The khaen (แคน) is a musical instrument that plays an important role in the cultural landscape of Northeastern Thailand. The khaen is the signature wind instrument of Mor Lam: the traditional music genre of the Northeastern Thai (Isaan) people. It’s importance is so significant that villages throughout Thailand are named after the khaen, with the village of Ban Don Khaen (บ้านดอนแคน) in Sakon Nakhon using large khaen sculptures as entrance pillars welcoming you into the village (see photo above). Note that the Thai city of Khon Kaen is not named after the khaen, as the word “kaen” (แก่น) is a different Thai word.
The Thai khaen is a wind instrument that consists of series of small bamboo pipes, each with a metal reed attached, which are bound together into a single unit. you will hear described as a “free-reed mouth organ”. But what does that mean? Well, a free-reed is a type of air valve mechanism used in certain musical instruments, such as the khaen, accordion, and harmonica. In free-reed instruments, a thin piece of metal or reed (such as brass, steel or copper) is mounted at one end of a small opening or channel. The reed vibrates when air is blown past it, creating a sound.
The free-reed mechanism is different from other types of valves, such as those found in brass or woodwind instruments, where the musician changes the pitch by changing the length of the air column in the instrument. In a free-reed instrument, the pitch is determined by the length, thickness, and tension of the reed, as well as the size and shape of the air chamber.
The khaen musician produces music by blowing air through the pipes to vibrate the reeds and produce sound, while covering and uncovering various holes along the pipes to produce different notes. If you visit Thailand, you’ll hear the khaen being played at folk dances, temple festivals, and classical concerts. It has also gained popularity in modern music and is used in various genres including jazz, rock, and pop. The khaen is often played in ensembles with other traditional Thai instruments, such as the Ranat Ek (Thai xylophone) and Khim (Thai dulcimer), to create beautiful and unique sounds.