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Back and forth: Art of Ayai

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Phrom Chantol and her daughter Ouch Savy. Photograph: Alexander Crook/Phnom Penh Post

Ayai, a mocking dialogue between man and woman, is an old Khmer form of sprechgesang traditionally staged at Buddhist ceremonies, especially weddings. A man and a woman, representing husband and wife, take turns to exchange rhymes and try to come out on top by finding mistakes in the logic and speech of their partner. In the end they always reach a draw. Singers give advice on how to live a happy marriage and be a good Buddhist.  In the past, Ayai partners were often married. Ayai singer Phrom Chantol, 49, married her partner but in 2004 he passed away. She has never performed again. Her daughter, Ouch Savy, 25, is a famous Ayai performer today, with shows on TV and the radio. Savy is single but her partner, Sin Sokkea, is married. Both women told Julius Thiemann about their approaches to the performance.

Phrom Chantol, 49

I learned Ayai from my uncle. I am not sure when exactly but it was after the Khmer Rouge because there was no Ayai then. I wanted to be part of the blessings in the Buddhist ceremonies and be an angel that comes down from heaven and cuts people’s hair with scissors.

First I only sang traditional songs at weddings but then I met my husband. We got married and he also became my Ayai partner. Back in the days most Ayai partners were married. There are reasons for that. As husband and wife you know each other well and that is important for a good performance. If you are not married to your Ayai partner there can be a lot of jealousy from his wife.

As husband and wife, you sometimes have differences. When the husband drinks too much or stays out with his friends, for example. But when you get on stage to perform, you have to try to put the differences aside.

When my husband and I had a real-life argument and started performing, the feeling of anger could come out a little bit.

Then my husband and I performed our own situation on stage and nobody knew! We did not agree on staging our argument. One of us would just do it. People laughed and believed it was a situation we made up or took from somebody else. My husband would then say, ‘And that’s the true story happening to us’. People would laugh because they thought it was a joke. And I would say something like, ‘Now you call me darling? How come you are so nice to me?’ People would laugh even more at that.

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Ouch Savy: 'to stage a good performance you have to be close friends’. Photograph: Alexander Crook/Phnom Penh Post

Content image - Phnom Penh Post

Content image - Phnom Penh Post

It was fun for us too and after the performance our argument was usually gone.

I miss performing with my husband. I loved it and remember it very often. Sometimes friends ask me to perform again with another partner but I cannot do it because I always performed with my husband. If I did it again it would make me very sad.

Ayai today has also changed a lot. People are more educated now and weave in foreign language words and sing about modern things like motorbikes and airplanes.

The older generation only sung about the past, but the melodies have stayed the same.

I am very proud of my daughter and I enjoy watching her perform but it also makes me very sad.

Ouch Savy, 25

When you have a partner you don’t want to change. It is difficult to find one, and you have to be able to read the other person’s mind. To stage a good performance you have to be close friends, like family.

I have performed with my Ayai partner Sin Sokkea since 2008. I didn’t find him but he found me. When he saw me sing on TV, he wanted to perform with me. At that time he worked on Radio 102. He asked many people if they knew me until he finally got my telephone number. When I first performed with Sin Sokkea, and people liked it I thought what a clever guy he was – he didn’t know much about Ayai in the beginning.

Young and old people like different things in Ayai and Sin Sokkea is good at sensing that. When the people are young we weave English words into the rhymes. Before we do a show we briefly discuss what we are going to sing about – often everyday scenes we see on the streets. We don’t practice it. Everything is improvised.

It is funny how man and woman try to win over the other and find a mistake in the other’s performance but in the end they have to reach a draw. The idea behind it is that man and woman  should be equal. Being cruel is not part of Ayai – it’s about teasing each other. You cannot let your partner lose face. If you say something mean, the other partner has to say something mean in return.

Mine is a good guy. He is very down-to-earth and doesn’t think he is more important than me because he is more famous - which he isn’t! When one of us is in a bad mood or makes mistakes we talk it out immediately.

I am single and Sok Ke is married. If someone marries an Ayai performer he or she has to accept that the future spouse will spend much time with the Ayai partner. I am not jealous of Sok Ke’s wife and she is not jealous of me but I can’t tell what this is like for other Ayai performers.



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