Boomkat Product Review:
Oren Ambarchi's Black Truffle assembles a staggering anthology of recordings from "the god of khene" Sombat Simla, captured in situ by Japanese field recordist Yasuhuro Morinaga. Whether you're familiar with these sounds or not, Simla's performance is completely captivating, displaying the breadth of expression that's possible with the instrument - between accordion, harmonica and sheng.
Local mythology tells the story of a woman eager to impress the King of Laos. When she was walking through the forest one day, she heard the sound of the garawek (or kalaviṅka), an immortal creature in Buddhist mythology with a human head and bird's torso that preaches the Dharma, its song mimicking the Buddha's voice. The woman chopped and sculpted a piece of bamboo and put a reed inside, trying to capture the sound from memory. But when she played her instrument for the King, he was unimpressed. She tried again, and he replied "Tia nee kaen dae" (this time it was better), which is where we get the name. The khene has been part of Lao musical traditions for hundreds, maybe thousands of years - its closest relative is the sheng, a free-reed wind instrument that was first written about on oracle bones in ancient China.
Based in Isan, and ethnically Lao area of Northeast Thailand that borders Laos, Simla is one of the best-known khene soloists. In 2018, Morinaga, accompanied by some Thai friends, visited the Maha Sarakham province to meet with Simla and record his performance; surrounded by rice fields, Simla played his well-known interpretation of the train song 'Lot Fay Tay Lang', which is the first track on the anthology. On 'Line Rod Fai - Train', Simla imitates the sound of a passing locomotive, using the khene not only to replicate the bellowing horns, but the fluctuating motion of the engines and the wheels on tracks. He taps on the instrument's bamboo body to drop an anchor for the rhythm, following it with lolloping chords and crossing bell chimes, calling out like local food vendors in the spaces between the sleepers. It's a remarkably transportive experience - not only are we introduced to the range of such a nuanced instrument, but we're immediately situated in the colorful landscape where it emerged so many years ago.
Black Truffle's accompanying notes mention the similarity the music has with the earliest American blues recordings, but there's more to it than that. The instrument's pentatonic tuning and tone alongside Simla's rhythm often reminds us of Celtic folk music, sounding like a fiddle playing next to bagpipes ('Lom Phat Prow'), or the accordion-led folk of the Balkan Peninsula ('Lai Soy Puen Baan'). But Simla pulls away into his own distinct zone; on 'Tang Waii - Wicker Stool', he interrupts the flow with brassy trills, generating a sound that's closer to a synthesizer. Simla is joined by percussionist Mali Moodsansee and cymbal player Pattardon Ekchatree on the second side, and the three play a sequence of molam songs - folk compositions from Isan and Laos. Jamming in a cattle shed, Simla and his friends are immaculately synchronized, the undulating rhythms offering ballast for the khene master's most peculiar techniques.
'Hak Sao Siang Khene' is particularly impressive, a flurry of skittering hand drum rhythms and gentle, metallic shuffles led by Simla's luxuriously animated melodies and chords. Stuttering and trilling, he shapes the sound prodigiously, showing just why his name has become synonymous with the khene. This one's special, and comes with extensive text from Morinaga about the recording process.