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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Musical master hands down a royal tradition

Musical master hands down a royal tradition

Musical master hands down a royal tradition


In the Post's second in a series on traditional Khmer music, Tep Mary

talks about the joy of keeping a once dying art alive for a younger



Tep Mary and her students play traditional drums.

With a wrinkled face, white hair and shaking hands, 77-year-old Tep Mary talks with sparkling eyes about her lifelong passion for traditional Khmer instruments and her desire to pass her knowledge of music to the younger generation of Cambodians so that it is not lost forever.

Well known before the Pol Pot regime as a rare instrumentalist trained at the Royal Palace, where she learned to accompany court dances, masked plays and shadow puppet theatre, Tep Mary is a master of 10 different traditional Khmer instruments.

Pin Peat Music

Tep Mary has spent nearly her whole life playing traditional Khmer music and specialises in pin peat music - traditionally the music of royalty and one of the oldest music ensembles in Cambodia involving oboes, xylophones, gongs and drums.

"I started learning how to play when I was 11 in my hometown in Kandal province," she said, adding that the first instrument she mastered was the xylophone.

"Even though I played a lot of instruments well, I never had the plan to make performing Khmer music into a career, and I never thought that I would become a music teacher," she said.

"However, when I saw that many young people could make money making music I decided to become like them."


Learning to play Khmer music and the intricacies of different instruments require endurance, plenty of patience and a long-term commitment, Tep Mary said. "I cried almost every day because my teachers yelled at me when I didn't play the correct sounds," she said.

Royal palace performances

"After I learned to play instruments in my hometown, I moved to Phnom Penh with my grandfather, who was also a Khmer music player, and started learning to play at the Royal Palace," she said.

"I learned and performed at the Royal Palace for four years but then I had to stop when I got married," she added.

"I also performed at the National Theater ... to a huge audience. The king also came to one of my performances," she remembered, adding that she often played at celebrations such as the Water Festival, and house openings, or when Buddhist monks were ordained.

Cambodian classical arts were nearly wiped out as the Khmer Rouge systematically exterminated members of Cambodia's artistic elite in their drive to forge a peasant utopia.

While the Khmer Rouge killed Tep Mary's husband, she survived by changing her name and identity.

"It was very risky to be able to play music during the Pol Pot regime. I lied and said that I could not play music because I was afraid that I would be killed if anybody found out about it."

Only a handful of artisans survived the regime, and many found themselves impoverished and forgotten in its aftermath.

But for Tep Mary, being one of the few remaining traditional musicians sustained her during this dark period and she returned to her craft.

"I performed for about 10 years and then I decided to become a music teacher. I have taught more than 200 students since then," she said, adding that she has been teaching the pin peat ensemble since 2002 at Cambodian Living Arts, an organisation dedicated to preserving the Kingdom's rich heritage of traditional performing arts.

 "I am proud of my achievements and I try to pass my knowledge on to the younger generation," she said. "I don't know whether they will keep the traditions alive but I try to teach them the best I can," she added.

"I teach my students as my teacher taught me. I yell at them in the same way my teachers yelled at me."

But with only 20 professional teachers still alive, Tep Mary said she is concerned for the future of the musical arts.

"I think that Khmer music is unique and I hope that the tradition will continue into the future, but if Cambodian people don't care about it I am afraid that it will be lost forever," she said.


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