Jonny Olsen, a rock singer and musician, first saw a khaen five years ago at a shopping center in Bangkok, Thailand. Fascinated with the mouth organ, he bought a small one and brought it home to California. But when he showed it to his friends and fellow workers at the Thai restaurant where he worked, they laughed at him and told him it's for kids. They got him a real khaen and Jonny began to learn how to play it.
He likes the sound of khaen so much that he quit his rock band and went back to Thailand to find khaen teachers to teach him and to learn more about the history of the instrument. Jonny said he found out that the khaen originally came from Laos, just as the northeastern part of Thailand or Isaan was originally part of Laos.
Two years after discovering khaen, Jonny became the first "farang" or western khaen playing champion after winning a contest at the Silk Festival in Khone Kaen, Thailand, in 2005. A year later he released his first album, "Farang Yak Pen Morlum," which he recorded in Thailand and began touring in the U.S., showing off his khaen playing talent.
Jonny told VOA he loves the sound of khaen so much he never tires of
playing it or hearing it, and he'd wanted to record an album in Laos, featuring khaen and Lao folksongs. So he contacted Lao-American artist Ketsana Vilaylack who agreed to become his manager and sent him to Laos where he spent four months working days and nights on his new album.
Earlier this month, Jonny kicked off his USA Tour in Seattle, promoting his new DVD, "Jonny Yak Pen Khon Lao," or "Jonny Wants to Be Lao," a title that echoes his feeling.
Although Jonny did not have time to visit or see a lot of Laos because he had to work very hard to learn how to sing or "lum" Lao folksongs, he fell in love with the country and its people.
"I love Laos, I love Lao people and Lao culture. I love Khao Niew(sticky rice) and Tum Makhung(papaya salad)," says the 27 year-old Californian.
Jonny also hopes to marry a Lao girl, particularly a Morlum or folksong singer, and live in Laos and play khaen forever.
To hear more about this first American khaen player and hear him speak Lao with a cute accent, click on our audio file above.
You may also read more about Jonny and order a copy of his DVD at: