On a Thursday evening earlier this month, three US jazz students discussed a piece with Cambodian master musician Yun Khean.
He was about to use a tro khmer, a bow-stringed instrument, to record a part in the new jazz piece “Sabbay (happiness) Chant in 7” that student Eli Carlton-Pearson had just described as “ridiculously hard” to play.
Yun Khean, the musical vice dean at the Royal University of Fine Arts who is also known as Theara, calmly continued practicing while Carlton-Pearson grew nervous about his own part in the piece, which he had actually composed.
In the meantime, Beau Sievers, another jazz student from the US, was listening to an earlier recording in the studio’s “control room,” a 3-square-meter cubicle with mats on the floor, a couple of bamboo lamps and a sloping ceiling barely 1.5 meters at its apex in the center of the room.
And yet, out of two small speakers hooked to a laptop computer, the poetic Cambodian song “Sat Mohori” slowly unfolded. Cambodian and Western instruments blended to give the tune a strange depth and purity of sound in the recording, which was rather unexpected for a piece done in this barely head-high rooftop studio.
The music started with the aching voice of the Cambodian tro sau, its strings evoking the mysteries of a time long past. And as the skor (drum), Western guitars and drums leisurely joined in, the melody took on the silky moods of jazz, with a hint of hip hop.
Creating arrangements for Cambodian and Western instruments to play together demanded a leap of culture on the part of all musicians involved.
Silapak Khmer Amatak, or Cambodian Living Arts, acquired a fully equipped recording studio to enable the NGO to continue compiling archives of Cambodian traditional music and to produce commercial-quality CDs of traditional music, interpreted by the country’s finest musicians, said Charley Todd, SKA project coordinator.
The recording of the first two CDs, one of chapei dang veng—a guitar-style string instrument with a long neck—and another of traditional wedding music was completed this month, he said. They will be released under the label of Studio CLA.
“We are looking for a distributor in Cambodia and overseas,” said Todd.
A separate CD of Cambodian music/jazz fusion should come out in July, he said.
The project began last year when Scott Stafford, an ethnomusicologist from San Francisco who had assisted SKA with various projects, obtained the equipment to set up a recording studio for the organization. Over the years, the NGO has taken mobile equipment to various corners of Cambodia to record traditional music with the help of US technicians.
Last year, four jazz students from San Francisco, California, were thinking of taking one year off from school to explore Cambodian music and write fusion music. They would find the necessary funds for their stay if SKA was willing to provide them with technical support.
The students were hoping to learn Cambodian instruments. There was no question of mastering them—something that would take 10 or 20 years, said Ben Lerer, a banjo player.
But they were eager to discover Cambodian traditional music “from the inside,” said Parker Keil Barnes, a double-bass player.
So in October, Carlton-Pearson, Sievers, Keil Barnes and Lerer arrived in Phnom Penh as Stafford was starting on the studio. So while Stafford trained Cambodians and supervised the construction of the studio, the students “did the grunt work,” as Keil Barnes put it.
SKA, which supports music classes given by 17 Cambodian master musicians, introduced them to the masters. Sievers, a drummer, chose to study the khloy, a type of Cambodian flute the origins of which may go back to the 7th century. Carlton-Pearson, a guitarist, opted for the tro hou, a string instrument with a coconut shell as a sound box; and Keil Barnes picked up the tro khmer.
Lerer started classes with Chapei singer and musician Kung Nai. Chapei artists are known for their lively and often humorous songs about everyday life.
From the start, the jazz musicians were confronted with a major cultural snag. “My ear would tell me that, when I played Khmer notes, I was playing out of tune,” said Keil Barnes.
As Yun Khean explains in his book “Traditional Musical Instruments of Cambodia,” traditional Cambodian music is based on a scale of seven equally spaced notes while the chromatic scale of Western music consists of 12 equally spaced semitones.
Years ago, Theara developed a notation method for traditional music, complete with a Khmer clef, based on the Western system. With the method described in his book, traditional melodies, taught over the centuries by masters playing them to their apprentices, now can be preserved and studied through recordings and written form as well as oral transmission.
Theara’s music sheets helped the four US students grasp the Khmer sounds their teachers were telling them to play.
The jazz musicians’ goal included helping to produce CDs of the masters’ work, Keil Barnes said.
Recording those musicians was an easy and pleasant task, said Chuon Sarin, who was trained by Stafford as a sound engineer. “The masters are patient and respect the people they work with,” he said.
Brilliant musicians such as the blind master Kung Nai could record their parts in one single session, said Chuon Sarin.
Music involving many instruments usually means recording each instrument individually and mixing them afterwards, he said. For Cambodian music/jazz fusion, this was a necessity because Western instruments are so much louder than the Cambodian ones in a live session, said Chuon Sarin.
The four jazz students created Cambodian music/jazz fusion both on Cambodian traditional pieces and on Western jazz classics such as “Take 5.”
Cambodian masters had to exert as much effort to play Western arrangements as it had taken the young US musicians to grasp Cambodian music. But the masters readily agreed to experiment with them.
“When I heard [their fusion music], it was a very sweet sound,” said Kung Nai. “It’s unbelievable how they mixed [Cambodian and Western music]. I wished they would do this on more Cambodian songs,” he said.
The four students hope to produce and release their fusion CD in about three months, said Keil Barnes.
In this project, “these old masters working with young musicians found new [music] forms,” while preserving the old, said Todd.
“Our program believes this could be the future of the country” for economic development, he said. “The arts and artists could be Cambodia’s renewable resource” and niche market, attracting tourists as Angkor does, Todd said.