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Traditional Khmer music

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Traditional Khmer instrumentalists. Photograph: Ven Sakol/ Phnom Penh Post

Traditional Khmer music is very special to the Khmer heritage, used both for entertainment and in traditional ceremonies. Some say it is as valuable as Angkor Wat.

For many centuries, Cambodia has been admired for the creativity of its Khmer ancestors. But despite the interest from abroad, the popularity of Khmer traditional music has declined sharply amongst youth in the country.

Nhuk Sinat is a Khmer traditional music teacher at Khmer Amatak association and Asia Organization. He said: “The value of our traditional music is comparable to Angkor Wat. It is our national heritage.”

Some students are still very proud of the music. Chheang Phirom, 22, a drama student at the Royal University of Fine Arts is one. He said he would love to learn to play Khmer music. “First, I thought it was something that I was made to do. But now, I know that I love Khmer traditional music and want to preserve it.”

But despite the willingness of students like Chheang, many young people are less interested. Low pay and lack of jobs discourages people from learning while people who play very well often become buskers in the city. Mr Oun has been a Khmer music player at wedding ceremonies for more than 20 years said he would not teach his children.

Some blame the drive to modernisation in the country for indifference towards the music. Yun Theara, deputy director general at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts said: “Youth are willing to get something and to be modern, and we cannot blame them.”

A growing number of Cambodian young people can watch Western or Korean hip hop, films and music on television but there are very few programs that show our traditional music.

But we as Khmers have a responsibility to save our heritage. Without the Khmer traditional music, our society will lose a national symbol, and much more besides. So what can we do to preserve it?

Yun Thean believes that the merging of ASEAN countries over the next few years means it is important to gather and record tradition.

He said: “In 2015, ASEAN countries will merge their culture. That is why we are first gathering and recording our traditional songs to document them. Secondly, we will focus on the media to reach schools and organisations.”

“Although youngsters nowadays do not know how to play the instrument, of they want to learn in their old age, they still can learn as long as we have the records.”

According to Thong Keo Bunnate, planning officer at Phnom Penh Municipal Department of Education, Youth and Sports, there is a school for learning Khmer traditional musical instrument for those who are willing to learn: the Royal University of Fine Arts. Schools that are under the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports also have the subject in Art Class but students can only learn the theory, rather than the practice.

Recognising the problem, the Westline School is preparing to add a new subject about Khmer traditional musical instruments into the school curriculums.

Pech Bolene, president of both the Westline School and the Northline School said: “We are going to have this new art class because our traditional songs are melodious and full of meaning, which is so interesting. That is why we want the new generation to know, learn, and preserve our traditional musical instrument.”

Some musicians also create new songs by mixing both modern and traditional musical instruments. Pagodas also play a role in preserving our traditional instruments.

For example, Teacher Sinat had a chance to study in Phnom Penh because of Reachbo Pagoda that taught him to play musical instruments from an early age.

We, as Khmer, have to preserve our traditional musical instruments or to raise awareness of their importance so that we do not lose our precious heritage.

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