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Ancient angkuoch needs modern makers

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Master Son Soeun (L) and Master Bin Song (R) are lifelong friends and both angkuoch musicians and makers. SUPPLIED

Ancient angkuoch needs modern makers

Son Soeun and his lifelong friend Bin Song are in their late seventies, but they can both still play a rare musical instrument called the angkuoch and often do so together.

The pair of old timers reminisce about the old days when there were many boys around their age who would keep an angkuoch in their pocket to entertain themselves while working out in the fields.

Not only that, but for their generation and ethnic minority’s culture it was something of a rite of passage when entering adulthood to play romantic tunes on the instrument for any young women they were attempting to court.

“When I was a bachelor, I would go and visit the homes of girls that I liked at night. When I’d reach my lover’s house – if she was already asleep – I would play my angkuoch to wake her and call her outside. If I kept playing, sure enough, she would wake and come meet me,” Soeun, 79, recalls with a grin .

His friend Song still remembers the lyrics from the folk songs he would sing while accompanied by someone playing the angkuoch and he isn’t afraid to prove it in front of an audience.

“On the ol’ pond’s shore a-fishin’ I stood / Pass the rice wine, I’ll dance real good / One fish-hook left so I tied it on / Caught a croc, he bit me – now my pants half-gone / Ladies, sew up these rags ol’ croc shredded / And if you’re a beauty then we’ll be a-wedded,” his creaky voice warbles out.

For the first twenty years of his life, Soeun grew up in Preah Ko village in Siem Reap province along with Song, who in addition to his singing talents also became a skilled crafter of angkuoch later on in life.

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Master Bin Song, an angkuoch-maker from Siem Reap. SUPPLIED

“I am very happy that I get to share my knowledge about angkuoch with other people. When I can demonstrate how to make the angkuoch, I am very excited about it. Extremely excited! I feel happy about this project because I think the research team will spread this information widely and let many other people know more about this tradition,” Song says.

Angkuoch are more than just instruments sold to tourists at the nearby Angkor temples. It is part of a musical tradition that has been interwoven with Khmer culture for centuries and perhaps even millennia, though it is rarely played now in modern times.

Fortunately, a great deal of information on the angkuoch and how they were crafted and played has already been preserved by researchers who documented various aspects related to the use of the angkuoch in Khmer culture and published a book on it as a means to preserve knowledge of this important piece of cultural heritage.

The angkuoch is basically identical in form to instruments which are commonly known as a “Jew’s harp” in some parts of the world, though they do not in fact originate with or have any significance in the Jewish culture.

The instrument is an ancient one and found in many cultures around the world, but historians believe it probably originated in China. There is a drawing that appears to depict a person playing one dating to the third century BC and primitive examples of them have been uncovered in archaeological digs in China dating as far back as 1800 BC. In other words, nearly 4,000 years ago something similar to today’s angkuoch was being played by musicians in China.

As the instrument spread around the globe it picked up various names – the jaw harp, vargan, mouth harp, gewgaw, guimbard, khomus, Ozark harp, Berimbau de boca and murchunga – are some of the better known appellations.

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The family of Master Mong Koeuy, a famous angkuoch-maker. SUPPLIED

Angkuoch are part of the lamellophone family of instruments, which means that it makes its sound using a thin vibrating plate called a lamella or tongue, which is fixed at one end and has the other end free.

Cambodia’s cultural practices and traditions that centre on the angkuoch are now in need of preservation and safeguarding due to the loss of cultural knowledge generally during the Khmer Rouge period and subsequent social and cultural developments in Cambodian society that discouraged the passing along of the skills for crafting them and playing them as they fell out of fashion.

Today, there are only a few people left in Cambodia who can play the angkuoch and even fewer than that who can craft them.

En Sormanak, the arts development program coordinator at Cambodian Living Arts (CLA), told The Post that his organisation is conducting research with the aim of preserving the cultural knowledge of the angkuoch for the “benefit and pleasure of present and future generations.”

“The result of our research about the angkuouch was presented at a meeting attended by CLA, Griffith University of Australia, UNESCO-Cambodia, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and the handful of remaining angkuouch makers from Siem Reap province,” he says.

The research and documentation team found that the late Master Mong Koeuy was the most famous bamboo angkuoch-maker in Siem Reap and one of his musical instruments was being displayed in the British Museum in London – but it was credited to an “unknown artisan” – or at least it was until the researchers met Koeuy’s family .

They showed the picture of the British Museum’s instruments to Koeuy’s wife, Lav Mech, and Koeuy’s daughter, Leakhena, and his son, Reatha. They were all shaken to see the many recognisable characteristics and features of their father’s instruments were all present in the museum piece, which was like those he had sold widely for many years to local musicians and foreign tourists.

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Krak Chi, an angkuoch-maker from Siem Reap. SUPPLIED

“When I first saw this photo [of the British Museum angkuoch], I was very excited. I never knew my father’s work had been given such a great honour abroad. Even locally, some people do not even know about it, so I didn’t think it was very prized or appreciated. Seeing this angkuoch makes me miss him. To my family, the angkuoch symbolises my father first and foremost,” Leakhena told the researchers for their report.

To help preserve Cambodia’s cultural heritage in this area, the angkuoch research project was subsequently given funding by the Endangered Material Knowledge Programme of the British Museum to document the angkuoch and the methods used to craft it and play it from those few people who still know about it living in Siem Reap province.

And, of course, Master Mong Koeuy was given his proper due on the exhibit placard as the man who crafted the angkuoch on display in the British Museum – a small monument to his talents, but a lasting one that is permanent and part of an institution serving the public as one of the world’s greatest collections of objects that – taken together – tell the story of human civilisation and history.

Song Seng, CLA’s Director of the Heritage Hub, says that the research team’s study has revealed that there are two type of angkuoch common to Cambodia: Angkuoch dek (metal harp) and angkuoch reussey (bamboo harp).

“Master Bin Song, 80, is known for his metal harp skills. He is from Peah Kor Thmey village of Svay Chek commune in Angkor Thom district of Siem Reap province. The instruments in this region originated from the Kuoy ethnic minority and were played in courtship activities between boys and girls.

“For the bamboo harp, we have Master Krak Chi, who is in his 70’s but can still craft them quite easily. He is a village chief and his two sons are 32-year-old Chi Monivong and 34-year-old Chi Chen. They are notable because they are young people who know how to make the instruments and play them, though the sound of the bamboo versions are not as fine-tuned musically as that of the metal angkuoch,” Seng says.

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The tools used for crafting an angkuoch. SUPPLIED

Monivong and Chen say that their full-time jobs keep them too busy to spend much time on angkuoch themselves, but they are happy that their father is teaching their sons (his grandsons) how to make them now too. They hope that the family tradition will continue and develop and that people of all ages will know about and enjoy playing angkuoch in the future.

“Not many people know about angkuoch anymore. Younger people said to me – ‘Brother! What are you holding? Is it a wooden pin to fix nets?’ I told them: ‘No, it is an angkuoch. People use it to make music.’ They didn’t believe me but then I played it for them and they wanted to know how to play it and if I would make some for them,” Chen says.

Seng says that the research team has also created a video documentary about angkuoch and its makers and players, which is available to watch for free online.

“We film the musicians playing both types of the instruments, the metal and the bamboo one, and we produced a 20-minute short documentary film. We also filmed another one-hour video going into detail about the instruments for the British Museum in London and for use by other researchers working in this field.

“We hope that this project inspires people in Cambodia and around the world to appreciate the beauty and importance of angkuoch – today, tomorrow and long into the future,” says Seng.

To download CLA’s booklet on angkuoch: https://bit.ly/CLA-Booklet

To view CLA’s short film on angkuoch: https://bit.ly/CLA-Film

And to check out their Facebook page: @cambodianlivingarts

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