens, the longer the hold. The ~ (tilda) is a slur between two notes. As a general rule, the sound must not be abruptly silenced, with few exceptions in some songs.