As temple carvings suggest Cambodia’s has a long history of music, which is alive and kicking to this day!
From the casual to the high-blown, music is in the air throughout the Kingdom. Pinpeat orchestras, which feature the distinctive Roneat, a metal or bamboo xylophone, Kong, an array of convex miniature steel drums which encircle the player, Krapeu, a crocodile shaped floor zither and the quintessential chapey, a two or four-stringed long-necked guitar. When coupled with poetry, the instrument is elevated to the art form chapey dong veng, which in 2016 received UNESCO protection as part of Cambodia’s intangible cultural heritage. In 2017, an oversized chapei measuring 10 metres long was displayed at ‘My Village’ during Angkor Sangkranta in celebration of Khmer New Year. Traditional instruments often accompany shows and performances, including the full female orchestra in development for the Sacred Dancers of Banteay Srei, to match that portrayed on the wall of Bayon and you’re bound to encounter local musicians at entrances to a few of the temples lending some vivacious atmosphere to the sites.
Ayai, is another an old and intricate artform combining poetry, singing and music which generally comedic in nature and is enjoyed by folk from all ways of life. In one of its most popular versions, a man and a woman exchange a string of clever (at times bawdy) sentences on stage, pausing to give way to the mesmerising, high-pitched sound of an Ayai ensembles consisting of the tro sau (a two-string vertical fiddle), the khem (a stringed instrument similar to a dulcimer, played with two small mallets), the takhe (a crocodile-shaped fretted floor zither with three strings), the skor dai (a small drum made out of snakeskin), the chhing (finger cymbals), and the khloy (a type of bamboo flute). Shows are televised regularly on Apsara Television, CTN or Bayon Television. Monks love Ayai and performances are common at celebrations held in pagodas so drop in and you might be lucky enough to catch one live!
In Siem Reap, at the southern end of the tree-lined avenue which runs through the Royal Gardens is the diminutive open-sided Temple of Phomchek Phomchom, and neighbouring shrine perched on a small island in the middle of National Route 6. The statuary is nothing special but there is often a lively ambiance about the place, due in large part to the traditional musicians which play to the delight of shaven-headed widows, saffron-robed monks and novices. Donations to the pagoda are always appreciated.
In Phnom Penh, the Night Market (Psar Reatrey) on the riverside is worth checking out on weekend evenings when there is live music aplenty blasting from the centre stage, though usually of the contemporary pop variety, with snappy choreographed dance moves. While you’re in town, you might catch a glimpse of pumping five-piece mostly Khmer band Krom (‘group’ in Khmer), whom play in a genre all of their own which frontman calls “Mekong Delta Blues.’