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Traditional Khmer musical instruments to feature in concert

02 patrick-kersale
Ethnomusicologist Patrick Kersalé with harps. Photograph: Miranda Glasser/Phnom Penh Post

A concert featuring traditional Khmer instruments not heard since the thirteenth century will be held tonight at the Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf and Spa Resort, as part of  La Fête de la Musique celebrations.

French ethnomusicologist and ‘archeomusicologist’ Patrick Kersalé has been researching Asian music for twenty years, and through studying bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat has managed to reconstruct original musical instruments from between the seventh and thirteenth century.

Tonight sees fourteen musicians gather to perform four different ensemble pieces, arranged around various themes.

Kersalé said he first spent two years researching bas-reliefs of musical instruments, many of which were in Wat Bo.

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A Bayon style harp dating from century12-13. Photograph: Patrick Kersale

He added, “Afterwards I tried to rebuild all musical instruments from Khmer people, according to bas-reliefs and some descriptions.”

Kersalé, whose studies have taken him all over Asia including India, Nepal and Indonesia, said most Cambodian musical instruments originate from India.

“Some later come from Malaysia,” he said, “But on bas-reliefs we don’t see any instruments that are purely Khmer.”

The idea behind La Fête de la Musique is to put together an orchestra to play different styles of music on ancient Angkorian instruments.

“We have four kinds of music,” said Kersalé. “War music with big drums, trumpets and horns, and after that we have maybe the most important music of all – music from Hinduism, music played inside the temples. We have court music, and then entertainment music.”

Each ensemble derives from different bas-reliefs. The religious, or temple music, uses instruments illustrated in a seventh century bas-relief at Sambor Prei Kuk in Kampong Thom. The entertainment ensemble comes from a Bayon bas-relief and features harp and monochord, a one-string sitar.

“The third ensemble of music we can see on the north face of Angkor Wat and this was played until the Pol Pot period,” said Kersalé. “Most of the musicians were killed but some were not and so we have been working with Cambodian Living Arts, who have rebuilt two of our ensembles.”

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A timila war drum. Photograph: Patrick Kersale

And as for the war music, this is depicted on a bas-relief at Angkor Wat.

“In bas-relief we can see a long trumpet made of metal,” said Kersalé. “I made it out of copper in Nepal, because in Cambodia it’s difficult to find someone who can do it. So we have the long trumpet, short trumpet, some conches and some big drums.”

The musicians will perform on thirty different musical instruments including seventh century harps, war drums, conches, and twelfth century ‘Bayon style’ harps and copper war trumpets.

Each instrument has been painstakingly crafted by specialist artisans, taking eighteen months to produce, and 54 instruments were made.

Kersalé based certain designs, such as the ‘pin’, a type of harp, on research carried out not only in Cambodia but also in Myanmar and Laos.

“I work with different makers,” said Kersalé. “Because we are in Cambodia and nobody knows how to play some instruments like the pin, I went to Myanmar to meet Karen people because they use a version of it.

He added that in southern Laos he met some Katu people and one person said his grandfather used to play the pin around the beginning of the twentieth century.

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Khmer war conches. Photograph: Patrick Kersale

Kersalé said he would like to give Khmer people back their ‘patrimony,’ and give them an opportunity to learn about their history and culture.

“It’s something very important for them,” he said. “I made these instruments because I am a poet, scientist and a musician all at the same time, but my purpose for more than twenty years has been to help people to rediscover their culture.

“In Cambodia there are two white spaces: one when Angkor Wat was destroyed and the other during the Khmer Rouge period. So I would like to help Khmer people to fill in the blanks.”

Future plans for Kersalé include a museum and research centre he intends to open  near Banteay Srei with silk-making NGO Golden Silk Pheach in about eighteen months’ time.

La Fête de la Musique starts at 7pm tonight with welcome drinks and a chance to explore the exhibition, followed by a presentation by Kersalé and the concert, titles, Sound of Angkor.

There is also an exhibition of instruments on display in conjunction with Golden Silk, running until the end of June. .

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