Volume 2 No.9

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Cambodian Percussion
By: Ly Vanna.Picture by:Ly Vanna. ( September, 2002 Volume 2 No.9 )

SKOR is the Khmer word for drum. For centuries this has been an important musical instrument. It is often used during ceremonies and celebrations. The importance of the drum is evident, ironically, in cases where drums are not available; in such circumstances rural Cambodians will use almost anything to create the drum sound. This will include hitting plates, pot and cutlery to imitate the drums. The drums are seen as a way of emulating the sound of thunder and thunderbolts. In this way, it can be seen as being an important connection to the natural world. Across the globe, the drum has been one of the earliest instruments of mankind.
In the book "Traditional Cambodian Musical Instrument" writer Mr. Hun Sarin mentioned that there are ten types of Khmer drums are often utilized. They are skor arak, skor thon - skor romonea, skor somphoo, skor thom, skor chey, skor chhaiyam, skor yikei, skor chvea, skor mohortheuk, and skor basacc. Most of the drums are made of wood and covered with animals' skin.

Skor Arak is also called skor dei, skor dai, skor kar, or skor ayai. A long time ago this drum was made of clay. The body of the arak drum looks like a wax gourd, whilst the head looks like a pumpkin. This drum is 40 to 50 cm in length and 15 or 16 cm in height. The drum is used in arak music, wedding music and ayai music. In the wedding music, two drums are used to represent the female and male elements- referring to the bride and the groom.
Nowadays, skor arak is made of wood - more specifically the jackfruit tree - this is due to the fragility of pottery. People like to cover it with snake's skin, trakourt's skin (a kind of monitor lizard), or wild ox's skin, because these are all both tough and make a clear sound. Before covering the drum with skin they put it into limejuice or another sour liquid. This process cures the wood and will mean that the sound will resonate further. "Skor arak is the most difficult of the drums to learn and use because the modulations of arak music: it consists of 50 tones. Therefore the drums' sound must change to keep up with those modulations," said Mr. Chom Brasoeur, a specialist of Khmer drums.

Skor Thon - Skor Romonea is a partnership of drums and thus complimentary sounds. Skor thon is similar to skor arak, but the hole inside is smaller than skor arak; it is lead by the sound of skor thon, less than that of skor arak. Skor romonea is the shortest drum and looks like a pumpkin. This partnership of drums is only used in Mohori music.

Skor Somphoo is a two faced drum, which is kept on a wooden support. Skor somphoo is usually 55 cm in width and a metre in length. It is the most important drum in Pinpeat music. Most of these drums are made from a variety of wood and covered with the skin of a horse or an ox. It is then put in the sun to dry. Before beating, the drum the user will stick a pile of rice on the middle of the covered skin to level the sound. Khmer people have used this kind of drum for centuries as is evident on the bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat.

Skor Thom (big drum) is also used in Pinpeat music. They normally use two skor thom with differing sounds; if one sounds "tong-tong" (a lower more resonant tone), another one sounds "ting-ting" (a higher pitched tone). To get the higher sound: "ting-ting", the drum maker has to scrape the middle of the skin to make it the same thickness as the edge. To get the lower sound: "tong-tong," the drum maker has to keep the middle of the skin at the original thickness.
This wooden drum is 50 cm in length and 40 cm in height. Around the ends, of both drums, the maker creates two rows of holes; these are for putting pins to join the skin to the drum. The pins are also used for fine-tuning the drum at a later stage. There is an iron ring in the middle of the drum for hanging up. The musician uses two sticks; one side is smaller being 35 cm in length. This drum is covered with an old ox's skin or an old buffalo's skin because these skins are thicker. These drums have louder sounds than other drums in Pinpeat music. No one knows when Khmer started using this drum, but it is seen, once again, in the carvings of Angkor Wat.

Skor Chey (successful drum), skor torb (soldier drum) or skor yeam (guard drum) are drums that are used in pagodas. More recently they are used to make the sign to gather Buddhists together, or for informing of ritual ceremonies. Skor chey is also used in mourning music at a funeral.
Within a historical context, the army, as a way of passing information, used these drums. This meant that orders could be given without the enemy realizing. The secret signs varied with each group and their enemies would not know. The rhythmic beat of the drums was also used to stir the troops and encourage bravery amongst the ranks. To make these drums, the drum maker takes a piece of log - 111 cm in length and makes a hole inside the log - about 240 cm in height - he then covers it with the buffalo's skin on both sides. When the drum is ready, the magician draws a talisman on the drum's surface and he calls many spirits to come and take care this drum. They burn incense to recall these spirits when they start to use the drum.

Skor Chhaiyam is used for celebrating happy events. It is the longest drum - so much so that it has a string for carrying it on the shoulder. The drum is covered with skin only on one side. There is a mixed color cloth wrapped round it called chhaiyam, to make the drum more attractive. They stick a piece of rice on the middle skin to set the level of sound, essentially tuning the drum. There are between four and five sorts of skor chhaiyam, of which two provide louder sounds, another two provide quieter sounds and the one other is for the dancer to beat and dance with.

Skor Yikei is used in Lakhon Yikei. A long time ago these drums are made of palm trees but now it is made of jackfruit tree and covered with ox's skin. There are 13 different skor yikei, from large to small. The biggest one is called skor mei- this is always the first drum to start. The theatre leader always beats skor mei to order, or to stop the activity of the performers. The theatre can use either solely the skor yikei, or an ensemble of six different drums, depending on the play being performed.

Skor Chvea is a drum created on an island in South East Asia. The Muslim people, who live on this island, are called chvea. Skor chvea have appeared in Cambodia for centuries as is testified to by the carvings on the walls of the Bayon temple. There are many kind of skor chvea such as skor samngnar, skor phloh, skor phlourk, skor klorng chhnash (skor klorng kheik, skor yol). Skor samngnar has two faces used for mourning ceremonies. When two skor samngnar play together this is called Skor phloh - which is used for rapid dancing. Skor phlourk is also used for mourning ceremonies - they beat it with two sticks. Skor klorng chhnash is traditionally used for sports competitions.

Skor Mohortheuk is made of an alloy and looks like a mill. It is different from the other drums and it was used only for royal ceremonies. Nowadays it is rarely played and is only present in the museum.

Skor Basacc can be divided into two kinds: Skor thom (large drum) and Skor Lork (small drum). Skor Basacc is used in conjunction with other instruments in Bassacc theatre. It is used during the performance rather than as a signal to raise or lower the curtain. Skor thom is a leading instrument - it makes a sign to all instruments to start or to stop. They beat this drum with two sticks.
The younger Khmer generations know and hear the sound of drums. They even make small drums as their toys to play with. Their toy drums are made from a piece of bamboo, or another tube and covered with frog or snake's skin Even today, with the twenty first century unfolding around them, Cambodian people look to the past for the musical inspiration. As long as there are Cambodians, there will be drums. They beat the rhythm of life throughout the kingdom and form a crucial percussive voice within Khmer music. Next time you hear distant drumming . . .