Cambodian music history

A distinction must be made between "music in Cambodia" and "Cambodian music," for the former embraces all ethnic groups within the national boundaries while the latter is limited to the majority, Cambodians. The northern provinces of Rattanakiri and Mundulkiri include hilly plateaus which are home to the Pnorng (Pnorng), an upland Mon-Khmer speaking group, while in the southwest along the Koulen and Cardamom ranges are found the Kuoy (Kui), Por, Samre, and other upland Mon-Khmer speakers. Their musical expression emphasizes gong ensembles, drum ensembles, and free-reed mouth organs with gourd windchests. In the west, around the great lake (Tonle Sap) live Cham, Chinese, Vietnamese, and other lowland minorities, but the extent to which these groups maintain their traditional musics is not largely known.

Cambodian music flourished in both court and village settings, some associated with specific functions, others with entertainment. In villages weddings are celebrated with kar music, communication with spirits is accompanied by arakk music, and entertainments include ayai repartee singing, chrieng chapey narrative, and yike and basakk theaters. At the court, dance, masked play, shadow play, and religious ceremonies are accompanied by the pinn peat ensemble and entertainment is provided by the mohori ensemble. Temples--urban or rural--often possess a pinn peat ensemble as well, but also a korng skor ensemble for funerals.

Historical Perspectives

Cambodian music reflects both geographical and historical relationships to neighboring cultures. The Indianization of Southeast Asia nearly 2,000 years ago included the area that became Cambodia and deeply influenced lowland peoples, especially the ruling elites. In later periods Chinese, French, Vietnamese, Cham came as well, all leaving their mark. The early ocean port near the Mekong delta known as Oc-Eo and called by later observers a "crossroad of the arts," was the most likely point of infusion. The Cambodians absorbed diverse influences from these peoples--language, concepts, writing systems, literature, religion, art styles, and musical instruments. But the Cambodians absorbed and adopted Indian, Chinese, European and other cultures to suit their own traditions and tastes, resulting in a distinct Cambodian Culture.

Travelers from India offered the Cambodians languages, writing systems, the concept of the god-king, literature, styles of art, especially sculpture, Hinduism and Buddhism and their rituals, musical instruments, and likely the concept of cyclical time. The Chinese introduced cuisine, and musical instruments, i.e., two-stringed fiddles and hammered dulcimers, and a theatrical style which the Cambodians adapted into basakk theater. Europeans, especially the French, brought Roman Catholicism, technology, and much musical influence, including notation, classical European music and instruments, and popular music which the Cambodians adapted into the phleng samai (modern music).

Overview of Historical Periods

Little is known of the pre-historical period, before the coming of Indian traders and missionaries. Upland Mon-Khmer speakers living in the mountains straddling Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, where Indianization made little penetration, likely preserve the oldest strata of Cambodian culture. Animistic rites require music. The bronze gong ensembles and dancers of the Pnorng in Rattanakiri and Mundulkiri provinces are associated with Kapp Krabey Phoeuk Sra (Buffalo Sacrifice Ritual). Other dances, such as the Kngaok Posatt (Peacock of Pursat) and Tunsong (Wild Ox) preserved by the Por of Pursat and Kampong Chhnaing provinces, likely derived from rituals. Other musical instruments, such as the sneng (free-reed buffalo horn) used on elephant hunting expeditions and the ploy (free-reed mouth organ) with gourd windchest are survivals from the earliest periods.

Indianization occurred during the Founan-Chenla period (first to ninth centuries), when the Cambodians juxtaposed prehistoric animistic rituals with those of newly adopted Hinduism, the co-existence of which continues among villagers to teis day. Court rituals were created. The blowing of a conch shell (saing) by a Brahmin priest created a propitious vibratory environment for divination, propitiation, or to signal the arrival of the sovereign.

Cambodian civilization reached its peak from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries. The great temple city of Angkor marked the apex of Cambodian glory. In it stand gigantic masterpieces symbolizing the union of celestial and earthly beings. Carved on the walls of the great temples of Angkor and vicinity are the apsara (celestial dancer) figures along with musical instruments: the pinn (angular harp), korng vung (cicular frame gongs), skor yol (suspended barrel drum), chhing (small cymbals), and sralai (quadruple-reed shawm). These are believed to have developed into the present pinn peat ensemble used to accompany court dance, masked play, shadow play, and religious ceremonies. Among Cambodian ensembles, the pinn peat is the most significant of the powerful period of Angkor.

harp stone carvingHarp bas-reliefdrum stone carvingDrum bas-relief

In 1431, Angkor was looted by conquering Siamese armies, abandoned, and overrun by vegetation. The Cambodian king and his court musicians fled. Subsequently the capital was moved to Lungvek. Once again, in 1594 Lungvek was sacked by the Siamese. Little is known of this period, the most obscure in Cambodian history. This second eradication shocked and weakened the Cambodians. After this humiliation of the Cambodian empire, music and its functions were deeply affected, and a new style of melancholic and emotional music is said to have emerged.

The period from 1796 to 1859 was the renaisssance for Cambodian music. King Ang Duong, the greatest of the monarchs of this period, ascended the throne in 1841 in the capital of Oudong. Under his rule, Cambodian music and other art forms were revived and began to flourish again.

For the Cambodians, the twentieth century has been a period of conservation, preservation, and revival of traditional arts. The surviving art forms from the past were carefully conserved under the watchful eyes of many traditional masters. At the turn of the 20th century, there were some foreign influences on Cambodian arts, which resulted in new art forms. Chinese theater is now presented in a modified Cambodian form, called basakk. Islamic-influenced theater appears in modified form, called yike by the Cambodians. As in the ealy period, we see the modification of imported forms into Cambodian style. Costumes, languages, performing styles, decor, song and music of both the Chinese and Muslim have been greatly Cambodianized to suit local needs and tastes.

Home page | Feedback