Kantreum is performed with classical instruments including drums, th pei (a flute-like instrument), the tro (a low-pitched, two-stringed fiddle with a coconut-shell body) and chhing (similar to a pair of cymbals connected by a short rope).
The music is also closely connected with spirits. For example, Kantreum music is played when somebody gets sick and a spirit medium performs a dance.
The medium communes with the spirit to find a way to cure the illness. Kantreum is, however, most common for celebrations, and this is referred to as “classical Kantreum”.
The genre is far from stagnant. Guitars, keyboards and rock’n’roll drums are now ubiquitous at concerts where “modern Kantreum” is performed.
The music can also take on political messages: the song Peak Arv Mindel Khernh Dors (Never Take the Blouse Off) became a theme song for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party in 2003. It was written and sung by Surin native Khong Khoy, who used a metaphor to motivate people to switch political parties.
The lyrics encouraged women not to wear the same blouse every day, reminding them this was unfashionable, but the message was clear: voting for the same party in every election was as unattractive as wearing the same clothing every day.
“Kantreum singers are clever to use songs to gently criticise society”, Young Yorn says. “If we don’t pay close attention to the lyrics, they don’t sound sensitive, but if we analyse their meaning the songs offer metaphorical criticisms of society. Artists in Cambodia are unaware of this and just copy [the Khmer Surin] songs. Sometimes they compose new lyrics to sing with [the Surin Khmer] melody and even try to pronounce in their [Surin accent] way, but they end up sounding clumsy.”
Ethnic Khmers in Thailand are losing touch with their mother tongue, but the music they saved from the Khmer Rouge still connects them with a culture embedded in a rhythm that knows no borders.
IN the late '90s what sounded like a new type of music, Kantreum (which roughly translates as “the sound of a drum”), arrived in Cambodia from northeast Thailand. It was catchy enough that youths asked their parents why foreigners could sing so soulfully in Khmer: the lyrics, the pitch, the rhythms felt so authentic that they resonated across the country. The music came from ethnic Khmers living in Thai border provinces like Buriram, Sisaket and Surin who had been cut off from Cambodia during the prolonged civil conflict.
Kantreum had been popular here in the 1960s: the decade regarded as the Golden Age of Cambodian music, when the country’s most famous singer, Son Sisamouth, included this dance-inciting folk music in his eclectic and expansive repertoire. The Khmer Rouge erased this, but it survived on the other side of the border. Its return sparked a revival that has been growing steadily since the late '90s into a wave.
Kantreum and dancing go hand in hand, and this is why it is most popular during festivals like Khmer New Year and the Water Festival when communities come together to celebrate by moving en masse to a collective beat.
In Thailand, however, Kantreum is losing its sway as young ethnic Khmers gravitate away from their mother tongue to Thai, and there are concerns among the older generation there that if the language is lost the culture embedded in it will disappear too.
Although Khmer language is no longer banned, it is not taught in schools and – unlike English or Chinese – does not add lustre to a CV.
Chey Mongkol, president of Surin’s association of language and culture, is among those who are alarmed by the decline of Khmer language in his province where, he says, about 70 per cent of the population refer to themselves as Khmer Surin. “When we lose our language there will be nothing left. Our culture will get lost and our Khmer community will disappear,” he says.
He paints a bleak picture. Those who are 60 years of age or older speak only Khmer, those over 40 speak some Thai, but the younger generation rarely speaks their mother tongue. The Khmer language could disappear from Thailand in 10 years, he warns.
Saving Khmer Surin
Two approaches have been tried to spark interest in Khmer language among youths in Thai border provinces: classes and music. Chey Mongkol introduced a Khmer language class for children in Surin in 2006. At the beginning he had 100 students; now he has just 15. The sharp drop was a result of parents not seeing any benefit from sending their kids to study Khmer, he says.
Chey Mongkol also noticed that Kantreum singers had tried to switch to Thai, but this failed even when singers changed the name of the music. “They never make money singing in Thai because Thai people don’t really understand the lyrics. Moreover, the rhythm of Thai language [which is tonal] does not fit the Kantreum melody,” he explains.
Like Chey Mongkol, music researcher Young Yorn, 31, warns that that ethnic Khmers living in Thailand are in danger of losing their language, but he believes that music can save it. “Khmer is not taught in Thai schools, but it is still popular in songs,” he says. “Concerts always draw crowds. Kantreum can help people remember their language and learn more about their culture. If we lose Kantreum, our Khmer language will vanish in Thailand too.”
Young Yorn, a singer of classical music who is also writing a book about Kantreum, says the concerts remain uniquely festive with plenty of dancing. While researching his book he talked to numerous Khmer singers in Surin to gauge whether or not they found it more difficult to sing in Thai. What he found, he said, was that they said they felt like they were singing a new genre when they switched languages.
As is common in Khmer, Young Yorn turns to analogy to underscore his point. “For example, our sour soup goes well with paddy rice herbs, but when basil is used instead of paddy rice herbs,the soup doesn’t taste good. It doesn’t even smell like the sour soup we like.”
He also points out that Cambodia exports more art to the United States, France, Australia and Canada, but overlooks the largest ethnic Khmer communities across the border in Thailand. “Many Cambodian people don’t even know where Surin is, but we love Kantreum. Kantreum is like a soul to form a bridge between us. I want to have artists from both countries travel back and ford to perform our art together, so we can at least save our language.”