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The loneliness of the last Lao piper

The loneliness of the last Lao piper

Khene player Si Phaly with a long set of pipes.

THE last Lao player of the ancient khene mouth organ sits at his home in Banteay Meanchey province, caressing the bamboo pipes of his rare musical instrument lovingly.

White-haired Si Phaly is now 82, and is mourning the loss of his craft. None of his children or grandchildren was interested in learning the khene, and he may be the last player of ancient Lao songs remaining in Cambodia.

Something like despair crosses his face as he recalls the glory days in Cambodia of the 1960s, when Lao language and culture flourished among the descendants of migrants from Laos.

The lilting sounds of the khene were often heard then, as people gathered to celebrate weddings, festivals and parties, Si Phaly recalls.

Two singers traditionally accompanied the music, making up verses on the spot in the Lao language and pitting their wits against each other, he explains.

“Its sound is so beautiful. It really encourages people to dance. Anyone who feels sleepy will decide to wake up because they don’t want to miss the sounds. The best khene performers can blow all kinds of rhythms.”

There are several sizes of khene, which are made from bamboo. Some have five, six or eight pipes, and they come in lengths of up to 1.5 metres, with the longer organs sustaining a louder sound, says Si Phaly.

“Khene is not as hard to play as the flute because its sound can be made by either blowing out air or breathing in, while the flute requires you to keep blowing out to make a sound. So we can play the khene all day long,” he says.

Speaking in a dialect that sounds very much like Khmer Surin in Thailand, Si Phaly says that he was born in Cambodia near Sdei Leu village in Koymaeng commune in Mongkul Borei district.

His parents were from Laos originally, but had fled to Thailand’s Sisaket province before moving across the Cambodian border to settle in the village.

“My father was also a khene player. I learned how to play it from him as well as from other musicians,” says Si Phaly.

The Lao community gradually expanded, and descendants still live in the village and in Sdei Krom village nearby.

But they were not immune from the deadly influence of the Khmer Rouge stain spreading across the land in the 1970s.

Music was banned. But Si Phaly managed to keep two of his beloved khene instruments hidden. Wrapping them in cloth, he hid them as he moved from one house to another.

He was determined to safeguard them so Cambodians could continue making the organs and carrying on the tradition.

After the Khmer Rouge was overthrown in 1979, the few khene players that remained in the district gradually took up their pipes again, sending the lilting sounds once again over the countryside.

But over the years they have died, and now there are no young singers who can carry on the tradition of accompanying the khene in the Lao language.

The words remain known only to a few people over 60, says Si Phaly sadly.

He takes up his khene to play, its soft sounds attracting relatives and neighbours to hear the music. They haven’t often heard Si Phaly play since he became ill a few years ago.

But mostly his precious instruments stay in the closet – they will survive, even after the last player’s notes fade away.

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