Meet the Laotian Master Musician Who Won America’s Highest Folk Arts Award
Bounxeung Synanonh (L) is a master of the khaen, a traditional Laotian bamboo mouth organ. He met his wife Kham Souvanakhyly (R) in Fresno. She says she doesn’t care if Synanonh can’t see her because she knows he loves her. (Alice Daniel/KQED)
Clothes hang to dry on a metal fence surrounding the one-story apartment complex where Bounxeung Synanonh lives. A few toys litter the thirsty lawn.
But open the front door going directly into Synanonh’s tidy living room, and suddenly signs of ordinary life fade away to the sound of the khaen, a traditional Laotian bamboo mouth organ.
Yes, off the beaten path in central Fresno, you’ll find a masterful musician, so well regarded that he was recently chosen as one of only nine artists in the United States to receive the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
There’s no higher award honoring traditional and folk artists in America. Some past recipients include BB King, the creator of bluegrass Bill Monroe, and ballad singer and storyteller Sheila Kay Adams. Rarely are the artists as famous as the king of the blues, but they are masters of their work, connecting people to a sense of place.
And every time Synanonh plays the khaen, he is playing nothing less than the sound of home for the Laotian diaspora in Fresno and beyond. Playing the khaen is kind of like playing the harmonica in that the musician inhales and exhales through the instrument, allowing for a continuous sound.
But the khaen looks nothing like a harmonica. It has 16 long bamboo pipes or "flutes." Synanonh blows through only one hole and plays notes with his fingers on the bamboo pipes. Each one of the pipes has a small metal reed in it.
When Synanonh was 15, he learned to play the khaen from his uncle and other village elders in Laos. That same year, he lost his eyesight. He says being blind forced him to learn only by ear.
“Once he got blind, and can’t see, then he plays more and more, and now he becomes an expert,” says Sonny Somchitvongsa, Synanonh’s interpreter.
In fact, Lao communities all over the country invite Synanonh to perform and even teach music lessons. This summer, he performed in Washington, D.C., at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. His dedication to preserving the tradition of the khaen is one reason why he won a National Heritage Fellowship, which includes a $25,000 award.
The khaen is not only a rich solo instrument; it’s also used to accompany storytelling in song.
Somchitvongsa is happy to demonstrate but he first he has to make sure Synanonh is in the right key.
“I can’t sing the high key, too high,” he says, and then sings a few words. “OK. Now it’s ready.”
He sings a song called "Tai Dam Lam Phanh." It’s about an ethnic group called Tai Dam that has to flee its homeland because of all the bombing during the CIA’s secret war in Laos.
It’s a story Synanonh knows all too well. Like many Lao refugees here in the United States, he fled his homeland in the late 1970s for Thailand, where he ended up in a refugee camp. In 1981, when he was 32, he came to the U.S.
“I landed in Iowa, I lived there, but there’s no Lao people there,” he says. “Life is not too happy, and also it’s cold, and there’s snow.”
He lasted about a year in Iowa, until friends and cousins in Fresno urged him to move here where the weather is warm.
His wife, Kham Souvanakhyly, is happy he came to Fresno, too. She is also a refugee from Laos, but the couple met in the Central Valley. She has nine children from a previous marriage. Synanonh has tried to teach some of his stepchildren to play the khaen but they haven’t shown much interest, he says. Still, there are plenty of other students interested in learning from him.
Souvanakhyly says she is very proud of her husband. It makes her happy to hear him play. But, she says, every time he plays, she misses her homeland.
She says she yearns for Laos. And like others who are part of the diaspora, when she hears the khaen, memories of what she left behind so many years ago come flooding back. Bounxeung Synanonh will receive his award at the Library of Congress in Washington later this month.