Ensemble Revives ‘Forgotten Songs’ From Cambodia’s Past

In 1921, two Frenchmen compiled in a book 54 traditional Cambodian songs they had heard while traveling throughout the country.

However, as mentioned in the introduction to the book by C Belan and Albert Tricon, the musical notes written down in the book were far from a precise representation of the music that the Cambodian artists had played by ear according to their moods. And to reproduce and write the melodies, Tricon had used a piano whose keys could not reproduce the same notes generated by the traditional Cambo­dian instruments.

Last year, the Bophana Au­diovisual Center in Phnom Penh got hold of a copy of the book, “Chansons Cambodgi­ennes,” and decided that despite the difficulties with transcription, the old songs should be brought back to life, said the center’s Chum Noy.

More than 18 months of hard work later, eight of those songs will be performed tonight at the center by the musicians and singer of the Pleng Kar Boran Ensemble.

The group also recorded the songs on a CD entitled “Cambo­dian Forgotten Songs” to be launched tonight. The center is also exhibiting through Nov 6 photos taken by photographer Lim Sokchanlina during the making of the CD.

At first, the task of deciphering words and notes in the book seemed close to impossible, said Suon Buon Rith of Amrita Per­forming Arts, who took over the project with the help of Cambodian music experts.

The book’s authors had not indicated from whom they had gotten the songs nor in which part of the country they had collected them, and music masters in the pro­vin­ces could not recognize them, he said.

“Another nightmare was trying to identify the Khmer words,” he said, as Mr Belan had transcribed the songs’ lyrics as best he could, using French-language sounds and Western letters.

“One thing about which the [expert] committee was quite sure is that the music is Khmer because it is related to arak,” the Cambo­dian spirit music, Mr Bun Rith said.

The songs being arak and “pleng kar boran,” or traditional wedding music, makes them all the more important as a piece of Cambodia’s cultural heritage, said Keo Narom, a music teacher at the Royal University of Fine Arts and one of the experts on the project.

“Pleng arak music and pleng kar boran of that period [in the early 1900s] had not yet been influenced by India,” which makes those songs unique, she said.

In addition, arak music is close to disappearing entirely, said musician Yun Khean of the Ministry of Culture’s technical cultural affairs department.

Nowadays, arak music is performed only once a year in rural areas in very few parts of the country, he said.

Using what was available in the book, Mr Khean wrote arrangements for the songs. “I tried the best I could to keep the most im­portant parts of the melody and rhythms so that it would not make it different from the original versions,” he said.

Admission to tonight’s concert is free.

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