Flute master Seng Norn.
or the first time ever, Cambodia's greatest living masters of
traditional music come together, giving the younger generation a historic glance
at the music of their ancestors.
On a bank of the Mekong River, an outdoor stage is surrounded by the keepers of an
Seng Norn, 64, begins to play a short s'rlai flute, producing a loud, haunting wail
similar to a bagpipe, while Ling Srey adds meandering notes from his xylophone-like,
nine-tone kong troeming.
At intervals, Un Chhoeum strikes two large hanging gongs - one "male",
one "female" - and a drum, representing thunder in the heavens.
This is troeming music, a rare form of funeral dirge played by only two groups in
Siem Reap province.
"It's a calling for life to go back to its original place," explained retired
professor Mao Phoeung, probably the foremost expert on Khmer music. "[The s'rlai]
reminds us that we are awake and that this will pass in time."
The four-day master's retreat was organized by Silapak Khmer Amatak, or Cambodian
Living Arts, from July 21 to 24, as part of an ongoing effort to renew traditional
Khmer culture and explore the fusion of old and new art forms.
The project has tracked down those who still play ancient forms of music, given them
salaries and supported them in passing on their knowledge to the next generation.
The retreat was held at the relaxed country house of Arn Chorn-Pond, a Cambodian-American
singer involved with the Cambodian Living Arts.
The musicians discussed the theory and meaning of Khmer music, talked about its revival,
and shared their playing styles. While some of the 19 masters had met before, the
retreat was the first time they had all been together at one time.
"Coming together like this is like a magical event," said an emotional
Phoeung. "It's like bringing our soul back together."
The placid, 77-year-old professor became so passionate during his sermon on the intricacies
and importance of Khmer culture that an English language translator started speaking
to him in a dialect normally set aside for monks, which raised a good-natured laugh.
Later in the morning, an all-star jam session started up, with masters swapping instruments
Because many forms of Khmer traditional music are played as an ensemble, it's not
unusual for the artists to be proficient in many different instruments.
Yoem Saing, the 84-year-old "flute master" whose hearing was damaged during
the Khmer Rouge period, tended to get bored with the conversation between songs and
interrupted his colleagues mid-sentence to start up a new piece.
"Oi, loud one," someone called to him, to more friendly laughter.
Saing played on and only stopped when another master gently took the flute from his
hands, yelling in his ear that the song had changed.
Yoeun Mek, a master of modern wedding music, played a solo piece on the tro soar
that Phoeung recognized as a version of a traditional song. Now that these once isolated
artists are sharing their knowledge, "impure" forms are being discarded
in place of pure traditional styles, says Phoeung.
The former Royal University of Fine Arts professor is currently finishing an encyclopedia
of Khmer traditional music, as part of the Cambodian Living Arts project.
For the aging academic and musician, the book will be the culmination of his life's
work, and he knows it's a race against time.
"I'm nervous about when I will die - not scared - but nervous that I will not
be able to give back to the culture and honor my ancestors," Phoeung says. "I
want to leave something - like my book - for future generations, and this gathering
of masters will leave something for the nation."
He is also worried about the effect of karaoke - something he doesn't dislike but
describes as "shallow" and calls "money-making" music - on the
modern culture of Cambodia.
"If the foreign culture comes and we don't have our own culture strong, we will
lose something very deep: our culture, our identity," Phoeung says.
Back at the jam session, however, the next generation seems enthralled by the sights
and sounds of traditional music. Several local children hang off the rail watching
the musicians silently, as a young boy joins them at the stage with a beeping hand-held
He watches a little uncertainly for a few moments before packing his game back into
its cardboard box and handing it on to his younger friend, turning back to listen
to the masters.