For Laotian-born Bounxeung Synanonh, captivating an audience is as simple as drawing a few quick breaths of air. He is a master performer on the khaen, an ancient, free-reed mouth organ made from 16 lengths of bamboo. Recognizing its vital place in daily family and social life, UNESCO has inscribed khaen music of the Lao people on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Bounxeung is revered as a keeper of the khaen tradition for the Laotian American community.
Born in Savannakhet, Laos, in 1949, Synanonh is a member of the majority lowland ethnic group, the Lao. As a boy, he had such passion for the khaen and desire to learn that he would follow khaen musicians around his village, mimicking the instrument’s sounds. At age 15, he lost his eyesight and that same year started to learn the khaen from village elders, including his uncle. The musical tradition of the khaen is essentially oral and must be learned directly from other musicians. Synanonh quickly became a master of this complex instrument. Played by inhaling and exhaling to produce continuous sounds, the khaen is capable of producing as many as 10 pitches simultaneously.
Fleeing war and the Pathet Lao re-education camps, Synanonh immigrated to the U.S. as a refugee in the early 1980s, eventually settling with his family in Fresno, California. Fresno is home to a robust Lao community, which highly valued his musical skills on an instrument so central to lowland Lao culture. Synanonh is especially adept in the style of Savannakhet where he grew up but is also recognized for his skill in a wide range of regional styles. He has traveled to all the major Lao communities in the U.S. to perform for public events like the Lao New Year’s celebration, as well as for home-based ceremonies like that which is performed to initiate a new home.
“[The khaen] keeps me connected to my culture,” he states. “It gives me peace, as well as connects me to the Lao community in the U.S. It gives the Lao community great joy to celebrate our culture in a way that has been done for generations. My art brings people together in ways that transcend their differences because the khaen is a common thread in their lives.” Dedicated to passing on this tradition to the next generation, he has been a part of master-apprentice programs in his adopted home state of California. In 2016, he was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor for folk and traditional artists.
The khaen not only has a deep solo tradition, but also provides the essential instrumental accompaniment for lum, a tradition of sung poetry. For many years, Synanonh was the preferred accompanist for lum singer and 1991 NEA National Heritage Fellow, Khamvong Insixiengmai. In Richmond, Bounxeung Synanonh will be accompanied by singers Khamta Mounisay and Lamphone Khylity who will perform lum, as well as the playful courtship song exchanges between male and female singers.