Monday, June 1, 2009

Future of Tro Khmer in Doubt as Student Numbers Fall

BY BUTH REAKSMEY KONGKEA

The Tro Khmer is a traditional Khmer musical instrument. The future is in doubt for this instrument as there is a lack of students willing to attend school and learn its intricacies. This concern was voiced by Professor Proeung Chhieng, Vice-Dean of the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA) in Phnom Penh.

Professor Chhieng said on an average year, about 30 students register to learn how to play traditional Khmer musical instruments, as well as learning about other aspects of Cambodian high art. Understanding the Tro Khmer forms part of the syllabus.

However, he said this year only about 20 students have applied for study with RUFA. He said that with this small number to work with, the community of traditional artists would start to dwindle, taking their irreplaceable knowledge with them.

“I am very concerned about student registration here at RUFA for courses studying the major traditional Khmer musical instruments, especially the Tro Khmer. I suspect that students are not keen to apply here because the school is located in a flooded area and the road turns into a quagmire during the rainy season,” he said during a telephone interview with The Southeast Asia Weekly.

To promote understanding of traditional musical instruments, RUFA recently gave teachers the authority to conduct lessons in traditional music at their homes in Phnom Penh. Thus students will continue to enjoy learning their lessons without having to wade through muddy puddles, according to Chhieng.

Chhieng said RUFA has increased salaries for those teachers who conduct traditional music classes from home. The university is also working hard alongside relevant NGOs and development partners to organize traditional Khmer music concerts and other cultural events. This will increase publicity and interest in the traditional arts.

Yun Khean, Vice-Dean of RUFA and also professor of Khmer Traditional Musical Instruments with the Faculty of Music, said only two students applied to study the Tro Khmer this year. Last year, five students studied the musical instrument with him at his house.

“I will be very sad to see the end of Tro Khmer performances in future. I think the problem is that students can see no employment prospects, armed only with a qualification in traditional music,” he told The Southeast Asia Weekly. “Nobody is going to become rich, nor will they be able to support a family very well on wages earned by players of traditional musical instruments.”

The Vice-Dean stated that to preserve the voice of the Tro Khmer and other traditional musical instruments, he wrote a book in 2003 on “Traditional Musical Instruments of Cambodia.” This was achieved with financial support from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural organization (UNESCO).

Relating to the history of Tro Khmer, Professor Khean said the Tro Khmer is a bowed string instrument numbered among those which are played in the Areak Orchestra, or Apeapipea (wedding orchestra). It has played a part in daily life for the Khmer for centuries and has thus become a well loved feature of Cambodian culture and tradition.

The Tro Khmer has a body made of half a coconut shell in the shape of an elephant’s head 16.5 centimeters long and 14 centimeters wide. It is covered with the skin of a pangolin (itself an endangered species), said Khean. The instrument’s neck is made of hardwood such as black wood, neang nuon wood or Kranoong wood. The neck is 83 centimeters long.

There are three tuning pegs, each one 11 centimeters long, also made of hardwood like the neck, and inlaid with decorative ivory or bone designs. There are three strings made of twisted silk; however metal strings are more likely to be used today. The black bow is 77 cm long and made of wood, while the hair is of sugar palm leaf fiber, horse hair or synthetic fiber.

The bowing method strokes above the string, rather than between strings as is the case with the Tro Sau or Tro Ou. A bridge, made of bamboo, wood, bone or ivory, rests on the skin near the rim of the instrument. A finger-sized lump of wax or promo (a mixture of wax and lead) is stuck on the skin next to the bride in order to make the sound resonate across the sounding skin, yet the promo prevents a harsh tone. The three strings are tied to the neck by a locating chord, firmly attached to the neck beneath the tuning pegs. ////

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