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Ancient music rediscovered

A preun group performs just outside Phnom Penh last month.

A rare type of  traditional music known in Khmer as preun has been rediscovered in Cambodia in the depths of rural Samrong district in Oddor Meanchey province. 

Cambodian cultural researcher, Young Yorn, 30, came across a folk group that performs the musical style while in the northwest of the Kingdom. He says the ancient music was different from other traditional Cambodian music that he has studied.  

Young Yorn says it is uncertain when the musical form began. What is known is that the khen, an instrument made from long bamboo pipes, can be seen on a carving on Bayon temple.

“So we can say that preun has existed in Cambodia for a very long time,” Young Yorn says.

The Samrong preun group has three performers, two of them sing and the third plays the khen.

Mun Hai, a 56-year-old farmer, leads the group. He saw his grandparents perform the music when he was a young boy. When he was 25 he learned the music from an older woman in his community. Taking up a singing role in the three-member troupe he and two others have performed in Banteay Meanchey and Battambang provinces.   

“Some people call preun khen music and other people in our community call it preun kantol uk which is in the language of the Suoy ethnic minority. They call it that because there is only one musical instrument in the performance,” he says.

Soon after Mun Hai started performing preun both his bandmates died and Mun Hai thought he was the only person who knew how to play the ancient music. Later he teamed up with Sam Kong Kea, also a farmer who could also perform in the style .  

Sam Kong Kea, 52, lives about 20 kilometres from Mun Hai’s home in Tomnob Thmey village in Oddor Meanchey province. He learned preun from his brother who was killed during Khmer Rouge regime.

“Preun was performed at ground-breaking ceremonies, Khmer New Year celebrations, spiritual offering ceremonies or funerals, but I rarely saw people performing it at wedding ceremonies,” Sam Kong Kea says.

Sam Kong Kea said the younger generation was not interested in the folk music. He tried to teach it to his sons because he was afraid the rare music would be lost if he didn’t.  

The musical style also exists across the border in Thailand, but is fast dying out.

Chaimongkol Chalermsukjitsri, president of the Language and Culture Association of Surin said there were about five bands operating in Surin but, he said, the style wouldn’t last because ethnic Khmers there did not speak in their mother tongue.

“In Surin, we have a problem with the language. The younger generation does not try to speak their mother language. They just speak Thai. The original language is the life of preun music. If people lose their own language, their traditional music will vanish too,” Caimongkol said.

“We all have to help to preserve it. We need to establish more preun bands. We should bring masters of preun to pass on their knowledge to the younger people before the old people die.”



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