The Khaen: Place, Power, Permission, and Performance

Between April and July 2015, I lived and worked in the Isan region of Thailand, where I heard a bamboo free-reed mouth organ known as the khaen. Its reedy tone, lilting melodies, and flavourful harmonies intrigued me enough that I started learning how to play it, which enabled me to forge a connection with this particular place. When I returned to Vancouver, I started researching how this instrument contributes to a place-based identity for Isan people, and wrote my MA thesis on this topic.

 Rice Field near the Mekong River in Don Tan, Mukdahan Province

Rice Field near the Mekong River in Don Tan, Mukdahan Province


While living in the Isan region in Mukdahan province, Thailand I had the opportunity to start learning the traditional wind instrument the khaen (in Thai, แคน, also transliterated as khène). This thesis outlines the combination of methods that has allowed me to continue to play while tackling broader questions surrounding permission and place that arise when musicians, dancers, or artists work with materials from other cultures. Through an examination of the geographical, historical, and social contexts of the Isan region I have organized my research around the central themes of place, power, permission, and performance. My intent is to validate the process of knowledge acquisition and the value of what one has learned through action, specifically musical performance, and to properly situate such action within contemporary practice where it can contribute to the development and continuation of an endangered art form.

You can read or download a copy of my thesis here.


An earlier version of this paper was presented at the UBC Southeast Asian Studies Graduate Students' Conference in April 2015.