Music Conservationist Stresses Community Views

Since the 1990s, a dearth of musicians along with increasing access to the global music scene has led to the virtual disappearance of some of Cambodia’s traditional music forms.

And figuring out which traditional music forms are most endangered, and what can be done to revive them, has been a difficult task.

Cambodian traditional musician Pich Sarath plays the chapei. (Marion Gommard)
Cambodian traditional musician Pich Sarath plays the chapei. (Marion Gommard)

As Australian researcher Catherine Grant will explain in a talk Monday night in Phnom Penh, she has developed a method to do just that, which she describes in her book “Music Endangerment, How Language Maintenance Can Help” released this month by Oxford University Press.

A classical pianist and ethnomusicologist from the University of Newcastle in Australia, Ms. Grant has come up with 12 criteria to assess the vitality of traditional music, based on human attitudes rather than quantitative analysis. Inspired by Unesco’s criteria for endangered languages, they aim to help people get a clear picture of the traditional music situation and act accordingly, she said on Friday.

One criteria is people’s attitude toward a genre. “In Cambodia, I understand that modern wedding music is very much more popular these days than the ancient pleng kar,” she said. “The wedding music tradition is really quite struggling…. Musicians of traditional wedding music find it hard to make a living.”

Another criteria is a change in context. For example, musicians playing the long-neck guitar chapei have found a new market playing for tourists, Ms. Grant said. But Cambodians in their 20s and 30s hesitate to learn this instrument because some famous chapei masters have been blind, player Pich Sarath told Ms. Grant. “They say to him, ‘Why are you playing? Aren’t you afraid of becoming blind?’”

Another criteria is community attitude toward a type of music. “It’s very difficult for a music genre to be retained in its form when the context around it has changed,” she said. In the 1960s, for example, a researcher in New Zealand noticed that the Maori people’s rowboat songs were disappearing: They had switched to motor boats and no longer had use for them.

“Change is not inherently bad,” Ms. Grant said. But at one point, both young and old in a community must decide what should be saved and how, she added.

Ms. Grant is researching the situation facing Cambodian traditional music, in cooperation with Cambodian Living Arts. Her Monday conference “Measuring the vitality of Cambodian Music Traditions” will start at 6 p.m. at the Center for Khmer Studies, No. 234, Street 450.

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