Ancient Instruments to Be Played at World Heritage Meeting

On Tuesday, delegates to the World Heritage Committee session in Phnom Penh will be treated at their meeting with musicians playing instruments modeled on those that appear on the walls of centuries-old Khmer temples.

One of the ancient instruments will be an ornate harp, whose design is based on a 7th century sculpture found at Sambor Prei Kuk—the most important pre-Angkorian site, located in central Cambodia. 

Use of the harp probably ceased in the 1300s, said French ethnomusicologist Patrick Kersale, who rediscovered the instruments and will be on hand Tuesday to play the harp alongside Cambodian traditional musicians playing the other ancient instruments.

Delegates from the 21 countries that form the World Heritage Committee are beginning the 37th annual session on Sunday to review the situation of the world’s most important historical and natural sites, and decide whether more should be added to that prestigious list.

The ancient Khmer instruments that are being showcased before the meeting are part of an exhibition at the Sofitel Angkor Pho­keethra hotel in Siem Reap City this month that focuses on Mr. Kersale’s research.

“Some of the instruments are similar to those of ancient times such as the monochord called kse biev,” Mr. Kersale said. “This instrument exists since the 7th century and has hardly changed over time. Other instruments have had their form slightly modified as material used got more modern,” he said.

Mr. Kersale reconstructed a collection of 50 Angkorian and pre-Angkorian instruments by studying wall sculptures on Khmer monuments, such as the 800-year-old Banteay Chhmar temple in northwestern Cambodia, and the Bayon and Angkor Wat in Siem Reap province.

His goal was to compile images of the instruments to ascertain which ones were commonly used in past centuries, and to then recreate them.

Finding musical instrument-makers to reproduce the ancient drum and string instruments was not difficult, Mr. Kersale said. However, crafting a long-forgotten harp was not so simple, so Mr. Kersale went to Burma where the harp still features prominently in traditional music.

“I went to work in Burma with the Karen [minority group] as well as the Burmese and then brought back the Burmese technology,” to produce a harp in Cambodia, he said, adding that he passed on the production method to Phnom Penh’s traditional musician and instrument craftsman Keo Sonan Kavei.

“Among other things, my work has consisted of attempting to get a global vision of music in Southeast Asia over the last 20 years, and to see how music evolves because we are in a world that moves at an accelerated pace,” he said.

Beyond Tuesday’s performance, musicians will use some of Mr. Kersale’s Angkorian and pre-Angkorian instruments in a concert on June 21 at the Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra in Siem Reap, said Gaelle Bigeard, marketing coordinator for the hotel. Since the early 1980s, France has held the Fete de la Musique every June 21 and the tradition has since spread to more than 100 countries around the world.

The concert at the Sofitel in Siem Reap starts at 6 p.m. and is open to the public, Ms. Bigeard said. The exhibition continues until the end of the month.

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