It is said that Khmer music and dance connects earth and heaven, producing sound and movement that will cover your soul and lead you to peace. The tradition is based on thousands of years of spirit worship and a quest for harmony that has its roots in ancient animism and religious celebration of mythical Hindu tales. Musicians and dancers convey thoughts and emotions through subtle yet abstract expression. Classical Khmer music and Apsara Dance have become recognised the world over, with modern Cambodia immortalised through its iconic classical sounds and physical illustration.
Don’t be fooled by the lengthy local bus rides with their deafening Khmer karaoke accompaniment, or by local teenagers grooving to the latest Western tunes. Cambodia is a country with a rich and varied history of music and dance, and learning about its cultural significance will provide a valuable insight to many aspects of daily life.
Music in Cambodia
Music in Cambodia is based on the ancient traditions of the Khmer Empire and the rapid Westernisation of the country following the downfall of the Khmer Rouge. There are two distinct styles of traditional music, with the primary or ‘classical’ style that which is played by the pinpeath orchestra.
This ensemble comprises of the roneath (bamboo xylophone), ching (cymbal), pia au (flute), sralay (oboe), gong (bronze gong), chappay (bass banjo), tro (violin) and a variety of drums. The other style, based upon folk tales and played by themohori orchestra, which uses only stringed instruments, is more common in rural settings.
Cambodian music reflects the country’s historical and geographical relationships, with Indianisation bringing new modes of expression. The ethnic Khmer believed in spirit worship, and animism involved chanting and music. The mountain dwellers in the east, where Indianisation was minimal, had their own rites and rituals. Instruments were developed to help the hunt of ward of bad karma, the sneng (free-reed buffalo horn) and the ploy (free-reed mouth organ) the most notable.
Cambodian music flourished in both court and village settings, with many religious ceremonies or celebrations having a style all of their own. Village weddings are celebrated with Kar, while spirit worship is usually accompanied by Arakk. Ayai is the style for entertainment, chrieng chapey for narration, andbasakk or yike in the theatre. Temple celebrations host the pinpeath orchestra, with the korng skor ensemble used for funerals.
As with most foreign influences, Cambodia adopted aspects of Indian, Chinese and eventually European music to suit their own tastes and traditions. The Indians brought ritualism accompanied by sound, while the Chinese brought theatre and instruments. The Europeans introduced contemporary Western classical music, from which the Khmers developed phleng samai (modern music).
During the Chenla period, up until the ninth century, the newly adopted Hindu influences were juxtaposed with traditional ethnic animism, which has remained in place for over a thousand years. As kingdoms developed, so too did court rituals, with music and dance heralding the arrival of sovereigns and seasons. By the time of Angkor, orchestras, dance troupes, shadow-puppet plays and religious ceremonies had all contributed to the evolution of classical Cambodian music. The walls of Angkor Wat are a lasting legacy to royal celebrations, with apsaras (celestial dancer) and musical instruments in abundance.
The decline of Angkor and the constant displacement of monarchs saw music and dance diminish, and little is known of the period following Angkor till the end of the 18th century. Cambodia music experienced a significant revival under King Ang Duong, who led a widespread renaissance of all art forms in the mid 19th century.
In the 1960s, under the guidance of Princess Norodom Bopha Devi, classical music grew in prominence, and from it emerged Cambodian pop music, the two main styles of which are ramvong, a slow dance style, and rambach, which is similar to Thai folk music. The Khmer Rouge eradicated all art and artists in their bid for a new utopia, and it was only through a handful of musicians that escaped across the border that enabled the tradition to survive.
Dance in Cambodia
Cambodian dance is usually divided into three categories: classical dance, folk dances, and social dances.
Classical dance, similar to Thai, was originally performed for royalty. Renowned for its use of both hands and feet to convey emotion, the form has over 4,000 different gestures and is told through the Ream Ker, the Khmer version of the Ramayana. The movements are designed to evoke images of celestial tales, and the iconic Apsara dancers are perhaps Cambodia’s most well recognised cultural symbols.
It is estimated that the royal court of King Jayavarman VII had over 3,000 Apsara dancers in residence, many of whom were eventually captured and taken to Thailand where they helped establish Thai dance.
In modern times, classical dance has been brought into the public light, and is used to celebrate holidays, events and cultural milestones. It is this form of dance that most tourists will encounter, and the style has been championed by The Royal Ballet of Cambodia and even UNESCO, who selected it to be part of their Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Insider tip – Apsara Dance is not the generic term for classical Cambodian dance, but rather one of the many styles across a broad range. Full-scale, if tourist-orientated, productions can be seen in Siem Reap, but the versions performed by street children and orphans in Phnom Penh, Battambang and Kampot are quite special.
Khmer folk dance is generally fast-paced and designed for entertainment. Its origins lie with the peasants and hill tribes, where farmers used more basic gestures and movements in their daily life. Essentially the opposite of royal or classical dance, the performers wear clothes that date back to the Cham era, and the music is played by the mahori orchestra.
Cambodian social dances, often referred to as vernacular dances, are those which take place at social gatherings. The most noted are ram kbach, ram saravan, and lam leav. The former borrows heavily from the royal court of classical dance, while others show a strong influence from Laos. In keeping with the Cambodian philosophy of adopting anything that fits, don’t be surprised to see the locals bust out the Madison or Cha-cha at modern events.