Thank you for the music

Dating from 802 CE to 1431 CE, the Khmer empire was a vibrant and lively culture filled with celebrations year round. Music, festivals, dancing and fireworks were a fundamental dynamic to the Khmer culture (Plubins 2013). So much so that the world heritage temples such as Angkor Wat, depict such scenes carved into the temple walls.

The Pol Pot regime from 1975-1979 sought, “to attempt to create an agrarian, communist utopia (Sambath 2011).” As well as any form of education or intellect being eradicated, so too were the arts. Instruments were destroyed, bodies of arts organisations were shut down.

“Cambodian musicians quickly became subjected to the world’s most extreme form of music censorship — genocide. Not only was music itself banned, but it is widely estimated that ninety percent of Cambodia’s musicians and performers were killed during Pol Pot’s rule. By 1979, it became clear that the rich cultural history of Cambodia was all but erased (Holmgren 2005).”

To this day, traditional Cambodian artists and instruments are scarce. Many organisations such as CLA and T’laiTno and the help of ethnomusicologist Patrick Kersalé are working now not only to preserve and recreate the traditional Khmer instruments and music but also to revitalize it within the culture and the new generation.

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Man Menh, one of only two Kantaomming masters left in Cambodia warming up on the traditional Khmer instrument the Chapey

However as musical knowledge is generally passed down verbally from master to student (Sam 2004) little research and attempts have been conducted in order to catalogue these forms and their instruments.

Surprisingly, in the age of information, the information that I have found online offers very few descriptions of Cambodian traditional instruments. So much so that when teaching our students how to present their instruments, they informed us that the information we had obtained was not only incorrect in their description, but also in the Khmer translation.

After feeling ashamed and defeated, Matt and I became frustrated. We were trying to develop these artists’ skills in order to better communicate to people about these instruments, their meaning and history as a way of creating a sustainable income for the artists and as a means of maintaining the Khmer culture. How could we do that if we could not obtain correct information on what these instruments are?

We shared our frustration with Cathy and she shared her experiences and similar feelings as an ethnomusicologist in this field of research. Whilst we had planned on taking some photos for the artists we are working with playing their instruments, Cathy suggested we might like to take this one step further. So we did.

We spent yesterday morning in the CLA office, photographing every instrument they had there. We will be working in tandem with the artists and our contact Seng to develop both the English and Khmer translation of the instruments and a description of their function as a single instrument and their role within the traditional Khmer music form. We are then sharing this with CLA to potentially distribute to artists, students and visitors, to put on their website and to keep as a permanent record.

Whilst the photographs aren’t of a professional nature, we feel that we can help by taking these first steps in cataloging a vital piece of a once near eradicated cultural form to further contribute to the sustainability of arts here in Cambodia.

Some of the photographs from the CLA Wat Bo Office here in Siem Reap
Some of the photographs from the CLA Wat Bo Office here in Siem Reap



 Holmgren M 2005, Cambodia:Of Sounds and Survival – Khmer music, Free Muse [Online] Available at: [Accessed 28 June 2015]

Plubins R 2013, Khmer Empire, Ancient History Encyclopedia [Online] Available at: /Khmer_Empire/ [Accessed 28 June 2015]

Sam S 2004, Musical Instruments of Cambodia, Senri Ethnological Reports 29, National Museum of Ethnology Osaka

Sambath T 2011, Timeline: The History of Cambodia and the Khmer rouge, Public Broadcasting Service, American Documentary, Inc





  1. Great post, Jess! The ideas you discuss are highly important, particularly for the ongoing revitalisation of Khmer music, like we see through the work of Peter Kersale, and for the survival of traditional Khmer art-forms. I think that the catalog of traditional Khmer instruments is also another step to make effective use of our time here, since it can be used beyond our three-week placement.


  2. An exciting initiative, Matt and Jess, and all the more so given you’re undertaking it in close collaboration with CLA staff and artists. I’ll really look forward to the outcome!


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