11 Pipers Piping: Laos Khene player

Laos Khene
People/Country: Laos   (Lao Peoples’ Democratic Republic) 

Instrument:/ (Figure)  Khene* ( bamboo mouth organ, metal reed)

Border/Corners: Night Market book, Baci ceremony, Hmong applique, Caged bird, Day Market, Luang Prabang* temple mosaic

§  ສະບາຍດີ (sa-baai-di)    Hello

The largest ethnic group in the country is the Lao people, who give the country’s name it’s significance, but the official name is  “the Lao People's Democratic Republic”  The National Instrument of Laos is the khene, (pronounce caan), a kind of mouth organ, made with bamboo "pipes' connected in a hollow wood reservoir through which air is blown.   Similar instruments date back the the Bronze Age. The most fascinating part of this small  instrument is its brass or silver free reed.  It is related to later free-reed instruments, such as the harmonica or bandoneon and the Chinese sheng.  The Khene is also popular with the ethnic Lao populations in Cambodia and Thailand and with the Tai and Muong people in Vietnam. The Khene is traditionally played at many ceremonies and celebrations, including weddings, funerals, Buddhist celebrations, dancers and  concerts. 

The figure in this image is wearing traditional Lao male clothing. Unlike the long, wrap around skirts for women called Sinh, the Salong for men is actually a loose-fitting pantaloon or peasant pants, usually tied at the waist.

Border and Corners:

I had fun thinking about what to use for the border  and corner designs, since I had so many fond  memories of my visit to Laos, and I wanted to share some to those memories (traditions and stories) with you.

Corners: The upper, left corner represents the decorative marigold and banana leaf centerpiece of the Baci Ceremony or Soukhwan.  This is not so much a religious ceremony, but rather a cultural act of welcoming. It is used for visitors, at weddings, and to welcome new babies. We were fortunate to be  part of this ceremonial welcome when we arrived in Luang Prabang, Laos.  By tying a white cotton string around the guests wrists, all the parts of the soul are summoned back together. 

The upper, right corner is a common, stylized pattern meant to represent an elephant's footprint among the Hmong people, also known as Lao Soung (highland people), the third largest ethnic group in Laos, representing almost 10% of the population. Hmong people take much pride in their paj ntaub, pronounced pa ndau or flowery cloth and sewing skills, which include labor-intensive appliqué, reverse appliqué, batik, cross stitch, and embroidery work.

Traditionally, they make new clothing for the February start of the new year.  Their oral history tells that while in China (where the Hmong originated), they were forbidden to use  pak ntaub scrip (their  picture-writing language), so women sewed symbols into the clothing as a “secret message” presented as decoration. The pattern in the upper right corner represents an elephants foot  (ko taw ntxhw) and is a symbol  of prosperity.  This site has images of several Hmong symbols and motifs: http://www.hmongembroidery.org/symbols.html   One symbol shown on this site shows two curved shapes that come together in the middle  to form a stylized open diamond shape. This is the Ram’s horn (Kub yaj) and represents wisdom. We found these patterns repeated on many of the handmade items, we saw in Laos and Thailand among the various Hmong-related ethnic groups.

The lower right corner shows Laotian  bird cages.  I first saw these bird cages with live birds inside at the morning market in Luang Prabang. Along with farm fresh produce, visitors may purchase these birds to set them free. There is a Buddhist belief that dates back to a fifth century text, which states that freeing captive animals can help one gain spiritual merit as it is an act of compassion. Ironically, today, the trade in securing birds for release is making conservatives question that compassion.  

The lower left corner features a peacock, one of the beautiful  mosaic patterns on walls of Wat Xieng Thong (Temple of the Golden City), Luang Prabang’s most famous temple. Built in c. 1560, it was once the site of King Coronations.  The most striking decoration (among many) is  the beautiful, glass mosaic on the back wall depicting  the  tree  of life with a  blue peacocks on either side.  Thirty-four temples in Luang Prabang, including this one, are on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Luang Prabang literally means “the place of the Buddha,” Cave, and the city in the northern part of the country is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Pak Ou Caves, once a 16th century monastery in the limestone cliffs near the Makong River, are full of thousands of statues of Buddhas left over the centuries by worshipers and travelers.  Fortunately, there are wooden steps leading to the  cave, so I didn't have to scale a mountain  to visit.

The side borders are taken from a simple pattern that appears on a handmade book that I purchased at a night market in Luang Prabang. I was struck by how effective such an unpretentious arrangement of lines could be.  Wondering through the night market was a wonderful experience. Once the main shops close and traffic is halted, the streets become full of bustling people (shoppers, tourists, young folks and older), with shops, stalls and blankets spread on the ground offering handmade crafts, everyday items and exotic treasure, street food and the sights and sounds of an after-hours economy. In addition to the book, my husband and I purchased a hand-woven, silk scarf; a beautifully hand-carve wooden bowl, and local food. He got tons of great photos,  and I got a gold-fish pedicure (The fish feast on dried skin.)


Dohn121, Khene: The Mouth Organ of Laos, Hub Pages. 10/11/2019. https://discover.hubpages.com/entertainment/Khene-The-Mouth-Organ-of-Laos

Nuwer, Rachel, Buddhist Ceremonial Release of Captive Birds May Harm Wildlife. Scientific American.  https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/buddhist-ceremonial-release-captive-birds-may-harm-wildlife/  8/1/2012
Pak Ou Caves

Top Temples in Luang Prabang, https://alifewithoutborders.org/luang-prabang-temples/  2/7/2021

Handmade Book (Night Market)
Baci ceremony,Laos
Birds in cages, Morning Market
Laos textiles
temple mosaic
Buddhas in Cave
Fish Pedicure,Night Market

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The Art and Writing of Barbara Rizza Mellin