Mawkhaen Jonny Olsen is a Californian who fell in love with Isan music almost 14 years ago, while working in a Thai restaurant in Los Angeles. On a later visit to Laos, he was introduced to the khaen and his love affair with the instrument began. In 2005 he won a khaen-playing contest in Khon Kaen. In 2008 he released his first album Jonny Yak Pen Khon Lao. A molam singer too, Jonny is constantly experimenting with fusion. He regrets that while people in the West are taking more interest in the khaen, in Laos the situation is completely different, especially among younger people.
Do you think it has the potential to interest audiences outside Laos? What kind of a reaction do you get when you play it? Yes I believe it has the potential to go internationally mainstream. I have played it with many types of music; pop, rock, hip hop, blues, reggae, jazz, dance, Italian, Japanese and Indian folk music and classical. I play the khaen every year during Christmas and family and friends sing along with it. It sounds amazing. You can listen to different kinds of music on the khaen on my YouTube channel.
What do you see yourself doing with it in the future? In the very near future I’m getting married in California on the beach. I see myself spending the rest of my life with the one I love. I see us travelling across the world together, meeting people and helping them anyway we can. I see myself collaborating and performing with many different artists from multiple genres internationally. I see myself teaching the khaen like I am doing currently on Skype. I see myself returning to Laos with my wife to travel and perform the khaen. Perhaps we could live there if the circumstances fit our lifestyle. I see myself writing a book of Lao folk stories of the khaen. Basically, I see myself always doing many things with the khaen.
By David Fairhurst
- At least 300 years old.
- Made from specific type of bamboo called mia hia
- Four types with 6, 14, 16, 18 tubes
- Tubes secured together with a black wax called kisoot, obtained from the insect maeng kisoot.
- Then bound together by a strong grass called yah nang.