Tuesday, November 13

Sounds of Schoenberg: The Thai jakhee

UCLA alumna Supeena Adler, who will be a lecturer in spring quarter, traveled back to the northeastern and central regions of Thailand to find materials to restore Thai instruments. (Jennifer Hu/Daily Bruin)

UCLA alumna Supeena Adler, who will be a lecturer in spring quarter, traveled back to the northeastern and central regions of Thailand to find materials to restore Thai instruments. (Jennifer Hu/Daily Bruin)

The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Supeena Adler was a UCLA alumna. In fact, she is an alumna of University of California Riverside.

Each week, Daily Bruin A&E will explore the instruments of the World Musical Instrument Collection and their performers that all contribute to the musical landscape of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. This week, we highlight the Thai “jakhee,” a three-stringed zither shaped like a crocodile.

University of California Riverside alumna Supeena Adler spent 95 hours over the course of two weeks cleaning, restoring and fixing damaged Thai instruments. The jakheewas particularly demanding because so many parts were missing, she said.

Back inher homeland of northeastern Thailand, 11-year-old Adlersat in front of the television watching a Thai movie. When the actress struck a note on the hammered dulcimer, Adler knew she loved the sound.

As a high school student, Adler met a music teacher from central Thailand, home to the same hammered dulcimer. But other students had already claimed theinstrument,so Adler settled for the jakhee– athree-stringedThai zither shaped like a crocodile.

It took some time before Adler began to like the jakhee. She kept asking to change to the hammered dulcimer as the glissandos of the dulcimer echoed in her head. But the teacher insisted that she continue to practice.


Learning to play the jakhee was no easy task: During the first month of playing, Adler’s hand would bleed from using her palm to press on the rough strings. Although the class initially had sixstudents, only Adler finished the training.

The jakhee is played by pressing the strings against the frets with one hand while using an ivoryplectrum – a small tool similar to a pick –to rapidly pluck the strings with the other hand. The instrument has a resonant yet serene sound, resemblinga cross between a guitar, banjo and sitar.

While attending a local ethnomusicology convention, Adler saw a picture of mangled Thai instruments at UCLA. A sense of duty overtook Adler and she rushed to the UCLA professors, offering to help at any cost.

“Theywere just shoved in the corner,”Adler said.”It was so sad.”

Beforeworking with the broken instruments, Adler traveled back to Thailand to gathernecessary materials for restoration. For over a month, she traveled through the northeastern and central regions, searching for “takua,” a waxy substance used for tuning xylophones, “khong” gong circles, leather strips, strings, mallets and even a new pair of drums. With the help of her former teachers and colleagues, Adler found all the materials she needed and negotiated prices.


The initial set of frets she brought back from Thailand did not fit the jakhee, so Adler had to individually sand each one down until they matched the height of the strings. One day, Adler worked from 8 a.m. until 3 a.m.

In response to the restoration of the instruments, the Royal Thai Consulate of General Los Angeles sponsored the purchase of new instruments – including another jakhee – for a Thai music courseAdler will teach in spring 2016 as an ethnomusicology lecturer.

Although she loved helping preserve traditional Thai instruments, Adler said she is a musician at heart. As her fingers glided down the frets of the jakhee, Adler’s attentionfocused on playing the instrument she has spent decades mastering. She said through sharing her love for the instrument, she hopes students will care about it too.

“I’m only able to show them what I love – what I do,”Adler said.

Compiled by Artiom Arutiunov, A&E contributor.

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