Last Sunday saw the premiere of a new piece by traditional Cambodian musicians at Wat Bo, a rare event since new works are seldom created and the traditional repertoire changes little.
The performance was the culmination of a two-week residency workshop in Siem Reap organised by Cambodian Living Arts’ (CLA) “Heritage Hub” under the management of Song Seng, in which the participants included Chinary Ung, a renowned Cambodian-American composer, and local multi-instrumentalist and contemporary artist Phan Chamroeun.
The Heritage Hub’s aim is to build on existing musical tradition in order to develop the vocabulary and means to generate new creations. “Living art” is the key phrase here; the idea is that heritage should be something vibrant that is part of people’s lives.
The music was performed by the Music Residency Project troupe consisting of six musicians from Siem Reap and Battambang, led by Phan Chamroeun of RUFA.
Each member can play two to four instruments and there were more than 20 instruments, including drums, flutes, bowed and plucked lutes, xylophone, dulcimer and gong.
The musicians sat on the floor in a circle in the centre of the hall, a configuration now only normally used for shamanic ritual music or “Arek”, although in the past the theatrical form “Yike” was also performed in a circle.
There were only two microphones, one for the chapei and sadev player, and one for the khim (dulcimer). These instruments, because of their low volume, would be difficult to hear amongst the ensemble.
During rehearsal the leader, Chamroeun, called the cues and individual players slipped in their solos. It was a light-hearted affair and there was some mirth when one or two of them failed to “jump in” quickly enough.
Practice time was fairly short, so they focused on beginnings and endings. The middles would take care of themselves.
In the break between practice and performance, I talked to Phan Chamroeun about himself and the music. He has been playing traditional music for about 20 years and is proficient on all the flutes and drums and the various “tros” (Khmer fiddles).
He started with the khim, but does not play it now. He was also a dancer with a folk dance group when he was young. Trained as a traditional musician, he has also been a member of a trad/fusion band called Krom Monster; but he insisted that the music for this performance was based in pure tradition, except for one piece which he designated, with a chuckle, as “traditional contemporary”.
In collaboration with Chinary Ung, he had composed and arranged seven pieces, and rehearsed them, in only two weeks.
The performance began with the dramatic entry onstage of men and women blasting out a fanfare on a variety of horns and conches against the background beat of a big drum.
There was also an ancient Khmer harp, an instrument which can be found depicted on the bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat and the Bayon temple, but which had completely disappeared until its revival in recent years.
As the “ancient” musicians and dancers made their exit, the lights dimmed and the MRP players appeared, descended from the stage and took their places in the circle of instruments, surrounded by the audience.
Chamroeun began to state rhythms on a drum, and then flutes entered one by one with their melodies. They were followed by small gongs of varying pitch which sent a ripple around the circle.
There were call-and-response passages, with soloists allowing themselves some not-so-traditional unorthodox techniques with their respective instruments – the khim player, for example, scratched the strings with a bamboo mallet, producing a sound characteristic of the Korean zither (komungo), and Chamroeun coaxed sounds from his tro with the modulations of the human voice.
Each passage, in which the soloist was vociferously encouraged by the others, culminated in a festive riff. It was reminiscent of the “Ayay” form in which singers exchange humourous observations, often bawdy and immodest, to the delight of the audience.
In some parts they exploded into joyful festival music like the “chhayam”. Although the music was subtle, delicate and full of nuance at times, the players were certainly not taking themselves too seriously.
They were having fun, and I suspected the spirits or “Neak Ta” (of whom there are many in the Angkor area) were enjoying it too.
The audience were also involved, either in clapping to the rhythm or contributing to the wordless, comic “scat” vocals thrown out by the musicians.
It was a bit like jazz and a bit like Irish folk music in its ambience and spontaneity; but it also remained essentially traditional Cambodian music.
The MRP musicians will continue to work on their new repertoire and it will be featured in the REP World Music Festival in Siem Reap in late October this year.
It was refreshing to listen to almost totally unamplified “acoustic” music, to hear its natural sound and resonance, because in Cambodia there is an unfortunate tendency to amplify everything beyond distortion level.
However, later in the evening, in another world, the extremely amplified and magnificently distorted Filipino band, aptly named “Rockstorm” at the Hard Rock Café, were pretty good too. They will hit Phnom Penh in September.
For further information, go to: cambodianlivingarts.org/heritage-hub