Music warms the heart and lifts the spirit. In the Cambodian countryside, the strains of Khmer melodies can be heard as people hum, whistle and sing while working in the rice paddies. The powerful nature of songs can motivate even the most tired laborer to push forward.
When the human voice grows tired, the Khmer flute gains strength. The haunting resonance of the wind instrument can evoke deep emotion in a nation heavy with the weight of ragged history. But it also can enliven the public, inspiring dance and laughter, and helping to ease the most stressful days.
Like a moth to a flame, hard working rice farmers are mesmerized by the flute's whistle. Under the hot midday sun, little can convince one to continue laboring. But the soothing sounds of the flute lift farmers' minds from the task at hand, making the minutes pass without notice.
Musicians armed with few resources but a lot of creativity may know how to churn music from a simple leaf. Wearing little more than a colorful krama, rural dwellers often are seen lazing lackadaisically in the shade of a palm. Khmer flutists, according to Soy Saret, a Music Department professor at the Royal University of Fine Art and Culture, favor five traditional songs.
The songs are: Bampeh (To Comfort); Bangkohng K'aek (Crow's Roost); Chaahp Pouhk (Red-Brown Sparrow); Sorin K'nahng Phnom (Hill Tribe Sorin People); and Chrohng (a Khmer Melody). Each melody evokes a different emotion and is quite telling of a musician's mood.
Since the 16th century, flutes have been popular accompaniments to Khmer wedding music, said Mao Pheong, traditional Khmer music professor at the Royal University of Fine Art. This popularity began long before the Angkorian period, according to the "Traditional Khmer Music Book" by Hun Saren. Throughout this early period, flutes harmonized with Tro- a Khmer stringed instrument similar to a violin- in the Khmer Mohaorii Orchestra, the book stated. This Khmer orchestra was a royal ensemble consisting of stringed instruments. Although the small wind instrument did not originate in Cambodia, the flute's history with the country is as eclectic as it is long, Mao Pheong said. Called "Ploy" by ethnic minorities, the flute originated from a twisted leaf and eventually was carved from Russei Pok (Pok bamboo). Today plastic instruments are sold in the market in three styles: small, big and double-barreled, or "Kloy Plous." The big flute has a heavy sound and was the first instrument used by the Mohaorii Orchestra, in which it ultimately was accompanied by a smaller flute. Presently the big flute seldom is played in public, and it is believed that this large style has fallen from the pages of Khmer music history, according to the year 2000 edition of "Traditional Khmer Music." Regardless of the flute's shape or size, however, its hollow sound is universally adored.
Clarinets are some of the most sophisticated wind instruments to evolve from the simple leaf predecessor. The reed of a clarinet is made from the guava tree, Nang Noun, and Krohngoueng. The reeds must be made from smooth wood in order to produce a loud, sweet sound. Good reeds block saliva to go inside the flute when we blow.
To make a flute, a piece of bamboo or wood, approximately 50 cm long, must be hollowed out. Smaller flutes are required to be approximately 40 cm long. The hollowed middle is burned. A piece of guava wood is cut a bit smaller than the hollow section and placed at the bottom of the bamboo tube. This is used as a reed. Seven holes then are carved into the front of the instrument, while one is carved into the back. To space the holes equidistance from each other, a string of equal length to the flute's length is folded in half and then folded again to measure between each hole.
Although it does not take a lot of skill to blow noise from the mouth of a flute, time and talent are required to evoke memories of the past or visions of the future. Wherever you go, listen for Cambodia's tale told in the gentle whisper of the wind.