The khene: a short anthropological history

August 20, 2006

The khene is a wind instrument that consists of some bamboo tubes each with a free reed inside stuck in some something hollow. Each tube has a finger hole so that it sounds when you close the hole with your finger. Unlike most wind instruments which you can only blow into, the khene can be both blown and sucked, thereby producing some pretty vigourous rhythms and exhausting the player in the process. Like most of the other wonders of human technology, it originated in Asia. It may not be the most sophisticated piece of technology to have emerged from this continent but it has been around for longer, I am prepared to bet, than the Yamaha keyboard will.
Way back in time, in the pre-khene age, when any man worth his salt could turn a piece of stone into an arrowhead in five minutes and women did not threaten to sue when they were dragged into caves by the hair, somebody found that if you made a slit in a piece of bamboo it made a noise like an angry horsefly. As the musical world of the time did not provide much competition this particular instrument (not 100 miles away from the modern jews harp) was the hottest thing in the caves and star players received untold quantities of arrows and axes for their performances. Musicians soon discovered another property of the instrument- it was irresistible to women. Soon every non gay tribesman had one and carried it with him on his nightly attempts to pull the local maidens. At that time there were hill tribes people all over Asia and, since they had not yet tried squeezing juice out of poppies, they took to the instrument in a big way. An ability to coax seductive sounds from the instrument was a prerequisite for any young tribesman hoping to acquire a bride. This probably explains why the few hilltribes who never used the instrument are small in number or have died out completely. Unfortunately there is no space here to pursue the subsequent history of the mouth harp and trace its progreess from the hills of South East Asia into the hands of the Sicilian mafia. All of this is covered in an excellent book I discovered published by a German in 1940 entitled “On the problem of the mouth harp.” What amazes me is that, in the middle of the war when any self-respecting German’s one thought was how to beat the hell out of Britain and France, this particular gentleman was worried about the problem of mouth harps. A candidate for the Nobel Peace prize if ever there was one.
To return to the story of the khene, according to one source, around 1100 BC some entrepreneurial character had the bright idea of fitting a gourd and bamboo tubes to the simple free reed of the mouth harp. Don’t ask me how they discovered this- any research would spoil the simple beauty of the fact itself. The idea behind this was presumably that if you can seduce a few women with one piece of unamplified bamboo you’re going to have the whole sex at your feet if you make it louder and more tuneful. Unfortunately, however, things don’t seem to have turned out that way. Women, it was soon discovered, are not that predictable. The sound of the khene proved altogether too intense even mournful for courting so they ended up being used for funerals. Guys who knew how to handle the horn were in big demand when people snuffed it but somehow they ended up staying single while their mates who were less musically gifted were practising what is commonly believed to be uninhibited sex. In any case they would have been so knackered by all the simultaneous blowing and sucking that they would have been incapable of pleasing any but the most sex-starved of maidens. It is, however, amazing what the human mind can produce when sexually deprived and before long other hill tribes found that by using a very small gourd and pipes the sounds were less lugubrious and so they were able to continue using them for courtship. The phallic symbolism of the gourd also meant that it was the ideal instrument to play to accompany the village dances which normally led to mass copulation.
When the Siamese got their hands on it they were at first convinced it was an ingenious way of smoking opium but after a few hundred of them had died in the process, they realised that it was in fact a musical instrument. Even in those days there was a prudish element around and the Siamese decided to replace the phallic gourd that held the pipes together with an innocuous piece of wood. They also made the tubes longer and this is the instrument played in the Issan and in Thai classical music today. In time the Chinese and the Koreans started making the khene out of metal and one of the founder members of the Mitsubishi family put some mechanised keys on it and automatic volume control and, accompanied by some bold marketing slogans such as ‘blow your way to the future’ and ‘sucking foward to progress’, it was ready for export to he west in he early 18th century. It was immedately seized on by some of the early English eccentric industrialiists who had been vainly trying to make steam kettles travel on rails. When they realised there was no future in this they turned their hand to making concertinas, thereby sparking off the Industrial Revolution in Europe. The Germans were naturally miffed by seeing someone else get in first but a Mr Hohner got his hands on it and turned it first into the mouth organ and then the accordeon without which folk music round the world would be a great deal richer and Sonny Terry would have blown a nose flute. There is a bit of a sideline when the missionaries put the whole thing in a small coffin and combined it with an exercise machine producing the pedal power harmonium. Today Yamaha, using the wonders of 20th century technology have come up with a synthesiser that can reproduce the sound of the original mouth harp closely enough to satisfy anyone not familiar with the real thing. And that’s about it.
Except. Except that there is a final twist to the story. At some point in time a rebellious Hmong tribesman with Luddite tendencies smashed one of these khene into little pieces. He then took one of the bamboo tubes and found that he could make quite a nice noise with it. One of his friends made some more holes in it and suddenly he found he could play a complete scale without needing lots of different tubes. To the ecologically minded this was a major advantage as it involved them cutting down less bamboo. Now if you poke around in stuff like this there’s always going to be some awkward bit of information that just doesn’t fit. In this case what bucks the pattern is that in a mountainous region of Northern Colombia there is a tribe that also plays a free reed instrument exactly like the one hit on by our Hmong tribesman. Nowhere else in the world is the instrument indigenous and as far as anyone know it is confined to the hills around Chiang Mai and the top of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The most likely explanation I think is that South America was actually discovered by the Hmong people but there’s not much else to back up this theory apart from the fact that both groups show an above average ability for producing narcotics. The cana de millo, to give it its Spanish name, is played mainly at festivals where the local population incapacitate themselves with cheap chibcha liquor. So the quality of the music itself is not of major importance. A few years ago I met one of the star cana de millo players. After he had played for about a minute, I asked him if he could play another tune. He looked completely blank.’What do you mean,’he said. ‘that is the cana de millo tune, if you want another tune you have to play a different instrument.’ So although the connection between the cana de millo, the harmonium the jews harp and the accordeon may look pretty tenuous, they all originated from the khene. They are all basically the same instrument, with different uses. If you want to play Happy Birthday on it I would choose a chromatic harmonica; if you have charming the fairer sex in mind, you can’t beat the simple jews harp. I had occasion to experience this the other day when I inadvertently played my jews harp in front of my 78 year old Thai mother in law. It took four able-bodied men to pull her off me.
Some may prefer legends rather than hard facts, so here’s a nice Lao story: “It is said that long ago, there was a Lao widow who liked to imitate bird songs. One day, she heard a small bird called the “Nok Karavek” which had its own very distinctive song. To imitate the sound, the widow made a wind instrument first from a rice plant stalk, which she improved by using a small set of bamboo pipes joined together. To make it known to other people,the widow offered the instrument to the governor of her district. It still had not been given a name. The governor asked her to play and was pleased by the melodies which came from the instrument and which he said were better than those made by the other musical instruments which had been presented to him. And the governor said in Lao “Gnang Khene Dair”, meaning literally “this is much better”. At the end of the audience the governor told the widow to call the new instrument Khene or “Better”.

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One Response to “The khene: a short anthropological history”

  1. zynga Says:

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