Southeast Asian music has a rich history, especially Khmer music. Daily village life played a huge role in the development of music and when music was played. Since early village life was dictated mainly by agricultural cycles, music most often coincided with harvest festivals. This also means that during the rainy season, music was not as prevalent. While Khmer music was possibly influenced by Indian sources, any of its Western influences were largely destroyed under the Khmer Rouge.
The terror of the Khmer Rough occurred between 1975-1979 and was an attempt to completely reinvent Cambodian culture and society. Music and the arts were brutally repressed during this time. Under the Khmer Rouge, many of the masters of Khmer Music, including those of Pinn Peat, were murdered. Despite the extreme political turmoil, some traditional forms of music survived with aid from many non-governmental organizations and Australia.
Luckily, Pinn Peat music was one of those salvaged art forms. Pinn Peat is a form of Khmer folk music that was used for royal court events, shadow puppet theater, weddings, religious ceremonies and funerals. It is still used to accompany many of these same events today. Pinn Peat music is typically in either a pentatonic scale or a heptatonic scale, meaning there are either five or seven pitches. In Western musical terms, it is usually on a G scale.
The most popular Pinn Peat orchestra is the Vung Phleng Pinn Peat. This was the main court ensemble, dating back more than a thousand years. The Vung Phleng Pinn Peat consists of eleven instruments including vocals. These instruments are two oboes (sralai tauch and sralai thomm), two bamboo xylophones (roneat ek and roneat thomm), one metal xylophone (roneat dek), two drums (skor thomm and sampho), two gongs (korng tauch and korng thomm), one pair of small cymbals (cching) and vocalists (naek chrieng). The words thomm and tauch mean “big” and “small” respectively. Together these instruments create music that can either be used as an accompaniment or played alone.
Modernization brought many changes to Southeast Asian music in general. Agriculture no longer dictates daily life as it once did. Due to urbanization, more people are living in bigger cities rather than in villages. Tourism further complicates this issue. Tourism helps keep traditional music alive and brings wealth to the nation, but it also brings many corrupting forces, such as prostitution and drugs. Luckily for Cambodia, the country is not as popular a tourist destination as Thailand or Indonesia, so it does not suffer as much from these negative influences. Revival movements and the fact that Pinn Peat is still used in ceremonies help keep this and other musical traditions alive so that we can continue to appreciate and enjoy them.
* Pinn Peat Orchestra in Wat Bo Temple, Siem Reap (2011)