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Young woman embraces a career as a classical Khmer musician

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Nowadays, most young Cambodians are only interested in modern musical instruments. It is rare to see an interest in classical Khmer instruments. Fortunately, there are also people who want to stay true to their roots, those who have chosen to study traditional Khmer music.

Va Chamnann, 30, has studied music at the Royal University of Fine Art since 1993. After seven years, she finished the secondary level and enrolled in a bachelor’s-degree program to perfect her skills on the Khmer instrument called “ta-ke”.

Such a commitment to one’s heritage is rare, LIFT had to investigate why Chamnann loves her instrument so much.

Chamnann says two very important factors compelled her to major in music: her family and herself.

“I love this major, but my parents guided me. They are also classical Khmer musicians, so they have encouraged me to go ahead since I was 13 because they could tell there were too few female musicians at that time,” she says.

After finishing her training, she saw more value in those instruments and began to learn Khmer music.

“Classical Khmer music is part of most social events, festivals and ceremonies in Cambodia. Playing those instruments helps to preserve my culture,” Chamnann says. “Learning about Khmer musical instruments is quite different from modern instruments because it requires more preparation for the traditional style,” she adds.

“When playing those instruments, we have to dress in traditional Khmer outfits and behave.”

Studying classical Khmer music isn’t easy; Chamnann says talent is needed to feel the correct emotion for a particular tune. This is a challenge most musicians have to face.

“Some instruments require strong pressure on the keys to produce any sound. Blisters are common,” she says.

“Achievement and progress comes at a high price. But I am honoured and admired by other people, both Khmers and foreigners, and I get the opportunity to perform at national and international events. I am proud of myself for bringing all that support to our Khmer music.”

Chamnann is a lecturer in the history of art at the National Institute of Education. She is also a ta-ke performer at the Phnom Penh Hotel and a part-time ta-ke teacher.

Teaching allows her to share her knowledge of classical art and classic Khmer musical instruments with the new generation.

“We have to understand and value our own culture first. When we do that, our art and music will then be acknowledged in other countries of the world,” says Chamnann.

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