The search for the Khaen: Didier Malherbe’s most obscure album?


The arrival of the album ‘Down the Mekong’ through my postbox on Tuesday of last week completes the search for an obscure Didier Malherbe CD which has taken over a year and become an unlikely Holy Grail for myself and another reader of this blog.

I first saw Didier back in 1989 at the Swinging Sporran in Manchester, when, unheralded, he appeared alongside Daevid Allen going under the umbrella of the Invisible Co-opera, in a gig which also introduced me to violinist Graham Clark. The band performed music which was already starting to move away from the devotional material of a year before when Daevid Alen had returned to the UK and played largely acoustic music alongside partner Wandana Bruce and future Kangaroo Moon fiddle player Elliet Mackrell.

The gig cemented a burgeoning love affair for me with the music of Didier, already sparked by his work both with Gong and his own wonderful solo  jazz fusion album ‘Bloom’. Didier was subsequently ever present in the incarnations through the Nineties of first Gong Maison, then Shapeshifter Gong, which also brought Pip Pyle back into the fold, and then the resurrection of the ‘classic’ Gong (or as near as dammit) which saw Daevid, Gilli, Keith Missile, Steffe Sharpstrings, Didier and Pip all hammer out vintage material in what remains my favourite ever live combo. Didier continued to contribute cameo pieces to albums such as ‘Zero to Infinity’ and ‘2032’ as well as the occasional live performance with the band, but by this time his particular ship had sailed to even more fertile waters, namely his own quite wonderful trio Hadouk.


Didier’s solo career is worth (and will sometime get) an article in its own right: by the time I finally got to interview him in 1998 at Bury’s Met Arts Centre, alongside French guitarist Pierre Bensuasan, with whom he had an enduring and endearing duo, he was already notching up credits with not only Hadouk but a string of solo and guest projects, many showcasing not just only the full gamut of saxophones and flutes one associates him with in Gong, but an increasing range of ‘ethnic’ instruments. Didier was increasingly taking on the task of submersing himself in the intricacies of a number of non-Western wind instruments, before bending their innate sounds to his own interpretations of jazz.

Centrestage of course was the dudouk (or duduk), the mellow, reedy Armenian wind instrument which gave its name in part to the band Hadouk. The dudouk’s emotive wail is perfectly suited to Didier’s lyrical compositions, and over a decade or more the Hadouk Trio produced 5 albums of breathtaking beauty, far removed from the work of Gong, but a colossal entity in their own right.

One of the trademarks of Hadouk was the appropriation, and not just by Didier, of a range of exotic sounding  instruments. If Didier introduced me to the doudouk, and Loy Ehrilich to the hajouj, then it was percussionist Steve Shehan who gave me my first taste of the hang, a wondrously melodic tuned percussive instrument aired on the Hadouk classic ‘Hijaz’,

which for me led to the exploration of a whole new world of handpan drums played by the likes of the genre’s masters David Kuckermann and the Siberian multi-instrumentalist Vladiswar Nadishana. Nadishana guested on one gig with Hadouk in Paris 2008 and eventually took Steve Shehan off to record with the Nadishana trio, thus bringing to an end the Hadouk trio.


I was so utterly consumed with the music of the Hadouk Trio that I vowed to travel to France to see them perform,  but the arrival of children in 2009 and 2011  made such whimsical trips abroad increasingly unlikely. Hence on finally hearing of a gig opening the Scarborough Jazz Festival in September 2011, I believe their first ever UK gig, I checked some dates and worked out that their Scarborough gig would fall just a day after the monthly jazz club event at Hebden Bridge Trades Club. HX7 Jazz was an embryonic monthly jazz night set up by Dave Nelson, a hugely important musical figure in the local community, composer, pianist and later organizer of the Piano40 festival. Plus memorably, a suite later conceived for the Tour de France’s visit to Hebden Bridge in 2014, when Dave’s piano composition was performed on a grand piano towed on a trailer up Cragg Vale, the longest continuous ascent in England, pulled by 18 bikes welded together – I was involved in testing the prototype for that particular eccentricity.


So, a phone call followed, Dave, who shared some mutual musical interests and was conversant with Gong sorted out all the logistics and I helped with the publicity. The Hadouk Trio arrived in Hebden Bridge to play to a sell out crowd and it was one of the most memorable evening’s music I can recall. I was particularly entranced with the sheer multi-faceted genius of Loy Ehrlich as he switched from strings to keyboards, or even played them simultaneously. If I’d been hoping for the band’s full arsenal of instruments however (the first Hadouk album alone lists nineteen) then I would have been sadly disappointed: not only did Steve Shehan not travel with the band (in fact he may have already have left the band by this point) – and hence no hang – (his replacement was a rather excellent tabla player) – but Didier limited himself to saxophones, flute, dudouk and his unlikely tour de force on amplified spinning tops. The fact that the band was travelling relatively light was quite reasonable given the brevity of their UK tour  – it would have taken quite some van to accommodate their entire 3 man orchestra .

Over the subsequent years, I’d taken it upon myself as something of a quest to collect as many of Didier’s recent projects as possible. Included would be the double album with Eric Lohrer, two further albums with the new Hadouk Quartet and further solo or duo projects, This is where the trail gets slightly confusing: some of these solo works are hosted and published by the Cezame Music Agency , a compendium of library music from French musicians with a streaming service which allows you to listen to any of said tracks (alongside many thousands of other tracks by French musicians including the likes of Sophia Domancich). Tracks are categorised not by musicians involved but by composer and include fulsome descriptions – this is a service aimed at film producers and documentary makers looking for accompanying soundscapes. A recent search on their website revealed no less than 127 tracks credited to Didier as a composer or co-composer and even that omits the recent duo album with another ex Gong musician Shyamal Maitra. Whilst the duo album with Loy Ehrlich ‘Windprints’ clearly is less heavyweight than Didier’s band projects, (Hadouk-lite perhaps) and the brevity of the tracks reflects this, some albums of more incidental music such as ‘Desert Lands’ do not appear in the catalogue, whilst another Malherbe/Ehrlich duo project CARNETS D’ASIE ET DA’AILLEURS, which I’d avoided for a while because I thought it was likely to be less substantial reveals itself to be a quite magnificent, intricate album.

At Kozfest in 2018 we were camped opposite a couple who appeared to be gravitating towards many of the same Gong-related  gigs as us. Eventually we got talking: the fella, bronzed and habitually stripped down to the waist  introduced himself as ‘Banana Steve’, and as one might expect was an aficionado of both Kevin Ayers and Daevid Allen. We discovered a mutual connection to Martin Wakeling, author of the much-loved Kevin Ayers fanzine ‘Why Are We Sleeping’, but also a interest in Didier Malherbe obscurities. Whilst I’d had some joy in tracking down the majority of items listed on Didier’s discography here: one album in particular remained elusive for both of us: a duo album with Khampha Inthisane ‘Down the Mekong’

Which takes us to one of the missing instruments I’d been hoping to witness Didier playing in Hebden Bridge– the  khen (or khaen),. Alongside the hang, the khen is responsible for the most unusual sounding music on the later Hadouk Trio albums. On the sonic scale somewhere between a mouth organ, a church organ and a harmonium, it enjoys similarities to the hang in that it can be used to produce chords as well as single notes, no doubt intriguing Didier in terms of the possibilities this opened up.  It also has something of an archaic sound to it, which reflects the instrument’s rich cultural history – it is a traditional instrument from Laos. The khen is a multi-pipe wind instrument made from 14 separate hollow bamboo cones, arranged vertically and with the bizarre visual impact of splitting the player’s face by partially obscuring it, as demonstrated so well on this video  from around 3.20 onwards

Fans of the Hadouk trio will instantly recognize the sound from Parasol Blanc, where the khen and hajouj  form a beautiful backdrop for a rare solo guest performance from Jon Hassell on trumpet.

A teasing snippet on Didier’s website is all that is available to sample from ‘Down The Mekong’ – released in 2011, there are no Youtube samples, no copies available through Planet Gong, contact with the website suggested there were no longer any copies left and tracking down the record label 7Orients only revealed a website which had not been updated for several years and was certainly not returning emails. More extensive google searches revealed a single copy held in an academic French library, presumably available to listen to for someone with the right credentials, but unlikely to be me. But on ebay, amazon, discogs and other more specialized outlets – nothing. I did however, locate a rather interesting interview with Didier in the Laotian Ventiane Times entirely devoted to the khen

Finally, another push towards Didier’s website curator and friend of Facelift Luc Pilmeyer elicited direct contact with Didier and an email exchange followed – he was in Provence, then in Luxembourg, but would dig out a copy on his return. And then… miraculously, in a jiffy bag, complete with his good wishes on the cover, the CD arrived.

As I write, I’m still into the first few listens of Down the Mekong – it sounds lovely. In true  Didier style, whilst he claims to practice the khen daily, in a typically humble act he has left all khen playing to Khampa Inthisane, whilst he accompanies, often providing the melody line, principally on saxes and doudouk. This deferential approach mirrors that of my favourite of all Didier videos

when in the earliest stages of his own obsession with the doudouk, he recorded a superb version of his track ‘Serpent d’Etoiles’ on Russian television alongside Patrice Meyer, this time performing on soprano saxophone, whilst watching beady-eyed as an acknowledged master of the doudouk, Djivan Gasparyan produces a weaving, evocative solo.

Postscript: whilst waiting at the start of September for ‘Down the Mekong’ to arrive, my brother-in-law John came to stay for a couple of nights at our new place in Todmorden. John, a linguist and academic, is a seasoned South Asian traveler and has spent time living in Japan and Malaysia as well as travelling further afield. Whilst relating the story you’ve just read above, it emerged that John had visited Laos, and after I had somewhat cack-handedly attempted to describe the khen, John revealed that he’d attended a concert whilst travelling and had returned back home to Edinburgh the proud owner of an instrument which sounded very much like what I was describing. A couple of days after his visit this photo arrived, proof indeed that we were indeed talking about the same instrument. In a twist that I’m sure Didier would have appreciated, it landed the same day as ‘Down the Mekong’ arrived. Would you khen it…


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