Cambodia – The Rough Guide to World Music | Songlines
26 September 2018

The Rough Guide to World Music: Cambodia

From dancing angels to dengue fever, Cambodia's musical culture is flourishing once more, writes John Clewley

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US-Cambodian rockers Dengue Fever

(Note that this Rough Guide to World Music article has not been updated since it was originally published. To keep up-to-date with the best new music from around the world, subscribe to Songlines magazine.) 

If you visit Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s vast temple complex and one of Southeast Asia’s biggest tourist attractions, you’ll experience two sides of the country’s music – the celestial and the human. While the walls of Angkor are covered in reliefs showing angels playing heavenly instruments, along the processional paths that lead to the temples you can hear traditional music played by orchestras of musicians who were disabled under the murderous Khmer Rouge regime (1975–79) or by left-over landmines. Although many musicians were among the million-plus victims of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia is steadily rebuilding its musical culture. John Clewley reports.

Although Cambodia is a small country sandwiched between larger neighbours – Thailand (formerly Siam) and Vietnam – its Khmer kings ruled over much of mainland Southeast Asia between 802 and 1431. Under their rule, spectacular temples were built around the Angkor site (one of the world’s largest temple grounds): Angkor Wat, Bayon, Baphuon, Ta Prohm, Banteay Srei and many others. During this period, a delicate classical dance style and accompanying court music were developed from the dances of maidens (apsaras) who performed at the temples to honour the gods, and the dance style the Khmer created went on to influence classical dance across the region.

Khmer music remains an essential part of Cambodian life. Each region has distinctive folk dances and many villages still have their own classical and folk ensembles which play at funerals, weddings and Buddhist ceremonies, using many of the same instruments depicted on the bas-relief murals on the walls of Angkor Wat – harps, gong circles and drums. You can hear this music as you leave the temples of Ta Prohm and Banteay Srei, where classical and folk bands play for the visitors and sell CDs for the charities supporting disabled musicians.

Pre-Khmer music still exists in the countryside, for example in the form of dances for spirits in Koh Kong and the nang meo rain dance in Siam Reap. Ancient epic storytelling (chareng chapey) and trance dances can be found in the north of the country. Cambodia also has a call-and-response folk style, lakhon ayai, which involves verbal jousting between a male and female singer, not unlike the lam found in Laos and the mor lam of northeast Thailand.

The collective term for Cambodian folk music is Phleng Khmer (Khmer music) and the musician at the centre of the music-making is usually the chapay (long-necked lute) player. Chapay players are also itinerant bards, wandering the countryside to sing bittersweet, comic or satirical songs, not unlike the travelling bluesmen of the Deep South in the US. Only a handful of ageing master chapay musicians, like Kong Nay, have survived the Khmer Rouge era, but Nay, who recently toured the UK, continues to travel around the country and teach a new generation.

Classical Dance – Heavenly Forms

There are two major forms of Cambodian danceclassical and the much-older traditional folk styles (the latter with roots in animism and magic, together with Hindu forms from the first century). You can see the roots of traditional dancing whenever Cambodians have a social get-together and form a circle (ramvong), around which they move slowly, with graceful hand-movements. The classical form (lakhon kbach boran) borrowed much from the Indian tradition and earlier folk styles, but by the thirteenth century the style was more Khmer than Indian. Carved bas-reliefs at Angkor show musicians and dancers, some of whom are apsaras. Estimates suggest that there were 3000 apsaras at the court of the twelfth-century king, Jayavarman VII.

Apsaras and tontay dancing, the latter depicting early myths, are the two main elements of classical dance. The Dance of the Apsaras and Tep Monoram are non-dramatic ballets where the dancers are “sewn” into silken bodices and skirts, and adorned with tall spiked golden headdresses. The dancers move to the rippling and haunting cascades of sound provided by a pinpeat orchestra, which consists of a bamboo xylophone (roneat), chapay, flute (pia au), oboe (srlay), two-stringed violin (tro), temple hand-cymbals (ching), tuned bronze gongs (ghong) and various drums. Today, there are some sixty pure dances and forty dance-dramas.

Tontay is a form of dance drama. Here the graceful dancing of the ballet gives way to pantomimic moves, humour, clowning around, ad-libbing and action dancing styles. For tontay, extracts from the Indian epic Ramayana are performed. Female dancers play the parts of queens, princesses and demons, while male dancers play those of religious figures and clowns, with boys playing monkey roles.

Classical dancing has been revived several times this century, most noticeably in the 1960s by the great “white apasara” dancer Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, the daughter of King Norodom Sihanouk. The genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge, however, left the tradition in tatters, as some ninety percent of all classical performers were killed, along with anyone who had a “bourgeois” musical background. When the few artists who were left returned to Phnom Penh, they found that all the centuries-old written records of Hindu epics had been destroyed.

Older Cambodians regard the classical and folk traditions as the “soul of Cambodia” and a dedicated band of teachers have devoted themselves to reviving them. It takes great dedication, discipline and up to ten years’ training to master the classical and folk arts. Interestingly, the Cambodians combine teaching both the classical and folk traditions under the same roof, whereas in Thailand, classical dance is separated from folk styles, being seen as “high art”.

Cambodian classical music has greatly influenced the similar traditions found in Thailand and Laos, and to a lesser extent Burma (Myanmar). The Cambodian, Thai and Laotian classical musical scales are almost identical, for instance. When Thais from Ayuthaya sacked Angkor in 1400, apasara dancers and musicians were taken to the Thai court, and when the Burmese sacked Ayuthaya in turn in 1767, they took Thai musicians and dancers with them, with the result that Burmese classical music was indirectly influenced by what were originally Cambodian styles. All of these traditions can be traced back to the “heavenly dancing” at Angkor hundreds of years earlier.

In addition to apasara and tontay, Cambodia has ancient traditions of mask dancing (lakon khol) and shadow plays (nang sbek), both of which can be seen throughout the country. Performances of classical ballet and other styles can be seen at major hotels and at the Chatomuk Theatre near the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh.

Apart from the Khmer majority, Cambodia has minority ethnic groups such as Chinese, Cham and Vietnamese, as well as numerous hill-tribe groups (Khmer Loeu or “highland Khmer”). Each hill-tribe group has its own musical traditions, based around propitiating spirits, courtship and important social ceremonies; many groups use gongs and home-made instruments, from bamboo reed-pipes and zithers to the unique k’longput, a rack of bamboo pipes which are played by a musician clapping his hands to force air into the tubes. The best place to hear this music is in the villages during New Year festivities, although the National Theatre Company of Cambodia in Phnom Penh maintains a wide range of ethnic-minority dances in its repertoire.

Popular Traditions

Given Cambodia’s recent history, it is amazing that any traditional music exists at all, but folk songs (ayai) and wedding songs (phleng kar) are still commonly played. Drums and the ubiquitous two-stringed fiddle are the chief instruments, and are often home-made. Despite the difficult circumstances – poverty, a shattered economy, the legacy of civil war – and a younger generation increasingly seduced by pop music, some ancient tunes and melodies are being passed on. With the assistance of UNESCO, the Cambodian government is currently trying to gather and collect material from old Cambodian folk singers.

Lakon Bassak, the popular theatre of Cambodia, was created by Cambodians living near the Bassak River in Vietnam at the beginning of the twentieth century. It sounds at times like the Vietnamese popular operetta cai luong, with its strange mix of pinpeat and Vietnamese music. Dances are often popularized versions of classical styles and the plays feature jataka stories based on the life of the Buddha. Lakon bassak can be found in Phnom Penh and major cities, particularly at festival times. You might also see lakon tammada or yeekay, a bawdy folk-drama, similar to Thailand’s likay.

Cambodia Rocks: the Rise of Popular Music

As with many Asian countries, Western music entered Cambodia in the middle of the nineteenth century. Filipino musicians were among the first to bring Western instruments into Cambodia to play military marches, anthems and fanfares; locally, this was known as “Manila music”. By World War I, the Frenchman François Perruchot had been hired to teach Western music at the Palace, which led to written forms of Khmer music and the setting of Khmer tunes to Western orchestration. In the 1920s and 30s, Western music also entered the country through travelling theatre troupes; by the 1930s and 40s, many kinds of music were being played at entertainment venues and distinctive modern Khmer songs (jamrieng samai) were developed by composers like Mer Bun, Peo Sipho and Puong Bopha.

Independence from France in 1953 gave the entertainment industry a shot in the arm, and the period between 1955 and 1970, known as Sangkum Reastr Niyum (Popular Socialist Community), was a golden era for songwriters and singers like Sinn Sisamouth, the legendary “King of Khmer Music”. Sisamouth was both prolific and versatile, able to write folk songs, mambo, rock’n’roll or movie soundtracks (such as the epic Au Euil Srey An or “Khmer after Angkor”), and using both classical poetry and popular idioms in his lyrics. He was most popular for his duets with leading female singers like Ros Sereysothea and Pan Ron. None of these artists survived the murderous Khmer Rouge, but their influence lives on, and Sisamouth remains an important figure for Cambodians, comparable to Malaysia’s superstar of the same era, P.J. Ramlee.

Locally brewed modern styles like ramvong and ramkbach also use electrified Western and sometimes traditional instruments. Ramvong songs are slow dance numbers for the circle dance described earlier (the modern form originated in Thailand), while ramkbach is similar to luk thung or Thai country music, with its slow, moody rhythms and bittersweet vocals. The musical backing is full of sweet melodies, while the wavering top notes of the singer hold the attention. The top performer in this Cambodian country style is Song Senghorn, ably supported by newcomers like Noy Vanneth, Touch Sreynich and Oeun Sreymom.

In the 1960s, local pop and rock music took off. Garage rock, surf rock, the Cambodian take on calypso and ska, and fuzzy organ sounds were cranked out by stars and no-name bands alike. In the mid-1990s, some enlightened Western backpackers brought back fading cassettes of 1960s Cambodian psychedelic pop/rock, and the compilation Cambodian Rocks was released on Parallel World, quickly becoming a cult classic. It also inspired a US-Cambodian band, Dengue Fever, to play covers of Cambodian pop (see below).

After the Khmer Rouge were deposed by the invading Vietnamese, a new generation of singers led by Preab Sovath, Ieng Sithol and Keo Pich Chanda emerged, joined more recently by Him Sivorn and Meng Pichinda.

One exciting new development outside the capital comes from the province of Siam Reap. This is the emergence of a Cambodian version of the funky Thai-Cambodian roots music kantrum, sometimes called Khmer Ler or Khmer Surin. Siam Reap is close to the border with Thailand, where Thai-Cambodians mix with their Cambodian counterparts, sharing a common language and culture. Look out for cheap local compilations of Khmer Surin music and “non-stop” dance compilations which feature the style.

Perhaps the most intriguing development in Khmer popular music, however, is the growth of “transnational music” from the Cambodian diaspora (more than 200,000 Cambodians left the country in the 1970s and 80s to settle in the US, Canada, France and Australia). Cambodian heartthrobs like Heng Bunleap tour the US and Europe, but it is the younger generation from the diaspora who are influencing Khmer musicians in Cambodia. Prach Ly (stage name: praCH) set about dealing with the tragic recent past of Cambodia from his parents’ garage in the US, concocting a heady brew of Khmer classical, Western rock, rap, Khmer-language speeches and found sounds. His 2000 debut album, Dalama: The End’n Is Just the Beginnin’, which was bootlegged and renamed Khmer Rough Rap in Phnom Penh, catapulted him to instant nationwide fame.

By contrast, US-Cambodian rockers Dengue Fever took on covers of 1960s Khmer pop and have developed their own unique sound from this root, adding the wonderful vocals of Chhom Nimol, Middle-Eastern jazz and even spaghetti Western guitars. They seem to be developing a cult following in the US and Europe. As with Laos, the transnational scene seems likely to produce the most interesting Khmer music over the next few years.

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