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The Process of Re-Construction and Revival of Musical Heritage in Contemporary Cambodia

Le processus de reconstruction et le revival du patrimoine musical dans le Cambodge contemporain
Francesca Billeri
p. 91-109


Le processus continu de préservation des arts du spectacle traditionnels au Cambodge ainsi que leur revival conduisent à un phénomène de « patrimonisation » de la musique. Ce processus de construction du patrimoine musical pourrait être défini comme le fait d'utiliser la musique comme un trait de l’identité culturelle pour caractériser les communautés locales et les minorités culturelles au sein d’une plus grande nation; tout comme il peut s'agir de favoriser le processus économique dont les communautés locales peuvent bénéficier. C’est une tendance controversée qui implique également des points de vue nationalistes et la congélation du processus culturel, dans le but de conserver des répertoires et des méthodes qui disparaissent progressivement. Lié à ce problème, il y a la question du terme « patrimoine » et l’action controversée de l’UNESCO avec son patrimoine culturel immatériel. Cet article, à travers l’étude du cas de l’association Cambodge Living Arts (CLA) basée à Phnom Penh,se propose de montrer l’état actuel de conservation et le revival de la musique traditionnelle, qui mènent à une transformation des arts. L’association CLA travaille pour la promotion et la reconstruction de l’identité culturelle Khmer qui a été perdue après le régime sanglant des Khmers rouges.

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Notes de la rédaction

Note on transcription system: Khmer alphabet derives from an ancient south-eastern Indian alphabet. Khmer language comprises 33 consonants and 21 vowels. Many Khmer words are characterized by vowels and consonants clusters that make the transliteration difficult. There are many systems of transliteration. The most renowned is the Lewitz’s system adopted for the École Française d’Extreme Orient (Lewitz 1969). However, in this article I have not adopted this system due to its complexity; rather I have transcribed the Khmer words into English by following the study of Kathy McKinley (2002) since the English transcription of the Khmer words is close to their pronunciations. The words that are not covered by Kathy McKinley’s work are transcribed according to the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).

Texte intégral


  • 1 See Chandler (1991), for the history of Cambodia since 1945.
  • 2 Such as wedding music (phleng kar) and music for healing ceremonies (phleng arak).

1The current situation of Khmer traditional music reflects the recent historical period.1 During the bloody regime of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979), ritual music2 as well as any form of theatrical performances was banned since traditional music was considered as a reflection of the Buddhism and the monarchy principles.

2Some musicians hid their instruments and pretended to be farmers to avoid the risk of being killed whilst others survived by playing propaganda songs as showed by the story of Arn Chorn-pond, the founder of Cambodian Living Artsassociation (CLA), narrated in Never Fall Down (2012) by Patricia McCormick. Other musicians secretly played traditional songs to encourage their companions in misfortune as the accounts of Daran Kravanh’s story (Lafreniere & Kravanh 2000).

  • 3 See Ang (1986), and Forest (1992), for the cult of animistic spirits in Cambodia.

3The revolutionary music adopted either new hymns or traditional melodies whose song texts were arranged for the regime ideologies (Locard 1998). Even the ritual music such as the wedding music, which has a vital role in the wedding ceremony, was banned.3 A vivid account of the wedding rituals during the Khmer Rouge regime is given by Daran Kravanh’s account (Lafreniere & Kravanh 2000: 82‐83) and the ethno‐psychologist Peg LeVine in Love and Dread in Cambodia (2010). Although LeVine’s study does not concern music, it describes how group marriages, along with prescriptions for sex, pregnancies and births, were a central feature of the remaking of Cambodian society and contributed to the dissolution of the country’s ritual practices. One of the negative consequences of the Khmer Rouge regime was the loss of the supporting role of traditional music in the ceremonial and communal life of Cambodians.

  • 4 See Billeri (2016), Brunet (1979) and McKinley (2002), for traditional wedding music.
  • 5 See Ang (1986), and Forest (1992), for the cult of animistic spirits in Cambodia.
  • 6 Lakhon bassac is a kind of popular theatre which has Chinese and Vietnamese influence. Characters p (...)

4The current situation of some kinds of Khmer ritual music such as wedding music (phleng kar),4 music for healing ceremonies (phleng arak),5 and some kinds of popular theatre (lakhon yike and lakhon bassac),6which were banned during the Khmer Rouge regime, are a clear illustration of the current state of traditional music. Many of these practices are highly endangered due to the ongoing socio-economic and political changes since the Khmer Rouge’s era.

5A process of re-construction of the Cambodian Musical heritage started in the early 80s, soon after the massive cultural and social disruption of Pol Pot’s regime. This ongoing process is connected to issues of preservation and revival operated by mass media, governmental institutions and local and international NGOs.

6This paper examines the dynamics of the process of preservation and revival of these art forms which aims to promote and restore the traditional music but, at the same time, they lead to the commercialization, westernization, “patrimonization” and de-contextualization of traditional music.

The Re-construction and Preservation of Musical Heritage

7First of all, I would like to clarify the components that shape the tradition which are the continuity with the past; the variation according to the socio-political changing; and the selection of tradition by the community. These components are part of processes of preservation and revival of musical traditions.

8The term “re-construction of Khmer musical heritage” implies two different processes. On the one hand, a process of recovery of the traditional art forms after the Khmer Rouge period; on the other hand, the ongoing process of transformation, modernization and globalization of traditional music related to the socio-economic and political challenges. The situation of traditional music genres in Cambodia reflects Fiol’s (2013) description of two discourses on culture: that of “lack”—the culture as commodity—and that of “loss”—the culture as heritage seen to be in danger of disappearing.

9The process of Khmer cultural reconstruction started in the 1980s when Cambodian authorities attempted to reconstruct the classical dance and music (pin peat); the troupe of the National Theatre was re‐established giving a strong influence on the process of cultural reconstruction of the principal traditional genres. In fact, many classical and traditional art forms were performed.

10During the 1980s the advent of the television and radio brought to a flourished production of commercial music and in the following decade the cultural reconstruction has been strengthened by the international cultural cooperation agreements such as the collaboration between the University of Bologna in Italy and the Royal University of Phnom Penh in 1997 that has founded university courses in the field of tourism. In fact, tourism was considered one of the possible strategy to promote and keep alive Khmer traditions although there are problems related to the “cultural gap” of the Khmer Rouge period such as the few numbers of old masters who still keep alive traditional music and the poverty of the country that has limited projects and initiatives of cultural development and reconstruction (Giuriati 2003).

11However, nowadays, although some kinds of Khmer traditional music such as phleng arak music for healing are gradually disappearing due to the development of the health care especially in the urban areas and others are adapting to new socio‐cultural phenomena such as phleng kar wedding music which is also performed outside its original context in TV programmes, their role has been preserved. In fact, music is still part of Khmer rural life since it plays an important role in some rituals and ceremonies in villages even close to the urban areas where there are group of musicians who own traditional instruments (ibid.) and music still plays a vital role within wedding ceremonies as it describes and prescribes the ritual scene as well as within healing rituals in which music recalls the arak spirits in order to possess a medium’s body and reveal the causes of illness and its remedies.

12In Cambodia some NGOs such as CLA and UNESCO are involved in these processes. Some cultural-sector NGOs offer training programmes in traditional and contemporary performing arts in Phnom Penh (Champey Arts Academy, Apsara Art Association, Cambodian Living Arts) as well as in the province such as Kompot (Kompot Traditional School), Siem Reap (CLA) and Battambang (Phare Ponleu Selpak). However, despite the lack of funds, the government has taken some actions too; in the late 2014 the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts promoted a cultural policy to support action in areas of arts education, creative industries and cultural sustainability (Grant 2016a).

13Currently, the process of valorisation and revival of traditional music is also promoted by mass media, particularly TV programmes, some initiatives of CLA in collaboration with the government, and UNESCO.

The Process of Revival

The Mass-Media Impact on Traditional Khmer Music

14The advent of television makes some theatre forms popula such as the lakhon yike (danced and sung drama accompanied by big drums called skor yike played for Buddhist festivals and public events) and lakhon bassac (a type of theatre characterized by the alternating dialogues, recitatives, songs and acrobatic pantomimes played for Buddhist festivals and public events); television performances are considered as a means of preservation of these theatre genres. Even ritual music such as phleng kar (wedding songs) and phleng arak (music for arak spirits) are performed within television competitions. Bayon TV, one of the most popular Khmer channels, broadcasts two programmes dedicated to Khmer culture: “the smile of Khmer culture” and “Khmer cultural heritage” broadcasted since 6 years. The latter is about a competition between young people coming from different provinces of Cambodia who perform many kinds of traditional Khmer songs such as cumrieng yike (songs from lakhon yike opera), cumrieng bassac (songs from lakhon bassac opera), mahori (a modern Khmer genre), phleng kar as well as poems (Fig. 1).

15In the competition context, some scenes of popular theatre lakhon yike and lakhon bassac are performed by renowned masters/groups as well as from the provincial department of Fine Arts as entertainment and advertising within the competition programme (Fig. 2).

16Lakhon bassac and lakhon yike theatres are broadcasted either on their own in recorded performances or live within musical competitions programmes. The following examples have been collected during my one-year fieldwork in 2014-2015; they show how popular theatre is adapted and transformed according to the television context.

  • 7 Other TV channels such as TVK pre-check the story to ensure that it is written by a known writer a (...)

17One of the most famous lakhon bassac troupe is “Ol Samang Lakhon bassac Phnom Penh” led by Ol Samang who usually performs on television. The performance I attended at Bayon TV studio was based on the story of Preah Puthy Chey Komar (“The understanding of child’s victory”) which is a modern (samay) story written by Samang.7

18The plots of lakhon bassac stories are about history, nature, war or ancient stories such as Preah Cɨnvong or Tum Teav or episodes from the Reamker (the Khmer version of the epic Indian poem Ramayana) and from Khmer literature. These stories are called boran (ancient) as the characters include princes, kings, giants, and hermits. Other stories are invented according to the context/occasion of the performance. These are called samay (modern); they are educational stories and the characters usually include millionaires, rich people, and robbers. Nowadays, modern stories are mostly performed or they are combined with boran stories according to the audience preferences. “If you play only ancient or historical stories people do not like [the performance] because they get bored as they know the end and the characters; they like something new” (Nong Chak, interview, October 2014). The story of Preah Puthy Chey Komar includes both boran and samay characters.

19The “original” performing context of lakhon bassac theatre is during Buddhist festivities such as Bonn Kathin (ceremony of offering clothing and gifts to the monks); Bonn Pka (ceremony of rising money for building a pagoda); Bonn Bɑɲcoh Sǝymaa (ceremony for the construction of pagoda), Bonn Clɑɑŋ Samettheaphɑl (ceremony for the inauguration of a building); Bonn Paccay buen (ceremony of thanksgiving to parents). A stage is built in the space surrounding the pagoda. Elders, young and families from the nearby villages gathered in front of the stage to attend the performance. Many of them sleep on the gravel ground until the end of the performance.

20The audience interacts with the characters, particularly the comedians; they are an element of fun and entertainment during the development of the plot of the story. They improvise around a minimal plot and are inspired by the type of audience and its reactions. “Sometimes at the end of the performance the audience ask them to play something else”—Samang said. The interaction between the audiences and the performers is common to others Southeast Asian theatrical performance such as the Balinese Derama where characters playing comic roles “warm up” the audience before the beginning of the performance:

The problems of performing in television become obvious. You know little of your audience, nor have any means of gauging their receptiveness. Not only is there no script to rely on, or blame; but Balinese audiences require to be wooed into becoming engaged. (Hobart 2000:187.)

21The Cambodian audience, as well as the Balinese audience, needs to be engaged and “warmed up” by the characters. If people joining the performance like the comedians and the story, they will invite their friends and relatives to attend the performance; consequently the troupe’s leader extends the length of the performance according to the audience’s reaction and the number of people who remain until the end of the performance. “Television inhibits this dialogue, but does not eradicate it: the addressee is still there, but under different discursive conditions.” (Hobart 2000: 202.)

Fig. 1. Lakhon Ba...Fig. 1. Lakhon Bassac performance, Kompot Province

Fig. 1. Lakhon Bassac performance, Kompot Province

© Francesca Billeri

22In the villages, lakhon bassac performances start after the Buddhist celebrations, around eight-nine in the evening and last for 9-10 hours. In the television context, the stories are shortened to one hour and a half in order to fit the short time frame:

  • 8 Sot Chomroen, from interview, December 2014.

Time is very limited. So if the story is very long no one will watch it and also may change channel. So each story has to be divided into 8 scenes. Each scene must last no more than 12 minutes. They [the troupe] have to select the scenes carefully since the audience should be able to understand the entire story. The length of the story is 1 hour and a half in total. There are 8 scenes that are performed in two weeks. If the length of each scene is too long the related song is omitted.8

  • 9 Songs are chosen according to the general theme of the story. For example, if the scene’s theme is (...)

23Consequently, Ol Samang’s troupe, composed by forty performers, was reduced to fifteen characters for recording 8 scenes of Preah Puthy Chey Komar story. The number of the songs was shortened accordingly. The director gave detailed instructions to the performers on their position on the stage, the structure and length of the scenes and the correspondent songs.9 Sometimes, musicians are asked to play a “quick” tempo or to shorten the pieces in order to respect the time frame.

  • 10 Ruah Somart, from personal communication, December 2014.

In TV we [musicians] have to play carefully and perform to get the audience’s attention so that we can be invited to play frequently. We have to follow the director’s instructions. The songs are chosen by the TV director who has to follow the time frame. For example, one song can be sung by one actor but when we play in the villages the songs are chosen by the troupe’s leader. The actors can sing two or three songs in one scene or even more since we got much time.10

24The presenters read the plot of each scene, which is written by the director, “to avoid any mistake, to make sure that people understand and to promote Khmer literature as well as theatre”—Sot Chomroen said—“On the TV screen is showed the title of the scene and the story from which it is extracted”.

25Few days later, I attended the live programme Khmer Cultural Heritage which is a music competition between young people coming from different provinces of Cambodia who perform different kinds of traditional Khmer songs including wedding songs phleng kar, ciumrieng yike (songs from lakhon yike opera), ciumrieng bassac (songs from lakhon bassac opera). Between the two sections of the competition, there are also short performances of lakhon yike and lakhon bassac theatre with a function of entertainment and “advertisement” of the theatre troupes.

  • 11 The melodic instruments consists of a tro u (lower-pitched two-stringed fiddle); tro chhe (two-stri (...)

26During the episode of Khmer Cultural Heritage on 28 April 2015, a lakhon bassac troupe (representing the region 5 of army forces) performed a short scene, Psong snae kbae chongkom yeak (“Finding love near the giant’s teeth”), extracted from the old and famous Khmer story, Preah Chinavong. The main character, Preah Cɨnvong, introduced himself by singing Sompong song. The lakhon bassac ensemble was composed by melodic traditional Khmer instruments11 whilst the drum (skor bassac) and the cylindrical-shaped idiophone (chhang) were replaced by a drum set and a keyboard.

  • 12 Ruah Somart, from interview, December 2014.

27The Western instruments can be used for introducing the show by playing modern music while the actors prepare themselves. However, these instruments can be used in the story. For example, the special effects of the keyboard can be used for reproducing the wind, the storm.12

Fig. 2. The intro...Fig. 2. The introduction of the protagonist of the lakhon bassac story Preah Cɨnvong

Fig. 2. The introduction of the protagonist of the lakhon bassac story Preah Cɨnvong

Khmer Cultural Heritage programme 2015, Bayon TV. © Francesca Billeri

28The most remarkable feature of lakhon bassac music is the rhythm of the skor bassac and chhang, a cylindrical-shaped idiophone, which signals the beginning of the performance to the audience, the entrance and the exit of the characters from the stage, the transition between one scene to the other as well as onomatopoeic sounds during scenes of battle, thunderstorms, or some characters’ gestures. The skor bassac identifies lakhon bassac music; the replacement of its sound with that of the drum set and the keyboard transforms the nature of the bassac music.

29However, the use of Western instruments is also related to economic reasons. Therefore they can also be used for performances in rural areas. They can be added to Khmer instruments according to the leader’s preference:

  • 13 Samang, from personal communication.

If they sound good I use them. The number of the instruments employed depends on the economic availability of the group. Sometimes the Western instruments can replace the Khmer ones. For example, the keyboard can replace the sound of the skor bassac and chhang [which are played by two people] and other instruments so that a person can replace three musicians by playing only an instrument.13

30Western instruments are also considered by the musicians as a form of “modernization” of the lakhon bassac music in order to appeal the audience especially the young.

31The television performances have different aims; they serve as advertisement for the troupes and, in the case of the competition, the winners are able to use their skills and experience to make a living. Therefore, the competition is an occasion to learn and to be trained and evaluated by a professional committee.“The aim of performing these kinds of popular theatre as part of the competition is to preserve and remind the disappearing forms of theatre in order to make the next generation aware of these performances so that people will love popular Khmer theatre”—Bayon TV producer, Sot Chomraen, said.

  • 14 See Giuriati (1995), and Sam (1988), for improvisation process of Cambodian music.

32However, this phenomenon not only leads to a de-contextualization of these repertoires which are performed outside their ceremonial and ritual contexts but also modifies the plot of the stories since they are adapted to the short television frame time and contents that must be conform to political and socio-cultural principles. Moreover, the use of Western instruments alters significantly the “heterophonic” texture of traditional Khmer music which is based on a process of simultaneous improvisation that implies a continuous variation of the melody and interaction among the musicians.14 This pivotal character of Khmer traditional music is completely lost by the use of Western instruments such as guitar, banjo, keyboard and drums.

33Thus, television performances constitute a transformation of traditional musical genres and the “adaptability” of repertoires to new performing contexts.

34Recently, also radio programmes broadcast traditional music shows. For instance, Ol Samang is participating to radio and television programmes and national public events in order to promote his group and the lakhon bassac theatre among the young.

35Another form of preservation and “popularization” of traditional music is the production of CDs and DVDs operated by local NGO (in particular CLA) and records companies. Nowadays, Khmer traditional wedding music as well as popular theatre performances and songs are marketed through a huge production of recordings. Walking through the narrow aisles of tourist markets of Phnom Penh or even in local markets of provincial towns, it can be found many music records stands.

36One of the effects of the commercialization of traditional music is the de-contextualization of the songs especially ritual songs which are intrinsically related to their performing context. Moreover, the introduction of Western instruments aims to make traditional music appealing to the audience and to be popularized. Music is also commercialized for fundraising purposes as a “cultural product”. This is one of the CLA’s activities.

37The CDs produced by CLA such as Offering to the Ancestors music for wedding, Offerings to the Masters traditional music for spirit of possessions and other CDs released in collaboration with Waterek production such as Bassac Opera Khmer are performed by well-known musicians as well as masters/groups from rural areas of Cambodia. Although the songs are performed in studio, they employ traditional instruments and style. Importantly, the Masters were asked to choose the songs to perform. Therefore, we can distinguish a production of recordings that want to appeal the buyers and make popular traditional music by adding Western instruments and others productions as CLA’s CDs that try to raise money to support their activities and the Masters but above all trying to keep alive the “authentic" musical nature of Khmer traditional music and its Masters.

The Work of CLA, Local NGOs and the Government

38Nowadays, the main NGO that is working for restoring the Khmer cultural tradition is the CLA association based in Phnom Penh. CLA was founded in 1998 by Arn Chorn-pond, a genocide survivor and former child soldier. During the Khmer Rouge regime (between 1975 and 1979) about 90% of Cambodia’s artists perished; the CLA association employs old masters survived to the Khmer Rouge regime in order to teach the young the Khmer traditional performing arts. Most of the students come from poor families living in the countryside; CLA supports them by offering scholarship, organizing performances and exchanging programmes with foreign institutions.

39The main aim of the CLA is to revive traditional performing arts. Arn started his mission by seeking out surviving Masters across the country and working with them to create classes in order to transmit their knowledge to young generations. Today, CLA focuses on building the capacity of future leaders in the arts and being a catalyst for the national arts sector. For instance, they are trying to collaborate with the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts in order to have an economic and political support in the process of preservation and restoration of traditional arts.

40Some of the CLA’s Masters, such as Ieng Sithol, Yun Theara and others are trying to build networking with the government to promote CLA’s work including cultural performances in Cambodia and abroad.However, the government, in particular the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, supports CLA’s ideas and work but does not have enough funds to invest on them so that they rely on foreign countries’ support.

41One of the CLA’s projects called phlae phka (“fruitful”) consists of a 3-day show in a tourist area of Phnom Penh (at the back of the national Museum): 1) “Children of Bassac” showcases folk dance styles from different areas and ethnic groups; 2) “Passage of Life” performs Khmer rituals (weddings, funerals, healing ceremonies etc); 3) “Mak Therng” is a traditional yike opera. These shows aim to promote Khmer traditional arts and raise money from the sale of tickets and other cultural products such as bags, kroma (traditional Cambodian scarf) and CDs. The shows are advertised on tourist websites, such as Tripadvisor, and guides such as the Lonely Planet. This project is an example of the discussed “collaboration” between the government and CLA; the government gives to CLA the permission to build the stage at the back of the National Museum by sharing 10-15% of the profits.

  • 15 Arn Chorn-pond, from interview, December 2014.

42On the stage is erected a big screen with subtitles in English so that “tourists can be connected to Khmer popular theatre”.15 A couple of years ago, I attended one of the phlae pka shows: the yike performance based on a Khmer classical story Mak Therng (Fig. 3). The “original” long performance was shortened to just sixty minutes. Therefore, no much time was left to the songs accompanying the different themes of the scene. The scripts consisted of short lyrics and more comic dialogues to amuse the audience. The dancing movements were simplified and shorter. These changes are ways of “modernizing” traditional music and theatre as it is happened for other Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand (Mojdara 1996) and making a touristy culture as the case of Bali argued by Picard (1996). This phenomenon has both positive and negative effects. On the one hand, young people have the opportunity to perform these traditional arts in the hoping of building their career in the cultural sector and earn an income through traditional performing arts. Moreover, young people are inspired to create new ways of making music. The creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship needed to make a career from the art sector are flowing, in some cases, into creative thought and practice in terms of exploring new performances contexts, functions and modes for traditional arts (Grant 2016b). Catherine Grant postulates an improvement of the socio-economic situations of the artists, their families and the communities as a strategy to support the cultural revitalization of Cambodia (ibid.).

  • 16 Arn Chorn-pond, from interview, December 2014.

43On the other hand, "We [CLA] are afraid of performing Cambodian arts just for pleasing the tourists. We have to balance all of these aspects and find a compromise."16

44The NGOs’ aim of preserving and promoting Khmer traditional music implies the introduction of new performing styles shaped exclusively as tourist attraction. Although tourist representations impoverish the tradition, they are also a way of making profits. Therefore, culture is not only considered as a heritage to safeguard but also a capital to profit from (Picard 1996). The question is: will CLA and those responsible of cultural politics be able to find “a compromise” between cultural tourism and traditional performances for the sake of keeping tradition alive?

Fig. 3. A wedding...Fig. 3. A wedding scene of “Nary’s Journey” directed by Khmer-French Director Jean-Baptiste Phou

Fig. 3. A wedding scene of “Nary’s Journey” directed by Khmer-French Director Jean-Baptiste Phou

From Phlae Phkashow, National Theatre, Phnom Penh. © Philip Sen

45A recent programme supported by the CLA is the Khmer Magic Music Bus (KMMB). KMMB is a group of artists that want to expose young people from the provinces to Khmer traditional music and reconnect villagers to their cultural heritage. It is a sort of cultural exchange. Tourists are invited to join the trips by a small and colourful bus. I personally joined a trip during my research fieldwork in June 2015. We went to Kompong Speu province to meet an ethnic minority called Suoy. Some artists from CLA played for the villagers and then the young of the villagers performed for us some traditional Suoy folk dance. KMMB held 16 big concerts in different villagers since the end of 2013 when it started thanks to the funds raised by the tourists’ engagement (Fig. 4 & 5).

46Turnbull (2006) discusses how property speculation in Phnom Penh, tourism, performances abroad, and foreign pop music all impact upon a community of artists struggling to recover their craft and resources. On the one hand, the NGOs’ aim is to preserve and promote traditional Khmer music. On the other hand, some traditional genres are adapted to new performing styles shaped exclusively as tourist attraction for fundraising events. Tourist representations alter the original performing practices and contexts. Although these representations can impoverish the tradition, they encourage the process of restoring and revitalizing the tradition according to the new socio-political context.

Fig. 4. Khmer Mag...Fig. 4. Khmer Magic Music Bus

Fig. 4. Khmer Magic Music Bus

© Francesca Billeri

Fig. 5. Khmer Mag...Fig. 5. Khmer Magic Music Bus, 07 June 2015, Kompong Speu Province, Suoy Community

Fig. 5. Khmer Magic Music Bus, 07 June 2015, Kompong Speu Province, Suoy Community

© Francesca Billeri

UNESCO World Intangible Heritage in Cambodia

47The question of preservation implies also a political strategy for the promotion and valorisationof Khmer culture. In the past, the Khmer government has promoted some initiatives such as the Journées de la culture organized by the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts that annually took place in Phnom Penh in which competitions and debates on the current situations of Khmer culture occurred (Giuriati 2003).

48In occasion of the Khmer New Year, in April, tourists’ performances are organized in Angkor Wat temple (ibid.). The collaboration between Cambodian government and UNESCO brought to the promotion and preservation of royal traditions such as the Royal Ballet and the Big Shadow Puppets Theatre which constitute UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Cambodia. On the UNESCO website the Intangible Cultural Heritage is defined as:

Also known as “living heritage”, refers to the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge and skills transmitted by communities from generation to generation. It includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events. It provides these communities with a sense of identity and continuity, while promoting creativity and social well-being, contributing to the management of the natural and social environment and generating income.17

Although the UNESCO Intangible Heritage definition refers to rituals and popular forms of performing arts, so far it has been devoted to promote traditions relating to the royal people which reflect only a part of Cambodian culture; To whom does this culture belong? Courtly dance existed for the exclusive benefit of kings to communicate with gods and royal rituals such as weddings, funerals and births (Phim &Thompson 1999).

49Apart from the royal rituals, there are many others traditions, rituals and ceremonies accompanying the Khmer cycle of life such as weddings and rural practises such as healing rituals that reflect the complex cosmology and religious Khmer syncretism such as the belief in supernatural spirits that expresses the heart of Khmer traditional culture.

50These rituals are intrinsically related to the phleng khmer music that is considered the most autochthonous genre by Khmer musicians since it employs traditional instruments and repertoires that do not have any affinity with the neighbouring countries of Khmer influences such as Thailand and Laos. However, during the last decade, some Khmer traditional instruments were listed as intangible heritage since 2010 such as the chapey dong vegn (long-necked lute) and epic singing. Recently, even the phleng arak music has been listed as UNESCO intangible heritage thanks to the collaboration with the government.

51The wedding music (phleng kar), music for the spirits (phleng arak) and the popular theatre genres (lakhon yike and lakhon bassac) are mainly famous among the Khmers but they are not promoted abroad the same as the classical dance and theatre mainly for historical reasons. During the French colonization the danced theatre was more accessible to French scholars as it was not spoken. The French promoted and considered only the genres related to Indian and Sanskrit origin as the “big traditions” of Cambodia (Morotti 2010) such as the Royal Ballet and Shadow Puppets theatre which are UNESCO world human heritage and the icons of Cambodia. Nowadays, although some musical traditions less representative than the Royal Ballet have difficulty to be nominated as UNESCO heritage, in 2016 some traditional instruments such as the chapey (long-necked lute) and music traditions such the phleng arak (music for arak spirits) are in the list of the UNESCO intangible heritage. This is due to the hard work of NGO such as the Cambodian Living Arts promoting traditional Khmer culture and masters and its recent collaboration with the government.

“Arts for Transformation”

52The process of revival and preservation of Khmer arts is supported by local NGOs such as the CLA. Many performers and groups have established national and international reputations; for example Kong Nay (coll. INEDIT 2003), the old master of the long-necked lute chapey and new groups such as New Cambodian Artists (including a group young dancers in Siem Reap) and the Community of Living Chapey (a troupe of chapey players in Phnom Penh).

53The revival of traditional music is operated by young artists mostly members of CLA and KMMB project. Some are experimenting new genres by the fusion of traditional genres and contemporary styles from Cambodia and abroad. “It’s interesting to search for our musical heritage, because if our generation does not do it, this will be forever lost”—DJ Ajathom said. He is a young artist who creates a fusion of popular Khmer music and the Western rap in order to attract the young.

54Another protagonist of the Khmer revival is Yourn Young. He is multi-talented artist; he plays many traditional instruments, writes story for yike theatre and sings different Khmer musical genres. Yourn composes songs by recalling yike theatre songs and conducted some research on endangered Khmer traditional music such as the phleng arak music. Recently, he has been invited to take part of educational programmes in the United States.

55The revival of traditional and popular music aim to engage the young generations by adapting the tradition to modern trends in order to keep alive traditional and popular art and artists after the devastating actions of the Khmer Rouge regime as well as helping young artists to create new musical genres and building their career in the music industry sector. The important is that artists and those who are responsible of cultural politics are aware of the consequences of their choices on their own culture and maintain the right balance of preservation, syncretism, revival which co-exist in the contemporary Cambodian cultural scene. New genres can be created by maintaining their identity and dialoguing with other musical traditions.

56CLA mission is really important to revive and restore Khmer traditional arts after the black gap of the Khmer Rouge period. However, traditional music is performed as tourist attraction through performance and events where CDs and cultural products are sold for fundraising purposes.

Preserving performance arts and craftsman require measures that restrict personal freedom, preventing change caused as practitioners access new ideas and new forms, or restricting access to the media and to new technology. Craftsmen seek distribution and sales of their products, and will typically modify techniques to streamline the manufacturing process or to accommodate new materials, reflecting availability to inspire audiences, often those prepared to pay, and modify their presentations accordingly. (Howard 2006: 28.)

57In order to appeal the “buyers” and the audience, new elements which are considered “modern” are added to traditional music such as Western instruments that changes the essential nature of the music which is characterized by the melodic improvisation of musicians who plays different renditions of the melody simultaneously. This syncretism reflects the aim of popularizing traditional music in order to be marketed and labelled as “popular music” although its authenticity is altered. However, new genres can be invented by maintaining their identity and dialoguing with other musical traditions. “In this sense a flexible attitude towards ‘tradition’ and ‘authenticity’ may well be essential for music sustainability” (Grant 2016a: 322). But are artists aware of the consequences of their choices on their own culture?

58The process of preservation and revival of traditional performing arts leads to a phenomenon of “patrimonization” of music which can be defined as the use of music as a trait of cultural identity in order to characterize local communities within a larger nation and, at the same time it fosters economic process of which local communities may benefit. It is a controversial trend that implies also nationalistic views and the freezing of cultural process with the aim of keeping alive repertoires and practices that are gradually disappearing with a different function. This phenomenon not only leads to a de-contextualization of these repertoires but also to conformity of traditional music and theatre with television and socio-political rules. Although the modernization of traditional music and performative practises is putting in jeopardy their authenticity, it keeps alive traditional art and artists after the devastating actions of the Khmer Rouge regime and encourages young artists to create new musical genres and building their career as artists.

59Despite the community and non-government sector efforts to restore and protect the traditional performing arts, many traditional performing arts are endangered. It is estimated that 90% of the Khmer artist were killed during the Khmer Rouge regime and those alive are, nowadays, very few in number, elderly, living in slums and in poor health. In addition to the limited knowledge for traditional arts, the rapid process of social and technological change, urbanisation and modernisation (Douglas 2009) as well as the scarce presence of traditional arts in formal education draw the “cultural crisis” (Kallio & Westerlund 2016) of the Khmer arts sector. UNESCO attributes the endangerment and disappearance of intangible cultural expressions to “long-lasting conflicts, the declining number of performers and the clear tendency among the younger generation to cultural influences from outside the country” (2007: para. 1).

60In conclusion, the re-construction of the musical heritage involves a process of preservation by planning new cultural initiatives, documenting traditional arts, keeping alive traditional musical heritage and encouraging the young to introduce new forms of music that have their roots in traditional practices. This process inevitably threatens the traditional music authenticity but doing nothing would lead to irretrievable loss.

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Note de fin

1 See Chandler (1991), for the history of Cambodia since 1945.

2 Such as wedding music (phleng kar) and music for healing ceremonies (phleng arak).

3 See Ang (1986), and Forest (1992), for the cult of animistic spirits in Cambodia.

4 See Billeri (2016), Brunet (1979) and McKinley (2002), for traditional wedding music.

5 See Ang (1986), and Forest (1992), for the cult of animistic spirits in Cambodia.

6 Lakhon bassac is a kind of popular theatre which has Chinese and Vietnamese influence. Characters paint their faces; Lakhon Yike is a kind of popular theatre that has Malay and Thai influence and it is a sung-danced opera.

7 Other TV channels such as TVK pre-check the story to ensure that it is written by a known writer and book; whilst the CTN and Bayon channels set the troupe’s leader free to choose the story to perform. However, in any case the plot is carefully checked and conformed to political and socio-cultural aspects.

8 Sot Chomroen, from interview, December 2014.

9 Songs are chosen according to the general theme of the story. For example, if the scene’s theme is love, musicians will play love songs sometimes borrowed from other musical genres.

10 Ruah Somart, from personal communication, December 2014.

11 The melodic instruments consists of a tro u (lower-pitched two-stringed fiddle); tro chhe (two-stringed fiddle); khloy (bamboo flute); khim (hammered dulcimer). The rhythmic instruments are skor bassac, chhang and krab (wooden clappers).

12 Ruah Somart, from interview, December 2014.

13 Samang, from personal communication.

14 See Giuriati (1995), and Sam (1988), for improvisation process of Cambodian music.

15 Arn Chorn-pond, from interview, December 2014.

16 Arn Chorn-pond, from interview, December 2014.


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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1. Lakhon Bassac performance, Kompot Province
Crédits © Francesca Billeri
Fichier image/jpeg, 306k
Titre Fig. 2. The introduction of the protagonist of the lakhon bassac story Preah Cɨnvong
Crédits Khmer Cultural Heritage programme 2015, Bayon TV. © Francesca Billeri
Fichier image/jpeg, 340k
Titre Fig. 3. A wedding scene of “Nary’s Journey” directed by Khmer-French Director Jean-Baptiste Phou
Crédits From Phlae Phkashow, National Theatre, Phnom Penh. © Philip Sen
Fichier image/jpeg, 213k
Titre Fig. 4. Khmer Magic Music Bus
Crédits © Francesca Billeri
Fichier image/jpeg, 208k
Titre Fig. 5. Khmer Magic Music Bus, 07 June 2015, Kompong Speu Province, Suoy Community
Crédits © Francesca Billeri
Fichier image/jpeg, 222k
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Pour citer cet article

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Francesca Billeri, « The Process of Re-Construction and Revival of Musical Heritage in Contemporary Cambodia », Moussons, 30 | 2017, 91-109.

Référence électronique

Francesca Billeri, « The Process of Re-Construction and Revival of Musical Heritage in Contemporary Cambodia », Moussons [En ligne], 30 | 2017, mis en ligne le 13 novembre 2017, consulté le 20 juin 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/moussons.3915

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Francesca Billeri

Francesca Billeri is a PhD candidate in Music at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. In 2002 she achieved a piano diploma at the Conservatoire in Italy. In 2009 Billeri undertook a research on Cambodian traditional wedding music to complete a Master degree at Rome University. In 2013 she organized the first Khmer music workshop at SOAS. Billeri’s research is on the interrelation of Khmer wedding music and other traditional genres, in particular music accompanying healing ceremonies (phleng arak) and popular theatre lakhon yike and lakhon bassac. Her research interests include the effects of the ongoing process of preservation and revival of Khmer traditional music by local NGOs and governmental institutions.

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