THE MUSIC OF  SOUTHEAST ASIA:                                                                                                                                                                                         

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The traditional music of Cambodia
An Overview

Still, a lot of terms of the traditional Khmer music remain unresearched.  This is why this article is only meant to give an overview and hopefully raise some interest. It does not intend to reflect the actual state of scientific research and refers to the authors knowledge only.

There are of course lots of sources, mostly in French and some in English, but most of them are not available anymore and you could only be lucky to read one of them if you pass by a biblary of a French University.  Instead of providing a list of according literature I would like to recommend the links on this page. 

1) Introduction

After the “Khmer Rouge” have been defeated and after the elections of the year 1998, Cambodia reopened his borders for foreign visitors after a long time of surpression by the “Khmer Rouge”. Following this fact, more and more visitors of this beautiful but poor country show interest in the traditional culture of the Khmer people, and even international supporters like the UNESCO widen the possibilities for scientific studies which are more than necessary.

Year after year, more tourists appear to visit Angkor Wat. This means that the Khmer population, still encouraged with the deep experience of decades of war and extinction, has to face a new invasion of curious foreigners, now armed with cameras instead of weapons. If we focus on the methods, in which traditional music and cultural life is involved in other Asian countries, it seems obvious, that the right understanding and education of the Khmer traditions will be necessary to handle the close future of Cambodia and all its demands and tasks with responsibility and respect. Otherwise the traditional habits of Cambodia will perish in the purpose of entertainment for tourists.

Today little is known about the traditional music of Cambodia.  One of the main reasons for this is the way  how Cambodia was involved in several wars in the last decades.  After the Vietnam war the self-inthroned “Khmer Rouge” regime under the leadership of  Pol Pot tried to destroy every cultural root of Cambodia in order to start at “Point Zero” again. This means that many relics of traditional and cultural meaning have been destroyed, teachers, musicians and performers have been killed and most of the traditional knowledge perished in less than twenty years. Today only a few traditional habits survived, sometimes mixed up with popular and Western influencies.

The most relyable scientific works about the ancient Khmer culture have been written by foreigners or scientists living in diaspora, and the main knowledge about this tradition and the involved music was transfered by mouth, from generation to generation, so actually after most members of the elder generation have been killed by the “Khmer Rouge”, only the foreign and diaspora scientific works remain as a source and a lot of further research has to be done in the future.

Another reason for the loss of knowledge about traditional Khmer music is the increasing spread of the typical “Karaoke”-virus.  Most of the young people are unemployed and poor and their interest in traditional  music underlies their increasing commercial dependance of Western values offered by the new Popmusic market. Their motivation to study a traditional instrument is decreased by the lack of public interest.
People are even more interested in Karaoke than in traditional music. Some international joint venture productions have already started a flood of Karaoke tapes in Khmer languages, and more and more studios recognize the commercial aspect of this growing market.  As slightly everywhere in Asia,  the increasing numbers of selfmade “black” copies hamper the official distribution of traditional music productions.

As I will point out in the following chapters, the understanding of the traditions of the ancient Khmer people is very important for many art and music forms existing in South East Asia. The famous temple town Angkor Wat  has been a melting pot of Asian cultures for more than 500 years. It was the centre of the Khmer empire and welcomed visitors, traders and artists from China, Thailand, Maynmar, Laos, Vietnam, India and Indonesia. The first king of Angkor Wat, Jayavarman II. (802-850) studied at the Sailendra’s court in Java, and still many Indonesian influencies can be found in the music and the instruments.
There are also a number of analogies to the musical forms and instruments of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, and the famous “Apsara” dancers and their costumes and performances are famous all over the world and nowadays we find correspondancies inThai and Indian dance performances and arts. Like in Vietnam, this culmination and mixture of indigenous and foreign cultures condensates in something to be called “Khmer tradition”, which is rather unique and outstanding.

This article is only meant to give a short introduction and overview about the instruments and musical forms of the traditional Khmer music, it is no scientific work and simply reflects the actual state of knowledge of the author. If there are any wrong facts, errors in spelling or syntax, please contact me. If you are interested in more detailed information, it is strongly recommended to consultate professional advice, like one of the adresses listed under Links

2) Instruments and ensembles

Many musical instruments are bound to the religious or social function of an event, most of them do rarely appear alone or played as a solo instrument, and if someone visits Cambodia today, there are two ensembles which he will face everytime and everywhere. This is why it is a sensefull way to present the main instruments used in the Khmer music by describing these two orchestras and their function.

After the defeat of the Khmer rouge, nearly everybody who  knows how to play or even to manufacture an instrument was killed. The only chance left was to grab every instrument one could reach. This way, no "fixed" ensemble was used, they just played on everthing they could find. But after some  years the "PIN PEAT" ensemble was coming back to accompany dances of all  kind. If you visit Cambodia today this will be the most often used ensemble you might face and listen to. Sometimes the ensemble "MOHORI" is also used to  accompany Folk festivals and dance perfomances. Of course both ensembles sometimes get mixed up or instruments appear in different numbers.For example, the oboe Sralay is not easy to learn, and often the Pin Peat ensemble misses a good Sralay player, so his part will be overtaken by another instrument, like a Roneat Ek. This is why all descriptions of the ensembles have to be handled with care.

The PIN PEAT ensemble

The main (and one of the oldest) ensembles is thePin Peat.  It consist of 8 musicians minimum and is known today for playing music at the famous “Nang Sbek” shadow theatre, at  royal dances, for temple and folk festivities and for performing the “Lokhon Khol”,  which is the Khmer version of the Ramayana epos.

We also do find ensembles with this names in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Malaysia, but it is obsolete to discuss which one was the “first” 
or oldest, as most of them only differ in details. Maybe the Khmer version is the oldest as it might be traced back to the Angkorian period.           The ensemle and its music might be classified as “gong-chime”-music, which means that the musical focus lies in percussive elements created by gongs and xylophpones. This shows the wide influence of Indonesian Gamelan music, which might be reflected to the education of King Jayavarman II at the Srailendras court of Java, and spreads out over many cultures of Southeast Asia today.

Normaly, the "Pin Peat" ensemble consists of three groups:

The first group, the percussion instruments, dominate the  orchestra and resound  the main beats of the steps of the dancers, using the "Sampho" drum, the cymbals "Chheung" and the "Skor Thom". The "Pin Peat" is an  ensemble with focus on percussive sounds, different from the more melodic sound  of the "Mohori". (Please click the instruments name for a small description and picture)

The second group is small, consisting of one or two "Sralay"  in different sizes, which accompany and lead the slow and high pitched recitations.   One  might compare it with a quadruple reed oboe, but its origin may be found in the Indian "Xaranai" or the European 
"Schalmai" instruments.

The third group consists of different melodic instruments, most of them idiophones, like the xylophones ("Roneat") "ek", "thung" and "dek", and the gong sets ("Kong") "thom" and "touc". This group might be understood as an relict of the Indonesian "Gamelan" ensemble, and they fullfill the same  functions, as they weave a carpet of polyrhythmic and polyphone structures and  patterns, which accompany the melodies of the oboe "Sralay" with pentatonic layers that are unusual and hard to follow for Western ears.

If the “Pin Peat” is used to accompany dance performance, both the dancers and instrumentalists also function as a choir, telling the story and leading the listener through all pieces as a narrator. Sometimes the ensemble is enlarged with a bamboo length flute named Khloy

Like mentioned before, the make up of these ensembles differ, depending on the fact if a special instrument player is available or not. There seems to be no difference in the appearance of the ensemble when it is used for another request. This means no question if it is used to play for shadow theatre, dance or folk festivals, the “Pin Peat” remains the same. There seems to be no special “Pin Peat” strictly bound to occasions.

The MAHORI ensemble

The most famous orchestra nowadays is the Mohori" which is an ensemble with several functions. Once it was used to perform at ritual dances in Angkor Wat, today it is an orchestra with divers instrumentations and functions which performs at festivals and radio shows, it is also sometimes used to play Western melodies or Popmusic. It exists in many forms and variations, and sometimes the instrumentation is changed for the musical purpose. The most common set consists of the xylophones Roneat ”"ek", "thung" and "dek", the bamboo length flutes ”cha pei” and ”Khloy”, and some chordophones like the fiddles ”Tro u”, ”Tro khmer” and ”tro sor”, which are violins that maybe originated in corresponding Chinese instruments, chracaterized by the two chords and the enclosed bow between these chords; or the harp ”Takhe” with three chords and twelve frets, which maybe originated from corrresponding Thai instruments. Sometimes small cymbals with the onomatopoetic name ”Ching” are used for producing offbeats, also a hammered dulcimer named “Khim” apperas.   
An image of a "Mohori" ensemble can be found 

Other Ensembles

Another typical orchestra of the Khmer music is named ”Phleng khmer” and can be found whenever village celebrations are held, it plays well known folk songs in a moderate tempo. Comparing it with the ”Pin Peat”, it mainly consists of melodic instruments and thus the music is less percussive  than the ”Pin Peat” sound.
The two following ensembles are strictly used for funeral celebrations and are more rhythmic and ceremonial in the sound:
They are combinations of a rhythmic group with a single melodic instrument.The first ensemble named ”Phleng khong skor” can only be found at funeral celebrations around Siem Reap. It consists of a ”Skor thom”, a ”Kong touch” and a set of two big gongs carried on a pillar over the shoulder, simply named ”Kong”.  Sometimes the ensemble is widened by a ”Sralay”. The second ensemble named ”Khlang chnak” maybe originating in corresponding Malaysian ensembles. It consists of a ”Skor sangna”, a cylindric wooden drum with two membranes, beaten with a stick, and the ”Skor khlong khek thnak”, a cylindric wooden drum with two membramens, beaten with the hand, and the ”Sralay”.

3) Shadow theatre and dance performance

The famous shadow theatre ”Nang sbek” was founded in Angkor Wat and is one of the best places to listen to the music of the ”Pin Peat” orchestra. The orchestra starts with a prelude, and two vocalists comment the scenes. They do this with recitatives in slow tempo
(”Bat pum nul”),
where the ends of the verse are always combined with a tremolo of the
Skor thomdrum and with prosaic dialogues 
(”chen char”), which are often improvised and spiced with a sense of humor. After this, the ”Pin Peat” plays the music for the dances of the shadow actors, and the rhythmic section is often used to underline the movements of the characters.   

On the countryside one can find another type of shadow theatre, which is called ”Nang sbek touch” or just ”Ayang”, which is the name for the leather puppets of Malayan origin (”Yang kulit”). It is the only form of spoken theatre in Cambodia, and the humorous play of the main figure (which is also called ”Ayang”) is interluded by dances of other puppets, who are accompagnied by a smaller orchestra similar to the ”Pin Peat”. Most of the traditional dances have perished with the defeat of Angkor Wat, but there was a Renessaince of some of the transfered dances in the 19th century. In Angkor, the performing of dances was only allowed for women, but today it is also trained and performed by men. Most of the performed pieces are scenes from the Khmer Ramayana version called ”Ream ker” or scenes from famous folk legends like ”Ream eyso”, ”Monora” or ”Preah-suton”. A typical moment of the traditional dances performed today is the use of masks and colorful costumes, which reflect the persons of the ”Ream ker” and the detailed reliefs of the Angkor temples.

The dances are accompagnied by a singing choir, the drum Skor arak”, the violin Tro che and the double reed ”Pley ar” and a number of changing instruments, for example the wooden tubes ”Kancha” or cymbals and rattles. The combination of music and instrumentation follows the content of the dances. In the animal dance ”Sneng tonson” (”dance of the wild cattle”), one of the animal dancers plays the mouthorgan ”Phloy” (made of five bamboo pipes) while a vocalists gives comments and the movements get underlined by the Skor thom”. Dances including folksongs accompagnied by thechordophones Takhe and ”Cha pei” are often dialogues between men and women (both called ”Ayay”) with improvised melodies and humorous character.

4) Systemology
One of the most interesting topics of the traditional Khmer music is the isotonic scale, which divides the octave into seven equal steps of (nearly) 171,4 cent. Corresponding to isotonic systems in Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, and also to the old ”Sruti” of India, it is still not clear where this system is originally coming from. Most of the scientists try to search for a common intonation of the Asian metallophones to explain this theory. Another possible explanation is the syncretism of the wide range of musical influencies from China over India to Indonesia in the conglomerate of the culture of the ancient city in Angkor Wat.

While most of the instruments are strictly bound to orchestral instrumentations and their function, the performed pieces always mix up actual folk songs, religious fragments and pieces of the ethnic minorities in Eastern Cambodia with traditional fragments of music. This makes it very hard two divide between ”modern”, ”ancient” and ”classic” music. Most of the pieces are played in a heterophone way, based on a rhythm that splits up into two times. Polyphone manners only develop, if different melodies of different origin are played in the same piece. It is also not rare that musical pieces of the shadow theatre are integrated in the dance music and vice versa.

For example, the ”Mohori” music is characterized by an anhemitonic pentatonic scale (see picture below) which was influenced by classic Chinese music. It often changes the modi and scales. On the other hand, ornamentations are used in different manners and split up the origin of the original scale. The ornamentations are very improtant for the music, as the right placing and execution of an ornament divides a good musicians with high skills from the mediocre one.

Example for an anhemitonic pentatonic scale based on C

(written in Germany, 2007)