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The kse diev is played with a false nail on the fourth finger.
The kse diev is played with a false nail on the fourth finger. Eli Meixler

Breathing life into the kse diev tradition

Its music was played at Angkor, but the only surviving master of the instrument worries he may be the last of his kind

If you drive about 40 kilometres down National Road 2 to Takeo province, you might find the last master of the kse diev, Sok Duch. On a recent afternoon, at his home in Bati district, the octogenarian lay down on a wooden bed and excused his ill health in a low, muffled voice: “I was sick a few months ago, and stopped having classes with students – but, now I’m a bit better, I can talk to people.”

At the age of 88, Duch is the only surviving expert player of the kse diev, a one-stringed instrument with a long history – it is depicted on the bas-reliefs of Angkorian temples. He played for the French colonial authorities, the Khmer Rouge cadres and for the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk. He is, in the eyes of UNESCO, a “living human treasure”: a rare master of an art form that is at risk of slipping away.

Duch plays the instrument
Duch plays the instrument Eli Meixler

The kse diev – a long-necked wooden instrument with a single string that produces a low-pitched guitar-like sound when plucked – is one of a number of instruments unique to Cambodia, including the roneat (xylophone) and various kinds of flutes, gongs, drums and clappers. They are still played at important ceremonies – occasionally weddings. There are fewer than 20 kse diev players in Cambodia – all of them trained by Duch.

Sitting on his bed, playing the instrument with a shaking hand, the musician said: “Kse diev is a rare and hard instrument to play because it requires players with natural talent. Kse diev is my life – it touches my heart when I play for people.”

Duch started playing when he was 13 years old, learning to craft the instrument from his “three respectful uncles”. “It was not an easy thing to make a kse diev,” he recalled. The instrument is made from hardwood, half a dried gourd – the hardened calabash fruit rests on the player’s chest – plus tuning pegs, and is played with a false nail made from copper or plastic worn on the fourth finger of the right hand. “Since I had a natural talent, I learned for only three months before I started playing with my uncles on stage,” Duch said.

When he played for the French during the protectorate era, “they were laughing, because our instrument had only one string.”

Sok Duch’s house still makes kse dievs, available for $500
Sok Duch’s house still makes kse dievs, available for $500 Eli Meixler

Later, when the Khmer Rouge turned the country into a vast prison without walls, Duch’s talent saved his life. He was not forced to labour in the fields but allowed to play in a band of musicians. “I had six children during the Pol Pot regime, and we were lucky at that time because I could play music,” he said.

He was one of the lucky ones – many creatives were executed or died from starvation or illness. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Duch played at grand dinners hosted by Sihanouk in the royal palace. He was the only kse diev player left – all the others had died during the regime.

“King Sihanouk said to me: ‘Don’t lose it. Help to preserve it for Cambodian people’”, the musician recalled.

“Old people played it without wearing their shirts because it was an instrument which touched the heart,” added Teav Nop, 57, one of Duch’s students, referring to how the dried gourd rests on the chest.

In 2002, Duch began working with Cambodian Living Arts (CLA), an organisation that supports traditional performers in the Kingdom and runs classes teaching young people to play all kinds of instruments. They took Duch to teach students in a pagoda in Siem Reap, where he spent three years. The musician was disappointed by the lack of knowledge about Cambodian tradition. “This kse diev belongs to Cambodian people – it appeared on the walls of the Bayon temple in Siem Reap, but no one could tell me about the history,” he said. Later, some of those students became kse diev teachers themselves.

The interior of his house features photos from days gone
The interior of his house features photos from days gone Eli Meixler

While Duch has been too sick to run classes this year, CLA has organised some taught by some of his students, Chhoun Sarin, a program manager at the organisation explained. “When compared to other instruments, kse diev began a very long time ago and is special because we can play it alone and with a team … We have few who can play kse diev,” he said.

Duch hopes that the music he loves will survive his death, but he worries. Lowering himself on the bed again, he said with a sigh: “As I am the surviving master of kse diev, I want to see young generations understand about Khmer culture, history and instruments, and preserve them after my last breath.

His own grandson might give him a cause to hope. Lun Chumnith, 25, first studied kse diev as a child, but initially showed no aptitude for it.

“My grandfather Sok Duch didn’t want me to play kse diev because he said I didn’t have the talent to play it,” he recalled. Now, he performs outside the National Museum in Phnom Penh, as part of the Plae Pakaa show put on by CLA.

“I said to myself that it was hard to learn, but I needed to do it because I wanted to challenge what my grandfather said to me and prove I could be successful with my dream to play and teach kse diev to students.”

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