Cambodian music comes in many delicious flavors. Plengkar (wedding music), Pin Peat (ballet and ceremonial music), Mahaori (classical entertainment music), Lakaoun Bassac (music of the maskless theater)and Samai (modern pop music). In addition, we also perform the music of Ireland, Brazil, American Jazz and swing - we can play anything!
Mahaori was traditionally played for the upper classes. We think it is the most accessible to the western ear and so that's why our first CD features it. It reminds us of the divertimenti of Mozart and Haydn's day. The Plengkar (wedding) repertoire features some very deep malleable intonations and temperaments. You get the feeling that Plengkar is the real mirror to the past.
The classical Mahaori and Pin Peat music has traditionally been the music of royalty and people of letters - just the people targeted by the Khmer Rouge for extermination. Today the Pin Peat and Mahaori traditions are in danger of dying out because almost all the savants of the art are gone, and most younger Cambodian musicians are more interested in playing pop music. Only a fraction of the original repertoire from before the 1970s is still remembered and played.
Pin Peat ensembles are led by the roneat, a xylophone-type instrument common in Cambodia and Thailand. The roneat is usually closely accompanied by a gong circle, known as the gong thom, and their tone blends together so well it is often difficult to hear which is which. But in the many leading and following sections common to this type of music, one can hear the two instruments trading off. Mahaori ensembles are often led by the khim, the Cambodian version of the hammered dulcimer, and an instrument upon which Loeung is particularly adept. The two-string fiddles used here are two types of tro: the higher-pitched tro sau is usually in the leading position, and the hollow-sounding tro u follows with a less-ornate melody. Percussion is very important in Cambodian music, because it provides the structural outline to the music. The two-headed drum is known as the samphor, and the goblet-shaped drum is called the skor dhae, which means clay drum, even though they are seldom made of clay anymore. The heavy brass finger cymbals used on every piece to mark the structure are called, onomatopoetically enough, ching. Since Pin Peat is the percussion ensemble for the dancers, it involves some improvisation because you have to underscore what the dancers are doing so you have to keep an eye on things.
Substituting instruments has traditionally been common practice in Mahaori ensembles, with saxophone, accordian, and electronic organ heard on many modern recordings. Accordingly, we've decided to use a western recorder (which is quite similar to the traditional Cambodian kloy) to play the flute parts, and Northumbrian smallpipes to play the part of the sralai, a traditional Cambodian double-reed instrument.
photo by Bryan Aaker
By and large, the musicians who survived the Khmer Rouge were not academic musicians or conventionally educated musicians. Like Loeung, they learned on the job by the seat of their pants by sitting in, first to play the ching, then maybe the drums and gradually going up to the regular instruments.
At Cambodian gigs, there are often wannabes hovering at the periphery of the group who are allowed to play along or sing a song. The Americans who have been playing the Cambodian gigs have been treated the same way. We were just brought along on gigs whether we knew the repertoire or not and just tried to hop on the freight train of music and try not to get thrown off.
Most Cambodian music is roughly in 4/4 time, but the feel is completely different. Western music goes ONE-two-three-four, ONE-two-three-four, like a march. In Cambodia it's one-two-three-FOUR, one-two-three-FOUR like waves lapping up on shore.
One important thing we've been trying to learn from Loeung is the use of portamento. Modern string players try very hard to always hit the notes dead-on and with accuracy. In the old days, even in classical music, strings players schmalzed it up going from note to note. It's a lost art, but Loeung has totally mastered it. He learned the tro in the late 30's when portamento was still the thing.
photo by Bryan Aaker
The improvisatory style of the tro-sau is perfect for playing American jazz, especially Gershwin and early jazz. We have a good recording of Loeung playing Summertime.
American kids seem to love Cambodian music, especially pin-peat music.
photo by Terry Miller
We've seen them drop everything and start dancing around. Also they will try to pick out the melodies on the piano or xylophone. One guy told us our CD caused a fight between his two daughters over who got to take the CD to their room.
photo by Bryan Aaker
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