TAM Khmer Musicians from the Smithsonian Folklife Festival at RFA July 5, 2007

Khmer Musicians from the Smithsonian Folklife Festival at RFA July 5, 2007

On the July 5, 2007 Radio Free Asia conducted a in-house recording session with Khmer musicians invited to The Washington DC's Smithsonian Folklife Festival as part of the featured “Mekong River: Connecting Cultures” exposition. The Khmer musicians had good representation at the Festival and therefore RFA invited a musical troupe of outstanding musicians from Cambodia to participate in the session. RFA conducted three recording sessions with the Khmer musicians: two in the morning (from 9:30 a.m. through 1:30 p.m.) and one in the afternoon (from 3:30 through 9 p.m.).

Khmer music is an important aspect of Cambodian life and culture. It is a significant component in religious and traditional ceremonies such as weddings or temple celebrations. Khmer civilization reached its peak during the Angkor period, from the ninth to fifteenth centuries when great monuments were built with elaborate carvings depicting myths, gods and aspects of daily life. The carvings of musical ensembles on bas-reliefs are nearly identical to the ensembles performing in Cambodia today, where virtually every village in Cambodia possesses a music ensemble. This continuity is testimonial to the strength of this ancient tradition.

The narrative music of the Chrieng Chapey (lit. “sing the lute”) style, is historically a maledominated, vocal entertainment genre, performances of which in the earlier times lasted from morning till evening, with the usual enjoyment of a great laughing audience. The Chrieng Chapey accompanied himself with a long-necked lute (Chapey dang veng). Before 1975, the repertoires were drawn from popular Khmer literary legends, such as Preah Chinavung, one of the popular Khmer operas that RFA also recorded in-house a few years ago. It may also describe contemporary, even political events, such as atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and liberation from it, as well as give ethical advice to young people by telling satirical stories.

One of our invited guest musicians was Master Kong Nay who is sometimes popularly called the “king of the blues in Cambodia,” or, because he was blinded in his childhood by smallpox, “the Ray Charles of the Mekong Delta.” According to the 62-year old survivor of Pol Pot’s Killing Fields, the existence of the musical genre of Chrieng Chapey and the two stringed long-necked lute have legends stretching back before the historical Buddha’s time. Master Nay was regarded as dangerous by the Khmer Rouge, as were all Chrieng Chapey singers, famous for their satirical political comments.

This complete TAM Session resulted in fifty-six song tracks which are loaded in the Tam Player below for your preview. Tracks for this session are loaded in the player randomly to mix up the preview between the four different groups of performers.

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Smot chanting is a complex and demanding way of melodically reciting Khmer and Pali literature. Prum Ut, RFA’s other invited guest musician, began his study of the art of smot poetical recitation or chanting when he was ordained as a young monk at a temple in Kompong Speu province. He remembers that during the several years he spent learning many important chanting styles and key texts, both in the Pali and Khmer languages, his teacher was so demanding in terms of vocal technique that it took ten days just to learn the first two words, “O Bimba,” in the correct way.

Prum Ut insists that it was his knowledge and understanding of the many texts in the smot tradition that expound the teaching of impermanence that were his inspiration and refuge in spiritually surviving in the wake of the Khmer Rouge era. He says that the teachings in such chants, which remind us of the inexorable force of change from birth to death, allowed him to come to terms with life after so much loss.

“I am afraid that after I go, then what? I fear that this tradition may not last long,” he says. Many of the chants in his extensive repertoire are rarely heard anymore. Additionally, some are rare and so difficult to learn that barely anyone else can chant them anymore.

The third musical entity that RFA recorded was a large group of nine musicians a traditional folk troupe consisting of musicians who teach at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh. The musicians all played multiple traditional musical instruments and performed small pieces in the pin peat classical music ensemble style including pieces of popular folk music and ten songs with a solo folk singer accompanied by a Chapey Dong Veng (a long-necked two-stringed guitar).

The pin peat is one of the oldest Khmer music ensembles. Instruments were carved on Angkor Watt temple walls that date the ensemble more than a thousand years old. The ensemble utilizes a full range of traditional instruments including the sralai (quadruple-reed oboe), roneatek (xylophone), roneat dek (high-pitched metallophone), kong tauch (high-pitched circular frame gongs), kong thomm (low-pitched circular frame gongs), chhing (small finger cymbals), sampho (small double-headed barrel drum), skor thomm (large double-headed barrel drums), and chamrieng (vocals). The pin peat is one of the strongest and most senior among all Khmer music ensembles.

Traditionally, the pin peat ensembles accompanied the court dancers. The court dance tradition of Cambodia is among the oldest and most refined theatre forms in Asia. Prior to 1970, dances of extraordinary beauty were performed by a single troupe resident in the royal palace, where they were revered as a living symbol of the kingdom. They traditionally represented that the earth over the king was lord. Their performance in a ritual context was considered as an offering to the spirit realm of deceased ancestors, capable of influencing monsoon rains and the land’s fertility.

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