Mr Mon Hai smiles as he shows the musical instrument he loves the most. He blows air into the small, hollowed-out hardwood and a beautiful sound echoes through the instrument’s bamboo-made body. There’s an evident pride in his eyes as he continues to blow air into it, probably because he knows that the instrument deserves this spotlight.
He stops, and looks at his spectators – the curious crowd eager to learn more about his music.
“This is a Ken. It’s a Khmer musical instrument that’s made of bamboo,” he says before the audience.
Ken, also spelled as Khene or Khen, is a traditional Cambodian music that has existed for decades and decades. But many Khmers have little knowledge of it. Some do not even know its name, or how it looks. Many do not know it even exists.
According to Mr Hai, the musical instrument used to be a popular instrument before the Khmer Rouge. But the people who used to play it were killed during Pol Pot regime, and the instrument’s popularity was sent into an abyss.
But Mr Hai, a survivor of that brutal era, remembered the Ken in its glory days and wanted to bring it back to present Cambodian music scene.
“I have heard the sound of Ken when I was young. But I wasn’t very interested at first because I was busy singing at funerals with my parents,” he says.
Mr Hai, now 60, tried to re-learn the sound of Ken through an old woman. But the woman died a few months after they started their lessons. Mr Hai was left with no other choice but to learn playing the instrument by himself.
“It was so hard to learn without a teacher. There’s a unique way of playing the instrument. It’s hard to make a beautiful sound if you don’t know how to use it.”
Mr Hai’s interest in the instrument grew stronger. He did his own research on Ken’s history and debated the instrument’s origin.
He said the instrument did not originate from Laos, contrary to published write-ups.
“I think the sculpture on Angkor’s wall would be enough to prove that it belongs to Khmer, yet Khmers don’t really know about this so we can’t defend what truly belongs to us. I have been to Surin and saw that they are preserving the instrument. But I can’t afford to learn the instrument there,” says Mr Hai.
Mr Hai also discovered that Ken is used to be part of the Lakhorn Ken, a dance drama that uses the instrument as its main sound.
He added that the Ken produces a variety of sounds. Because it is made of 16 to 19 pieces of bamboo tubes that differ in lengths, Ken is capable of at least 15 distinct notes.
In 2013, Mr Hai found an opportunity to bring his instrument closer to young Cambodians through the Khmer Music Magic Bus. He constantly joins the bus as it travels from village to village and present traditional Khmer arts to communities.
“I feel happy when I see people enjoy the music of Ken. I know many people won’t consider playing this instrument because they prefer the modern music. But that won’t stop me. It is part of my culture so I will continue showing it to the people,” says Mr Hai, his eyes sparkling with pride and joy.
Mr Hai acknowledges that he is getting old and it may be hard for him to travel with the instrument. He now teaches his 15-year-old granddaughter to play Ken and hopes she will continue his legacy in preserving traditional music.
Ngek Sreyvong, who looks up to her grandfather’s dedication to uphold Cambodia’s music history, is also encouraging her friends to try Ken.
“I am not wishing to earn money from playing Ken in public. I am just proud to show and share it to the people and hope they will love Ken as much as my grandfather does.”