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Khmer pentatonic music gets back into tune

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The Khmer residents of a commune in the southernmost province of Ca Mau can enjoy their unique pentatonic music form once again as youngsters take to it with enthusiasm, Xuan Trang and Trung Hieu report.

An ethic Khmer woman living in Khanh Hoa Commune, U Minh District, says that previously, she would come home after worshipping the Buddha at the local pagoda, but now, there’s something more that attracts her to stay after a ritual ceremony.

With enjoyment writ large on her face, Son Thi Ram, 63, says local Khmer people in this commune of the southernmost province of Ca Mau are very happy that they now have a Khmer music troupe that performs nhac ngu am (Literally, Five-element music – a Khmer music form that uses a pentatonic scale as singers and instrumentalists accompany dancers). “During the previous holidays, when we did not have this traditional music troupe, I visited the pagoda to worship the Buddha, offer rice to the monks, and returned home. But now, I stay back to enjoy their performances, which are full of the traditional tunes of our Khmer people, which I thought were almost lost,” she says.

Most of the team’s musicians are young adults and teenagers who have been officially trained by the Khmer Information and Art Troupe of Ca Mau.

Before the establishment of the nhac ngu am troupe, the commune had a team of young musicians and singers, but they mainly played modern instruments rather than traditional ones.

“We are very happy that the Government has provided funding to organise classes and establish such a large nhac ngu am troupe,” said local resident Danh Van Rinh.

Royal instruments

Thach Dien, head of the Ca Mau Khmer Information and Art Troupe, said this particular music genre was typically played with “royal instruments” of the Khmer community.

“Nobody knows when and where these types of instruments originated. In ancient times, this music primarily served kings and mandarins. Over time, it reached a wider audience and now, it serves the public during the main Khmer festivals,” he said.

Experts say that the pentatonic music arrangement of nhac ngu am is very sophisticated and each instrument’s sound is synchronised with the others during a concert, ensuring a harmony that is very pleasing to the ears.

There are typically seven instruments that are used, including two made of bamboo, two brass gongs, two big drums and a small drum.

In addition to being part of an orchestra, each instrument can combine with other traditional instruments or be played individually to facilitate different dances.

Dien said it took them about three months to train the local children to basically use these instruments.

“If they want to play them more fluently, they should practice for a longer time, and moreover, they must love the art so they can perform in a professional manner,” he said.

Fine tuning: Artisan Thach Suol, 59, has been making the traditional music instruments of Khmer ethnic people for 30 years. The picture shows the artisan checking the sounds of an instrument before delivering to customers. — VNA/VNS Photo Huy Hoang

A member of the troupe since its early days, teenager Dan Van Luom said he is very excited when he performs during the Tet (Lunar New Year) holidays.

“I’m passionate about singing, so when the elders encouraged me to learn to play pentatonic music I enrolled immediately. It is fun when playing music with friends at concerts, and I feel a new vitality,” he said.

All the young members of the troupe are very enthusiastic and want to learn more and understand their music better. However, not many can learn it, either because they come from poor families or there’s no school that teaches this art genre in their region. This is a common problem facing the preservation and promotion the cultural traditions of ethnic minorities in the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta, Dien said.

With increasing recognition of the importance of preserving ethnic cultural identities, Delta authorities have recently proposed many solutions.

These include raising awareness and emphasising the responsibility of the community in preserving and promoting traditional cultural values.

Dien said that provinces in the Delta have recently held short-term courses for musicians and actors wanting to dance and play music in the Khmer art troupes.

Some provinces have set aside money to support the restoration and recovery of cultural and festival activities, purchase new musical instruments, build the Khmer traditional long racing boats and renovate pagodas.

Thanks to these measures, the unique cultural traditions of the Khmer are not only being restored, but is also growing, and the “Five-element music” troupe of the young Khmer people in Khanh Hoa Commune is a good example, Dien said.

He added: “We hope the authorities will soon help us start professional classes on the traditions of ethnic minorities in general, and the Khmer people in particular.

“We will also encourage the young people to improve their skills and actively join performances in villages to help preserve our traditional culture.”



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