Cambodia has many musical traditions that are unique to the Kingdom. A recurrent issue in the post-war fast developing Cambodia has been finding ways to preserve and continue those traditions so that they don’t die out as the nation modernises and generations of children here grow up more accustomed to America’s bass-heavy and kinetic hip-hop music or the slickly produced K-Pop of South Korea’s BTS than they are to the haunting melodies of an instrument from their local cultural heritage, such as the chapei dang veng.
One Cambodian instrument facing even bigger challenges than the chapei dang veng is the phloy. The phloy is an instrument of the Chong indigenous people from the Areng area located south of the Cardamom Mountains.
Phloy are made from bamboo and birdhouse gourds, which are glued together by a natural lacquer. They have a droning sound that is sometimes compared to bumblebees visiting flowers and they are usually used to accompany singers, often at weddings.
Today there is only one place left in Cambodia with only one person who truly knows how to play the instrument: Duong Nhek, 87, of the Areng Chong community in Pek Svay village of Thmor Daun Keo commune of Thmor Bang district of Koh Kong province, according to the research team of the Khmer Magic Bus Program of the Cambodia Living Arts (CLA) which compiled a book on the subject funded with financial assistance from the US embassy in Cambodia.
In early 2022, the 60 page book titled Phloy was published in both Khmer and English. In addition to information on the history and cultural background of the instrument, it also features melodies and lyrics for songs composed for the phloy.
The phloy research team had four members: Thorn Seyma and En Sormanak who were both facilitators along with Va Bophary as researcher and Thon Dika as photographer.
Each traditional musical instrument in Cambodia has a different role depending on the relevant ritual or the make-up of the ensemble it is accompanying. The phloy is a type of wind instrument traditionally used primarily by the Chong indigenous people in provinces such as Pursat, Kampong Chhnang, Kampong Speu and Koh Kong.
Phloy are used in traditional ceremonies such as the Neak Ta spirit ceremony, spirit offerings, possessions and trance rituals, elephant trapping and the leg-tied elephant rite.
The Areng region of Koh Kong province is inhabited by the indigenous Chong tribe, which still practices the annual spiritual rituals using the phloy in their ceremonies once a year.
Unfortunately, the phloy and its music are facing the threat of dying out as a cultural practice entirely due to a lack of new players interested in learning the instrument and the lack of opportunities to perform with the phloy in public at various events.
As for the production of new phloy, it is becoming more and more difficult as the years pass to find the raw materials necessary for making them.
In order to make the phloy, five bamboo pipes, one dried gourd, resin from the Koki tree (Hopea ferrea), resin from the stingless bees (Meliponini) and rattan vines are all required. The core parts of the instrument are the sound tubes, resonator box and its reeds.
It is extremely difficult to extract the resin as it is only found in some large trees deep in the forest. In some cases, resin can be extracted from holes in the ground near the trees, but its quality isn’t as good. Once the resin has been removed from the holes in the tree trunks, it is rinsed with water to remove any debris.
The instrument is pieced together from the bamboo, gourd and vines using the resins as the glue and as a lacquer that affects its overall sound.
Despite a lack of phloy players in recent years, the music for the Neak Ta spirit ceremony requires Chong people to regularly practice the ceremony in order to learn the melodies accurately for its songs.
The indigenous Chong people as well as the indigenous Por people of Pursat believe the phloy was invented by the Neak Ta spirit, therefore the phloy is never owned or kept at an individual household, it is always kept at a special hut reserved for the Neak Ta spirit where it is safely retrievable for its next use.
In addition to the Neak Ta spirit ceremony, the phloy also has a special role in the ceremony conducted before going out to pick cardamom during for the locals in the Veal Veng district in the Cardamom Mountains.
“For this research and music compilation, our team studied the history of the phloy and the melodies and songs used for the Neak Ta spirit ritual and some other ceremonies practiced in Areng as well as how to make the phloy.
“Unfortunately, during the research trip in 2021, Grandpa Duong Nhek was the only one who knew how to play the instrument and he was too old and no longer able to perform. Without any other options available, we could only record his students playing the phloy,” Seyma, a co-founder of the Khmer Magic Bus, told The Post.
“Further research and documentation of the phloy must be conducted urgently. The melody of the phloy music is short but some parts of the songs have two sounds heard simultaneously, like the sound of Ken music. However, the Ken produces a related pair of notes across octaves, whereas the phloy produces two or three notes separately and distinctly.
“The musical transcription is written in western musical notation and in some songs there are up to four flat key signature changes. When making the phloy, Grandpa Duong Nhek does not tune the instruments, so each one sounds unique. Grandpa thought the music sounded more beautiful when each instrument had an incongruous sound,” she added.
Fortunately, thanks to the hard work of the Khmer Magic Bus program at Cambodian Living Arts and a grant from Patrick Murphy, the US ambassador to Cambodia through the US Ambassador Fund for Cultural Preservation, and further help from the Steung Areng Community Based Ecotourism association, a course teaching the phloy began in 2018.
Grandpa Duong Nhek cheerfully transferred all his knowledge about playing the phloy, traditional singing and his instrument-making skills to his three talented students, two of whom were girls. Those three students each had to travel far away from their homes on difficult dirt to learn the phloy at Nhek’s house.
Phloy classes taught by Nhek started in 2018 and continue to the present day. Nhek trains students in playing phloy music and traditional songs. They also learn how to make their own instruments.
“Grandpa’s students will continue to educate others and broadly promote phloy music to other regions. We all hope that this artistic heritage of the Areng region will be safeguarded for generations to come, because arts and culture are irreplaceable pieces of the identities of a nation or an ethnic group” she said.