Imperfect pitchImperfect pitchImperfect pitch

Sitting on the floor in a Royal University of Fine Arts classroom on Monday, Chum Kong cut a sliver from a bar of soft lead mixed with wax. He held it with his fingers directly into the flame of a candle to warm it, and applied it under one of the roneat ek’s strung bars to fix the pitch.

Then, using a tuned instrument for comparison, the 61-year-old traditional music teacher hit the bar with a mallet to check the pitch.

But there was just so much he could do to fix the percussion instrument. “Most of our instruments have been used since the 1980s,” he said. It is not so much their age as the fact that they are nearly broken beyond repair due to overuse, he explained. “Still, we try to fix them, step by step, be­cause it’s really hard for us to get new ones to replace them,” he said.

“With the increasing number of students each year, it is difficult for us to keep the instruments in good order, which is why we need to repair them very often,” said Yun Khean, also known as Theara, who is Khmer Traditional Music vice-dean for RUFA.

The shortage of traditional musical instruments has become so severe at the university that students can only practice 15 minutes per day on an instrument, he said. This makes it tough for tomorrow’s generation of musicians to learn to play well, he said.

The dust also damages the instruments, and students try to clean them every day, Yun Khean added.

RUFA used to have a workshop and instrument storage facility at its former location off Monivong Boulevard, near the old stadium. But since the North Campus moved to Russei Keo district as part of a land swap between the government and the Mong Reth­thy Group, the new facility built by the company—less than one year old and already sinking into the ground—does not include a storage unit. So the instruments sit in a classroom, open to the dust and heat of the treeless campus.

In addition to affecting student training, “the lack of performance-quality instruments limits the ability and the opportunity of professionals [teaching at RUFA] to show traditional music in its best light” in public performances, said Arne Sahlen, a Canadian pianist and visiting professor at RUFA.

All this prompted the Canadian NGO Cambodia Support Group, of which Sahlen is president, to launch with RUFA the “Sponsor an Instrument” project. Its goal is to get RUFA’s students and teachers 100 new instruments by Khmer New Year in April 2007.

The project is a people-helping-people type of initiative. For example, two young American sisters, Lily and Irys Kornbluth, have raised $1,425 for the project by playing harp and piano at weddings and concerts in California, Sahlen said.

The price of instruments varies from around $12 for a kloy touych, a small recorder-type of flute, to around $500 for a kong vong thom, which consists of 16 small, bronze gong heads set up in a circular frame in the middle of which the musician sits to play.

A kong vong thom is a complex instrument to make, traditional-instrument craftsman Long Chhengly said. It takes a team of craftsmen about 10 days to fashion one, he said. A person must have a good ear as well as a good eye and physical strength to create a traditional instrument that is beautifully styled as well as musically perfect, Long Chhengly said.

To support the project of this all-volunteer NGO, bar its Cam­bodian coordinator, the Canadian Embassy is sponsoring a concert of Cambodian and Canadian musicians at 6 pm on Saturday at the Russian Cultural Center.

The group of Cambodian traditional musicians is to include Soy Sareth, Yun Khean and Keo Dorivan.

The Canadian artists are Sahlen and guitarist/singer James Gor­don, one of Canada’s best known singers and songwriters.

“He promised to write a song on Cambodia for the concert,” said Canadian Ambassador Donica Pottie. Gordon also intends to record the concert for broadcast on the radio network of the Canadian Broadcasting Corpora­tion, she said.

For admission to the Cambodia-International Friendship Concert, people are invited to donate as little or as much as they wish. All the money raised will go directly to the “Sponsor an Instrument” project, Pottie said.

Pottie hopes that the event will not only raise funds for the project, but also will help make people aware of the shortage of good instruments at RUFA.

“Those musical instruments are so beautiful,” she said. Seeing a kong vong thom without all its gongs “is so sad: It’s like seeing a person without his teeth,” Pottie said.

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