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Traditional music revival crosses language barrier

CAMBODIAN singers of the traditional Khmer music known as kantrum are losing out in popularity to Thai singers. Kantrum has an up-tempo musical style which tends to  feature female singers.

A recent online poll on the Angkor Thom website voted Thailand’s Jane Saijai, 30, as a better singer in the kantrum form than Cambodia’s own Oeun Sreymom, despite her incorrect pronunciation of the Khmer lyrics.

Jane Saijai was born in Thailand’s Surin province, growing up after the Thai government enforced a ban on residents speaking and using Khmer language in the 1960s. This hasn’t stopped her becoming a popular performer of the traditional Khmer musical genre, having released up to 15 albums since she began learning music at the age of 11.

Her enthralling songs have reached out to admirers the world over through the Cambodian diaspora, with admirers not only in Thailand but also Australia, the United States, Germany and France.

Her music and lyrics are written in Thai script, which can lead to problems since most kantrum lyrics are sung in Khmer. However, this hybrid variety of kantrum known as Surin style has actually become popular in Cambodia.

Jane Saijai’s dialect is understandable to people from provinces such as Siem Reap, Battambang, Otdor Meanchey or Banteay Meanchey, though her accent makes it difficult for residents in the south of Cambodia to understand her songs.

“Composers here write the lyrics in Thai script, but because we’re singing in the Khmer language, sometimes we don’t pronounce words correctly because we don’t have the same vowel sounds,” she said.

She has released albums with both traditional musicians and modern electric instruments. Kantrum, a female song form thought to date back to the Angkor empire in the 7th century AD, is now being reinvented as music that can be performed by both men and women.

One man who is working to promote the style and culture in Surin province is Chey Mongkol, president of the Thai area’s Language and Culture Association.

Fearing that his beloved kantrum music would be lost if the Khmer language disappeared, he has established Khmer lessons to teach Thai singers the correct pronunciation.

Since 2006, he has taught more than 100 students in Thailand the basics of Khmer, which was traditionally spoken among the people in the Issan region of Thailand until the language was banned officially due to border disputes.

“Sometimes singers just sound out the Thai script even though they don’t understand the meaning and correct pronunciation of the lyrics,” he said. “Now more and more people have given up their mother tongue in favour of Thai, I was afraid that kantrum music would disappear at the same time.”

Chey Mongkol recently brought a troupe of Surin kantrum players to perform in Phnom Penh, and said he hoped to increase cultural exchanges by asking Cambodian kantrum musicians to share their skills with Khmer people in Thailand.

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