Last Known Player of Angkor-Era Instrument Dies

The last known player of the memm—a traditional one-stringed violin amplified through the mouth that has survived since Angkorian times among the Kreung ethnic minority—was killed in a traffic accident in Ratanakkiri province on Sat­ur­day, officials said. 

Musician Phorn Dav, 60, and his blind 57-year-old sister Phorn Kho­eun both died in a hospital in the provincial capital of Banlung after their motorbike crashed headlong into a truck in O’Chum district around 3 pm, Kin Vanna, chief of the provincial military police’s security and penal bureau, said Monday.

Phorn Dav’s wife was also injured in the accident.

Song Seng, project coordinator for NGO Cambodian Living Arts, said the memm was believed lost until researchers found Phorn Dav living and playing the instrument in his O’Chum district village in 2001.

Supported with an $80 per month stipend from CLA to teach the instrument since 2004, Phorn Dav took on 14 students, among whom only two or three reached a basic competence sufficient to play a few songs, Song Seng said.

The memm is a very subtle, quiet instrument, according to a CLA field report. A single string is held in the player’s teeth and is played with a bamboo bow, its sound modulated with the player’s mouth, much like a “Jew’s harp.”

Phorn Dav was returning home from taking his sister to Banlung when he crashed into a truck coming from the opposite direction at an intersection in O’Chum district town, Song Seng said. Phorn Dav is survived by five daughters and one son.

Song Seng added that Phorn Dav’s death was an irreplaceable loss for Cambodian music, culture and history. The memm appears in relief sculptures on the walls of Angkor Thom.

Phorn Dav had visited Phnom Penh to record at Studio CLA for one day, according to the report, leaving a few recordings of the music he learned before Cambo­dia’s civil war, but he was never able to fully pass on the art to proteges to keep the instrument alive.


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