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The traditional dance of Cambodia
Questions by Emily Pham, answers by Ingo Stoevesandt
Q: What is so special about traditional Khmer dance?
A: The name "Khmer" itself might be reflected to the mythological "parents" of the Cambodian people, which are "Khamu" and "Meru" (=KH+MER), both unknown to the Indian pantheon but given marriage to each other by Hindu god Shiva. "Meru" is always depicted as an "Apsara", a heavenly creature of the dance. Thus the first Cambodian woman, the mother of all Khmer people, was a dancer! Comparing the Apsaras with Indian sculptures (as e.g. of the dancing Shiva), we find many similarities in style and movement (see below, question 5).
So, is it just the same?
This question involves the old problem of comparison in musical and ethnological science. I always prefer to speak of "correspondancies" than of "influencies", because this term should be able to show the aspects of an influence which is transformed into something indigenous in a much better way. The main correspondancies in Khmer tradition come from India and Indonesia. But if someone really tries the hard work to compare these cultures with the Khmer inventions of music, dance, theatre, literature, clothing and religion one will soon figure out that the Khmer have transformed all of these influencies into something rather original which is not to be found anywhere else in SE-Asia.
The style of clothes and dance, the content of the religious tales and stories might be corresponding to aspects of Indian dance and religion, but, to give an example, the "Reamker" opus is a uniquely Khmer invention. The musical instruments and playing styles might correspond with others found in SE-Asia, mainly the Gamelan ensembles of Indonesia show a strong influence in the Khmer Pin Pea" orchestra, but again the Khmer version as a conglomerate of all these aspects stands for an indigenous patch work which is found nowhere else.
The temples of Angkor Wat with the sculptures of "mother Meru" shown as a heavenly dance creature called Apsara are not only the symbols of Cambodian pride, they are the main keys to reflect how the Khmer understand themselves. The dance of the Apsara is not only the metaphoric picture for the cultural identity of a whole nation, it is the link back to a history of more than a thousand years ago, which was nearly lost in the last decades and has to be preserved for the future.
The Khmer traditional dance, and thus the Khmer culture, are outstanding, worldwide.
Q: What are the main instruments used in the Ramvong and Ramkback dances?
A: I face many difficulties to answer this question correctly: As every serious scientist, I only can speculate about musical specifications in the ensembles which existed before the crisis, and I think this would not help you, as non of these quotations will ever be verified. That is the reason why I only can speak about the actual situation.
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 they could reach. This way no "fixed" ensemble was used, they just played on everthing they could get. But, after some years, the "Pin Peat" ensemble was coming back to accompany the 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 dances.
Normaly the "Pin Peat" ensemble consists of three groups: The first group, the percussion instruments, dominate the orchestra and give the main beats for the steps of the dancers. The "Pin Peat" is an ensemble with focus on percussion sounds, different from the more melodic sound of the "Mohori". The second group is small, consisting of one or two "sralay" in different sizes, which accopmany the slow and high pitched recitations. The third group consists of different melodic instruments, most of them idiophones, like xylophones and gong sets.
This last group might be understood as an relict of the Indonesian "Gamelan" ensemble.
The "Mohori" ensemble is mainly to be understood as a "street" ensemble, playing at any occasions where musicians are needed like weddings, shadow theatre, Folk festivals and Folk dance. It is using more melodic instruments, for example chordophones like fiddles and dulcimers. Again, non of these ensemble are to be understood as "fixed", you should not be surprised to find occasionaly even an electric guitar or a Western drum set playing along.
More detailed informations about the ensembles can be found here.
Q: What is the oldest kind of instrument used in Cambodian dances now? And how is it used?
A: Your questions sound easy but are more hard to answer. The difficulties are quite equal to those above. In order to figure out whether an instrument is "older" than another we have to track back each instrument through out all of Asia to find out its origin. This is impossible.
(Better said, it is the hard work of generations of poor musical scientists!) Some people say the oldest musical instrument in Cambodia is the monochord "Kse Diev" which resonates with the players chest, but it is not used any longer, I am not quite sure if it still exisits.
In the "Pin Peat", we find the gong sets, which surely come from the bronze ages. In Vietnam, there is a famous archeological site called "Dong Son" where the first bronze drums were exhumed, dating back to the second century before Christ. The gong sets have a long history all over Asia, mainly in SE-Asians countries like Indonesia, Burma and Vietnam. If we keep in mind, that the ancient Khmer king Yayavarman was educated at the royal court of Java, we surely see a corresponding to the Javanese and Balinese "gamelan" music, which is believed to be more than two thousand years old.
Q: How many different kinds of instruments do we find in the Cambodian culture?
Please keep in mind that there are many ethnicities living in Cambodia today. We meet Chinese vendors, Vietnamese, Lao and Thai poeple, and a lot of smaller ethnicities which do not belong to the "original" Khmer population like the Hmong, the Thay, the Gio Rai, etc... All of them come along with their own musical instruments, which are sometimes variations of the same kind (I think, nobody knows how many forms of the two-stringed fiddle exist all over Asia) or appear as equal. If we try to speak of unique "Khmer" or "Cambodian" instruments, we face the difficulties which I spoke about before: As musicology is still busy to compare each appereance of an instrument we only can speculate, whether an instrument is "original" Khmer or not. This way nobody can present exact numbers.
Q: Are there influences of music style and instrumental equipments from other neighboring countries?
A: Please let me refer to my introduction: Speaking of a real "influence" is difficult. We can only speculate whether one culture was the "first" to invent a musical instrument, an ensemble or a playing style. The "Pin Peat" ensemble also exists in Thailand and Laos under equal names. The ensemble appears to be the same with slight differencies. It is also used to accompany dance and theatre plays but we do find differencies in the musical material, for example the pentatonic scales used within, sometimes also the playing techniques differ (for example beating a drum with sticks, bare hand, fingers or palm, plucking a string with a plectrum or finger nails, etc), and the sound of the Thai "Pin Peat" appears a little more "homophonic" to Western ears. We may suggest, that the Thai overtook this ensemble from the Khmer culture as they invaded the old Angkor empire in the 15th century, but this is only speculation.
As mentioned before a basic set of the "Pin Peat" consists of a partial basis from the Indonesian "Gamelan" ensemble. These are the gong sets and the Xylophones. The function and playing styles of these instruments are quite the same, but, compared to the "Gamelan", the musical appereance does not reach the high density of polyphony which are to be experienced while listening to old "Gamelan" music. This is easy to understand, as the main focus of the Khmer dance music lies on the dance itself, not on the music, and the viewer should not be distracted by music which is too complex in structure.
Speaking for single instruments the "Sralay" finds many correspondings in the ancient Indian and Champa cultures. We also find single smaller ethnicities like the "Edo" or "Rhade" who still posses and use equal instruments which all appear as an oboe with double or quadruple reed.
All of these instruments have in common that they use a diatonic scale, which is only sometimes to be found in the tuning of gong sets.
Comparing these walways seems to result in the fact that either of them is played in a unique way.