Mouth Organ or Khen

In the Viet (King) language, the name khen may be used to describe all kinds of mouth organs found in the country. This ancient indigenous musical instrument dates back to times before our era. Illustrations of khen performers in different positions can be seen in vestiges of the Dong Son culture. The khen has been preserved as a very popular instrument among numerous ethnic groups in Viet Nam.

There are several kinds of khen that vary in shape, size, and number of tubes. Khen tubes are made of small bamboo, each laving a pierced bamboo or brass reed to produce tones. The number of tubes is always even (6, 12, 14), except for the Xa Pho ethnic group whose version of the khen is called ma nhi and consists of 5 tubes. All the tubes are fixed into a resonator made of softwood or emptied gourds.

The Khen may be considered a polyphonic instrument. It is either played solo or in concert with other instruments. The khen customs differ from ethnicity to ethnicity. For instance, the E De of Tay Nguyen is only allowed to play the khen indoors during funeral ceremonies. On such occasions, only melancholic melodies are played, and the khen may accompany array tunes.

On the other hand, minorities in the northern mountainous regions play the khen more freely. As a matter of fact, the khen is inseparable from the H'mong men. They bring it everywhere, to the fields and to the market, and it is played on festive and on sorrowful occasions. For them, the khen is used to show their talent to young girls in crowded places. According the H'Mong philosophy, the khen possesses a grand ability of expression. It has been said that “listening to the khen sound, one may recognise if the player is crying or laughing”.

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