In past generations, Cambodians believed their illnesses were caused by spirits, and that only spirits themselves could cure them.
To summon healing spirits, a person would lend his body and serve as a medium during a ceremony, where the otherworldly beings were lured with food, alcohol, and a particular style of music known as areak.
Nowadays, with most people turning to treatments at hospitals rather than through spirits, the areak musical tradition has come close to extinction.
As part of an ambitious recording project, non-profit cultural organisation Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) has now begun to record areak in an effort to preserve its legacy, together with three other traditional musical forms: Smot chanting, kantaoming funeral music, and classical wedding music.
Originally, CLA only intended to record the latter three forms after launching a project earlier this year meant to preserve musical forms in danger of extinction.
But in the process of locating “living masters” – elderly musicians who survived the Khmer Rouge genocide and are among the only experts in their art forms – CLA stumbled upon a previously unknown areak ensemble in Kampong Speu province.
Seeing that this form had not previously been recorded, CLA coordinators decided to incorporate it into the on-going project.
“We’ve found some masters. They are quite old and even sick,” said Marion Gommard, the Communications Manager at CLA, of the elderly musicians. “This archive project is about preserving the traditional arts, so they can pass their knowledge to the next generation.”
While CLA has compiled master recordings in the past, the current archiving project, sponsored by the US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, is its most ambitious yet.
It may take up to one year to complete, according to Gommard, and has so far included recording sessions in both the masters’ hometowns and at CLA’s Phnom Penh studio.
The organisation hopes to issue a total of 4,000 CDs by the end of November.
Chhuon Sarin, the technical program coordinator at CLA, said that although some traditional musical styles are still played in Cambodia, many have not been recorded.
Styles such as areak, whose popular use is in slow decline, are most at danger of disappearing. After all, if people don’t turn to spirits for cures, they will no longer need this style of music.
“In the past, people were Hindu, and they believed in curing patients with spirits. To bring spirits, music played a very important role,” said Sarin. “Spirits also have their ranks. The higher ranking spirits prefer a music ensemble with up to 10 drums ... So the music is slightly different from one place to another.”
Mao Yin, 68, from Preah Khe village in Kampong Speu province, is an areak master. His ensemble, which has five musicians and one singer, has a repertoire of approximately 25 songs, all of which will be recorded by CLA.
The musical instruments that they perform include tro ou (half violin and half guitar), chapei (a long necked two-string guitar), a traditional drum and a pei or flute.
“When I was young, areak was so popular,” said Mao Yin. “When we used to host areak music to bring spirits to cure a patient, the relatives of the patient would share food for the ceremony.”
Despite its waning popularity in the era of hospitals, however, the master says the spiritual music is not yet fully extinct. “Now, some people who cannot get their sickness cured at a medical hospital come to seek spiritual treatment, so they still hire our ensemble to perform music sometimes.”
While areak is generally known by Cambodians around the country, kantaoming funeral music has survived only in Kampot and Siem Riep provinces, according to Sarin.
Different from the conventional Buddhist chanting still used at funerals, kantaoming is traditionally performed at a funeral with musical instruments. Sarin believes that this particular musical style is not well known because people in most of the Kingdom stopped performing it for a long time.
Khem Sokha, 56, belongs to a five-man kantaoming ensemble that CLA established contact with in Sre Pong Ruong village, Kampot province, and which is also part of the recordings.
“When I was very young, I always heard elderly people ask their children to host kantaoming music for their funeral when they died,” said Khem Sokha. “People in my village still hire my ensemble to perform up to two days of the funeral. But in other places, they have already given up this music.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Roth Meas at [email protected]