More than 30 years after the Khmer Rouge regime decimated Cambodian arts, a new generation is helping to ensure that traditional music remains strong in a rapidly changing modern world. Ellie Dyer, Dara Saoyuthnea and photographer Charles Fox meet the musicians who are keeping an ancient culture alive.
A clear voice soars over the fields of Kampong Speu province, demonstrating total control as touches of vibrato are added to the haunting tones of smot — an ancient form of sung poetry. The evocative melody is rising from a small concrete building, surrounded by greenery, where young pupils are being tutored in the art that explores themes of life, death and religion.
In popular culture, smot is often associated with funerals and ghosts, but this class is more symbolic of renewal. As curls of incense rise from a shrine in the centre of the room, blind master artist Koeut Ran raises a delicate finger or murmurs a few words to adjust the students’ technique, ensuring that their breathing patterns manage the difficult chants that can each take one month to learn.
Born in 1953, Koeut learnt to smot at the age of nine, garnering skills from her father whenever she settled down to sleep near him. Today, she still sings with a crystal clear tone through which — like her dad before her — she instructs willing trainees.
“When I learn how to smot, I can also help society to preserve our culture and religion, and to keep it for the next generation of Cambodians,” says student Phan Rony during a break in class, describing the music as a “kind of dharma” that helps people to understand Buddhism.
The 18-year-old is just one of many enthusiastic youngsters who are ensuring that traditional music lives on, despite the legacy of the 1975 to 1979 Khmer Rouge regime, during which many cultural figures were wiped out, along with their collective knowledge.
“We lost almost everything,” says professional musician Nhok Sinat, who hopes to one day open an arts school in his native Siem Reap province. “When the regime collapsed, people didn’t think about the arts yet. What they thought about was [how] to survive.”
But even in such dark times, symbols of the Kingdom’s rich cultural heritage remained. Carvings of ancient instruments decorate a number of temples in Siem Reap province, including Bayon, and lay waiting to be reborn.
“We can see the sculptures of our Cambodian traditional instruments on the wall of ancient temples,” Nhok says, before plucking his ksa diew — a one-stringed instrument that has been immortalised in stone. “So I think that if we can preserve [music], it’s very good for our country as a whole.”
Like many successful young artists, Nhok Sinat has been assisted by non-profit organisation Cambodian Living Arts (CLA). Launched in 1998, it has been instrumental in reviving classical art forms and currently runs classes in genres including smot, classic and modern wedding music, shadow puppetry, opera and dance across the country.
At his roadside home in Takeo province, legendary master musician Sok Duch — once called “a living human treasure” by Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts — is teaching one such class. Perched on a shady wooden platform, with lowing cattle providing sporadic accompaniment, the 87-year-old strums a long-necked chapei dang weng guitar.
Under the stern gaze emanating from behind his dark glasses, pupils are being tutored in classical wedding music. A teenager pipes a wooden oboe, while another sings and two small boys beat snake-skin drums.
“To me, all these Cambodian traditional instruments are priceless because they are hard to make and play,” say Sok Duch, who began performing at 13 and still crafts his instruments by hand — a rare skill that he is passing on to his pupils.
“For example, the ksa diew has only one string, yet we can play all songs with this instrument. None of the other countries have it,” he says. “The [instruments] are born in Cambodia, and they are made by Cambodians.”
Re-building the Past
Yet it is not only Cambodians who are working to preserve the Kingdom’s musical past. Since 2006, ethnomusicologist Patrick Kersalé has been helping to reawaken traditional culture by rebuilding 7th to 13th century orchestras portrayed in ancient bas reliefs, even selling his house to aid the project.
“I thought the most important thing for Cambodian people was to re-build the harp,” he says. The instrument, called pin, is displayed in motifs at Bayon temple but later disappeared from society, possibly due to the influence of Buddhism and the arrival of louder instruments like gongs, he says.
“I built two kinds, one from the 7th century and one from the 12th century. The shape is very different,” adds the Frenchman, who travelled to meet harp players in Myanmar and learned to play the pin himself before training local musicians.
“But what we need to understand is when you play the harp or sitar, the sound is very small. But it’s not for people, it’s for divinities or Gods,” says Kersalé, who showcased his work at the French Institute in Phnom Penh and has performed live to audiences with a troupe called the Sounds of Angkor.
“It’s so incredible,” he says of the public’s reaction. “Really, all generations coming there were crying — because they said: ‘We didn’t know. All these instruments are ours… but we have never seen [them before].’ It was so amazing.”
The power of music is undeniable, but Kersalé believes that the art — whether designed to herald war, to entertain or to speak to the spirits — boils down to one thing. “We cannot speak about music, but of communication,” he says.
Nhok Sinat’s introduction to Cambodian music, for instance, was rooted in tradition. As a boy, he saw farming communities praying for good luck before cultivating their crops. “After listening to the music, all the aspects of the music were in my mind. I remembered every part they played. When I got home, I made sounds on cans to follow what I heard from the ceremony,” he recalls.
He later learnt to play the ksa diew while living at a pagoda. Now a professional musician, the sound still reminds him of Cambodian land. For example, the song ‘Saray Ondet’ signifies the beauty of nature and its waters and lakes, he says, with emotion also feeding into the sound.
“For those who learn to play in the town, they cannot make the sound as sad as the players in the countryside,” he says. “If the people feel angry or so on, the sound will tell the exact feeling of the player.”
“I think of the very simple life I have in the countryside. Hence, the sound produced by the ksa diew tells everything about countryside,” he adds.
Back in the city, a grandson of master Sok Duch, 23-year-old Chomnit Lun, is carrying on his family tradition by playing the ksa diew. “I always feel good when I play it,” he tells AsiaLIFE.
“Without it, I always get angry with something very quickly without thinking clearly. When playing, I feel energy, like an earthquake or a volcano.”
Now a freshman at the Royal University of Fine Arts, he believes that playing traditional songs is important as a symbol of nationhood, as well as enhancing Cambodian culture and the reputation of the country.
“Because there are small numbers of traditional music bands in Cambodia, people who see the performance are very happy to see that Cambodian traditional music still exists,” he says, calling its future “wonderful”.
Across the country, organisations are working to ensure that this is the case.
In 2008, the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Centre began a project to revive forgotten Khmer songs that were collected by French academic Albert Tricon and set down in a 1921 book of musical scores, called Chansons Cambodgiennes. The publication had been found in a Paris book store and later given to leading Cambodian film director Rithy Panh as a present.
With funding from the United States embassy, a band of musicians— directed by master Yun Kean, deputy director general of the General Department of Techniques for Intangible Cultural Affairs — recently recorded a second album of eight historic tracks from the book, including arek music. Studies indicate that arek predates both Buddhism and Hinduism in Cambodia, with songs used to aid spiritual possession in healing ceremonies.
“Songs we selected for the CD reflect Khmer society and history,” says Chea Sopheap, archives project coordinator at the Bophana Centre. “Moreover, we need our people today to discover the beauty of the words and terms used in the songs and poems by their ancestors.”
An exhibition of photographs documenting the scheme is set to launch at Phnom Penh’s Bophana Centre on Aug. 16, while CLA is also hosting a series of free events exploring traditional culture at its office on Aug. 27.
Live performances are set to entertain audiences, as four documentaries on endangered art forms including smot are screened, and a photo project exploring the organisation’s work launched.
In Siem Reap, Patrick Kersalé also has plans to increase public access to Cambodia’s musical heritage by opening a museum at the Golden Silk farm near Banteay Srey temple. “We say in French, if you are going to know where you are going to, you need to know where you are coming from,” he says.
Chapei Dang Weng
The chapei dang weng is a two-stringed long-necked guitar. One of its most famous players is Kong Nay, who became blind as a result of smallpox at the age of four. With his raspy voice and wit, he is known as the ‘Ray Charles of Cambodia’ and has toured worldwide.
An ancient one-stringed instrument made from a long piece of wood and a hollowed-out gourd. Players pluck the string while holding the gourd near to the heart in order for it to resonate. The rare instrument is notoriously difficult to play, say musicians, and is thought to be more than 1,000 years old.
This Angkorian harp features in bas reliefs on ancient temples and has been rebuilt thanks to the efforts of Patrick Kersalé. A new generation of musicians has been taught to play the instrument as part of the Sounds of Angkor troupe, formed by Cambodia Living Arts, with similar harps found in Myanmar.