Making wind musical instruments in Thanh Hoa

By Le Hoang    February 18, 2021 | 02:43 pm GMT+7
Ha Van Tinh in Thanh Hoa Province has to cross many hills to source the right kind of bamboo and spends days making his traditional wind instrument, the Thai khaen.
Ha Van Tinh is approaching 60 but the man from Ban Village, Quang Chieu Commune, Muong Lat District in Thanh Hoa Province has never ceased his devotion to the making of khaen and mastering its sounds.  The Khaen pipe is a mouth organ made of slender bamboo used as a solo instrument or to accompany folk songs. It has many cousins in various areas of Asia like sheng in China, sho in Japan and saenghwang in South Korea. In Vietnam, the instrument is a part of the cultural heritage of Thai and Muong ethnic groups.  Despite being an iconic instrument with sacred value for Thai people, it is now much less popular, Tinh commented.

Tinh is approaching 60 but the man from Ban Village, Quang Chieu Commune in the central province's Muong Lat District has never ceased his devotion to the making of khaen and mastering its sounds.
The khaen pipe is a mouth organ made of slender bamboo used as a solo instrument or to accompany folk songs. It has many cousins in various areas of Asia like "sheng" in China, "sho" in Japan and "saenghwang" in South Korea.
In Vietnam, the instrument is a part of the cultural heritage of Thai and Muong ethnic groups. "Despite being an iconic instrument with sacred value for Thai people, it is now much less popular," Tinh said.

Born and raised in a Thai community in the further reaches of Thanh Hoa Province, Tinh began to play the khaen as a teenager. Around 20 years ago, he bought a good khaen from northern mountainous Son La Province then took it apart to study its anatomy, gradually learning how to make this instrument himself.  It takes seven to ten days and sometimes months to finish a khaen. According to Tinh, the bamboo used for this instrument called manh pao usually grow in Poong Village, which lies five kilometers from his house.

Born and raised in a Thai community in the further reaches of Thanh Hoa Province, Tinh began to play the khaen as a teenager. Around 20 years ago, he bought a good khaen from northern mountainous Son La Province then took it apart to study its "anatomy", gradually learning how to make this instrument himself.
It takes seven to 10 days and sometimes months to finish a khaen. According to Tinh, the bamboo used for this instrument called "manh pao" usually grow in Poong Village, which lies five kilometers from his house.

However, manh pao bamboo is not easy to find partly because of its confusing appearance. It looks like a plant called nua but has more slender and longer pipes. Furthermore, manh pao grows at high altitude along the Vietnam-Laos border or hides deep in forests, making this instrument all the more precious.  On a one day trip, he often manages to find a couple of bundles of bamboo, enough for him to process in a few months. He and his wife usually bring along rice balls to fill their empty stomachs at noon.

However, "manh pao" bamboo is not easy to find partly because of its confusing appearance. It looks like a plant called "nua" but has more slender and longer pipes. Furthermore, "manh pao" grows at high altitude along the Vietnam-Laos border or hides deep in forests, making this instrument all the more precious.
On a one day trip, Tinh often manages to find a couple of bundles of bamboo, enough for him to process in a few months. He and his wife usually bring along rice balls to fill their empty stomachs at noon.

An iron rod is used to pierce the pipe so it could be completely hollowed out.

An iron rod is used to pierce the pipe so it could be completely hollowed out.

Tinh ties them in a bundle and leaves them in the corner of the house or in the kitchen to dry up. The pipes should be of old age, straight, have absolutely no damage, otherwise they would not produce a good sound, he explained.

Tinh ties them in a bundle and leaves them in the corner of the house or in the kitchen to dry up.
"The pipes should be of old age, straight, have absolutely no damage, otherwise they would not produce a good sound," he said.

Warped and twisted pipes are placed over a flame and straightened with a mold.

Warped and twisted pipes are placed over a flame and straightened with a mold.

He carefully inserts the pipes into a holder called po. There are two slits, each holds seven pipes that equate to seven tones per octave.  While keeping the pipes steady in position, The po also includes a mouthpiece in which to blow.

He carefully inserts the pipes into a holder called "po". There are two slits, each holds seven pipes that equate to seven tones per octave. While keeping the pipes steady in position, the "po" also includes a mouthpiece in which to blow.

Tinh uses a small saw to cut the pipes one by one so their ends remain level.

Tinh uses a small saw to cut the pipes one by one so their ends remain level.

Tinh carves out a hole before inserting a rectangular shaped bronze leaf into a pipe.

Tinh carves out a hole before inserting a rectangular shaped bronze leaf into a pipe.

Tinh holds a bronze leaf he made with meticulous care.  The bronze leaf is vital to the making of a khaen. It vibrates via air pressure and opens and closes in response to air flow, the artisan elaborated.

Tinh holds a bronze leaf he made with meticulous care. "The bronze leaf is vital to the making of a khaen. It vibrates via air pressure and opens and closes in response to air flow," the artisan elaborated.

Besides making the instrument for personal use, he gives away or sells most of his khaens to those who share the same hobby. The most expensive one was sold for VND12 million ($518.2).  Playing the khaen is a hobby that’s good for your health, helps increase life expectancy and preserves a part of our ancestral traditions, Tinh maintained.

Besides making the instrument for personal use, he gives away or sells most of his khaens to those who share the same hobby. The most expensive one was sold for VND12 million ($518).
"Playing the khaen is a hobby that’s good for your health, helps increase life expectancy and preserves a part of our ancestral traditions," he said.

Ngan Trong Hiep, chairman of Quang Chieu Commune People’s Committee revealed Tinh was not only known for his excellent workmanship but was considered the best khaen soloist in the commune. He experiments with many new melodies, playing them to his wife and granddaughter.  The Thai Khaen is usually played to accompany Thai folk songs during festivals, Tet (Lunar New Year) or to welcome guests to the house, rituals or weddings, but not on sad events like funerals.  The Thai population, according to Hiep, accounts for 98 percent of the 5,700 inhabitants in Quang Chieu Commune in which khaen players are as scarce as hen’s teeth and Tinh is the only one who knows how to make the instrument. Although the artisan has two sons, the possibility that one of them becomes his successor is very unlikely.

Ngan Trong Hiep, chairman of Quang Chieu Commune People’s Committee, said Tinh was not only known for his excellent workmanship but was considered the best khaen soloist in the commune. He experiments with many new melodies, playing them to his wife and granddaughter.
The Thai Khaen is usually played to accompany Thai folk songs during festivals, Tet (Lunar New Year) or to welcome guests to the house, rituals or weddings, but not on sad events like funerals.
The Thai population, according to Hiep, accounts for 98 percent of the 5,700 inhabitants in Quang Chieu Commune in which "khaen players are as scarce as hen’s teeth and Tinh is the only one who knows how to make the instrument."
Although the artisan has two sons, the possibility that one of them becomes his successor is very unlikely.

Khaen, a traditional Thai music instrument. Video by VnExpress/Le Hoang.

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