The kaen (also spelled “khene”) is a free-reed bamboo mouth organ. It is complex and requires many years to master. The kaen is sometimes performed solo, but is most commonly palyed in accompaniment to lum, a Lao traditional vocal art form. Lum is an important part of Lao culture, as contains strong storytelling elements and is a vehicle for passing on the oral tradition. Although lum can be performed with or without other intruments, such as teh kajupee (three-stringed guitar), drums, or cymbals, it is almost always performed wiht the kaen. The kaen is also used during annual festivals and baci ceremonies, which celebrate events such as weddings, births, homecomings, and house-warmings.
Master kaen artist Bounseung Synanonh has been playing the kaen for over four decades. Bounseung learned the kaen from elders in his home village of Savannakhet, Laos. As a boy, Bounseung had such passion for the kaen and desire to learn that he would follow a kaen artists around his village, listening to and mimicing the instrument’s sounds. Bounseung learned the kaen entirely by ear, as most Lao musicians do. Through a combination of this type of self-learning and his dedication to practice hours at a time, Bounseung became one of the best kaen players in his village, and today, is considered by many the best kaen player in the United States. In 1987, Bounseung performed for President Ronald Reagan at the White House. He also recorded with the World Music Institute under the direction of Terry Miller, a world-renowned ethnomusicologist. In 2007, he performed at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C.
In 2008, Bounseung participated in ACTA’s Apprenticeship Program with apprentice Monty Bouasone. The apprenticeship developed Monty’s skill level in the various playing techniques from different regions in Laos.