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The traditional music of Cambodia
written by INGO STOEVESANDT
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.
reason for the loss of knowledge about traditional Khmer music is the
increasing spread of the typical “Karaoke”-virus.
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.
2) Instruments and
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 the“Pin 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.
also do find ensembles with this names in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and
Malaysia, but it is obsolete to discuss which one was the
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)
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
with a quadruple reed oboe, but its origin may be found in the Indian "Xaranai"
or the European
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
orchestra nowadays is the ”Mohori" which
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”
for producing offbeats, also a hammered dulcimer named “Khim” apperas.
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
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
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.
(written in Germany, 2007)