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Rescuing the classics: saving traditional music from extinction

120120_05

Some of Cambodia’s most renowned musical masters will gather this year to create a recording of musical forms in danger of being lost, as part of the “Documentation of Three Khmer Musical Traditions” project spearheaded by the local NGO Cambodian Living Arts.

Mathew Wakem/Phnom Penh Post
Artist Ksa Diew performs a traditional song in the CLA studio.

The project, funded by a grant from the US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, will create audio-visual documentation of three traditional forms: Kantaoming, classical funeral music; classical wedding music; and Smote, a unique combination of poetry and chanting performed in Buddhist ceremonies, particularly funerals.

Cambodian Living Arts was founded in 1998 as the Cambodian Masters Performers Program with the mission of rescuing and reviving artistic traditions virtually wiped out during the Khmer Rouge era. The organisation has worked to bring together living masters of traditional Khmer arts to create recordings and performances, and teach younger artists.   

According to Marion Gommard, communications director of Cambodian Living Arts, 90 per cent of Cambodian artists were killed during the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge era, decimating the largely oral cultural tradition. Without any written record and few surviving masters, these classical art forms are in danger of being permanently lost.

“Historically, transmission has only been oral,” she says. “That is why it’s so important to record, so artists can pass down knowledge.”

Sarin Chhuon, CLA’s studio manager, says there is an urgency to record these forms while master musicians are still alive, since most of them are in their 80’s and 90’s.

“We have to do this now. In the next five or 10 years, they may be gone,” he says. “Most of the songs are in their brain, they’re not written down.”

Sarin Chhuon says that while these forms are still popular among Cambodians during wedding or funeral ceremonies, most people have lost touch with the classical styles.

“People are still using it but it has disappeared in its original form,” he says. “They just use really bad cassette tapes, or they have one or two musicians playing modern wedding music. They don’t even know what the real music is like. So slowly, it is being lost.”  

Smote, the more religious of the three forms, is a blend of poetry and chanting conducted at Buddhist ceremonies, though most Cambodians associate it with funerals. “With the chanting, people feel free and let it go. It describes comfort to people who are dying. In a funeral, the chanting lets the family know it’s OK,” says Sarin Chhuon.  

CLA is forming an advisory board for the project, and hopes to begin recording by February. Three musicians working as CLA teachers in their provinces have already agreed to participate, and the organisation hopes more musicians will get involved. The three artists, all renowned masters from the ’50s and ’60s, are Sok Buch, a Kantaoming master in Takeo and Siem Riep, Ling Srey, a classical wedding musician from Siem Riep, and Koeut Ran, a Smote master from Kompong Speu.

There are plans to release 3000 CDs of the “Documentation of Three Khmer Musical Traditions” project recordings. The organisation has released two CDs of its master artist recordings in the past, but the $12 selling price has been too expensive for most Cambodians, according to Sarin Chhuon.

With this project CLA hopes to make CDs available to Cambodians for $1 or $2. By making the recordings more accessible, CLA hopes ordinary Cambodians will rediscover the classical forms of these popular musical styles.

“We want people will use the CDs in their ceremonies,” says Sarin Chhuon. “I hope they will throw away those old tapes.”

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