New Life Given to Forgotten Cambodian Songs

At first, producing the CD “Cambodian Forgotten Songs,” which is being released Saturday by the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, seemed straightforward enough: a matter of recording songs compiled by two French researchers in their 1921 book on Cambodian traditional music.

The 54 songs that C. Belan and Albert Tricon published in “Chan­sons Cambodgiennes,” or Cambodian songs, nearly a century ago are no longer known in the country.

“Some of them go back to a time prior to Hinduism and Bud­dhism in Cambodia,” said Pich Tum Kravel, an adviser to the Ministry of Culture and a performing arts grand master.

Written in Areak, the “Cambodian spirit music,” he said, these songs may date back 2,000 years to when people were animist and believed in the spirits of mountains, rivers and forests.

But recording songs from a 1921 book was easier said than done.

In 2009, it took the Bophana Center 18 months to record a first CD of eight songs with the help of the Amrita Performing Arts organization.

This latest eight-song album took nearly eight months of work, according to Chea So­pheap, the Bophana Center archivist who coordinated the project with traditional music professor Yun Khean, known as Theara, of the Ministry of Culture.

The major difficulty was translating into Cambodian music what two Frenchmen had written down using a piano and Western music rules, Mr. Khean, who acted as musical director, explained.

Since Cambodian musical intervals are equal and the percussion instrument roneat does not have half tones in sharp and flat, what they put on paper needed a great deal of deciphering, he noted. Mr. Tricon had mentioned in his 1921 book that his scores were far from a reproduction of the music played by ear by Cambodian artists.

With support from the U.S. Embassy, the Bophana Center formed an expert committee in­cluding Mr. Tum Kravel, the ethnomusicologist Sam Ang-Sam and composer Him Sophy, who writes both for Western and Cambodian instruments.

For each song, Mr. Khean transcribed the Frenchmen’s score on a computer and then sat with the committee to figure out the their interpretation of Cambodian music and their Khmer lyrics reproduced with French sounds and Latin letters in the 1910s, Mr. Sophy said.

An orchestra of 10 traditional musicians recorded the songs including Areak songs, Mahaori court-style music and popular songs.

The album contains a CD and booklet with the songs’ scores and lyrics in Khmer and English. It will be launched Saturday at 6 p.m. at the Bophana Center, 64 Street 200. The musicians who recorded the CD will perform at the event.

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