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Classical dance, in Khmer Robam Preah Reach Trop, has been part of Cambodian culture since the royal courts at Angkor. Traditionally, dances were done as a sacred ritual, for example, to summon gods and spirits or to offer blessings of prosperity to the king. Today, however, classical dance is offered at public events, holidays, and as a way to educate tourists about Cambodian culture. Classical dance involves very formal and delicate moments performed by dancers who wear elaborate costumes. Two of the most well-known classical dances are the Robam Chun Por (Wishing dance) and the Robam Tep Apsara (Apsara dance).
Folk dance originated in the 1960s as a way to preserve and protect Cambodian culture and arts. There are two forms of folk dance, ceremonial and theatrical. Generally, only theatrical dance is presented in public, while ceremonial dance is kept for special rituals, celebrations, and holidays. Some of the more popular theatrical folk dances are the Good Harvest Dance and the Fishing Dance, both of which are inspired by dances found in the countryside. Theatrical folk dances depict the rural life and traditions of Cambodia’s many ethnic groups, and its movements and costumes are therefore less formal than those found in classical dance. The music that accompanies folk dance is played by a Mohaori orchestra.
Mohaori music was originally played during royal parties and as entertainment in the earliest eras of Cambodia’s history. Mohaori is often considered intellectual music, because it contains complex melodies, poetic lyrics, and delicate sounds. Mohaori was traditionally performed by women, but today both women and men play this style of music. Mohaori is typically played in ensembles that include as many as twelve different instruments.
Pin Peat originated in Cambodia’s royal courts and temples at least a thousand years ago. The music was played by orchestras or music ensembles to accompany court dances, masked plays, shadow plays, and religious ceremonies. A Pin Peat orchestra typically includes nine or ten instruments and features different styles of srolai (flute), roneat (xylophone), gong thom (gong circle) and skor thom and sampor (drums).
The Chapei Dang Weng is a two-stringed, long-neck guitar that has been played in Cambodia since 500 B.C.; it’s even depicted on the walls of the Angkor temples. Chapei is played at weddings and traditional ceremonies. Performers can either play solo or in ensembles, such as Classical Wedding Music orchestras. In addition to playing guitar, Chapei also involves singing songs and improvising or creating original songs. Chapei songs typically tell ancient stories or advise people on morals and culture. They are often funny and make people think.
Yike is a style of classical Cambodian Opera that was extremely popular before the Khmer Rouge years of the 1970s. Yike is unique to Cambodia, and has long been a part of important village events, such as the inauguration of a new temple or a religious ceremony. Yike can be thought of as storytelling with dance and music accompaniment. Yike movements are less stylized than those in classical dance. Some of the instruments used in Yike include rebana drums and the tro, a stringed instrument that’s played with a bow.
Smot is a chanted form of poetry that tells stories about the life of the Buddha or Khmer stories that teach religious principles. Smot is performed by a soloist and is usually sung at funerals. Smot can be challenging to learn because the melodies and vocal style are quite different from modern songs. The words used in Smot are written in Pali, not Khmer, and include obscure vocabulary that can be difficult to memorize at first. The music though is beautiful.
Sbaek Thom is one of Cambodia’s oldest traditional art forms and unique to the country. Considered the royal form of Cambodian puppetry, Sbaek Thom brings to life the Cambodian epic poem the Reamker, the Khmer version of the Indian Sanskrit tale the Ramayana. The Reamker, which means "Glory of Rama," adapts Hindu ideas to Buddhist themes to show the balance of good and evil in the world. The puppets used in Sbaek Thom are made from buffalo or cow skin. The words Sbaek Thom literally translate to mean “large leather.”
Kantoaming music dates back to the time of the Buddha and is one of Cambodia’s rarest art forms. The music is played for funerals and features gongs, drums and a uniquely Khmer reed instrument called the srolai. The music is meant to sound like a lullaby, so that the deceased and those who care for them can feel calm as the person enters the after-life.
Pleinkar Boran is the Khmer word for the classical music played at weddings. A classical Pleinkar ensemble is made of seven instruments, including wind (flute), string (Ksa Diew, Chapei Dang Weng) and percussions (xylophone and drums). A singer usually accompanies the musicians.
Pleinkar Sakmai, or Modern Wedding Music, is played at wedding to bring good luck to a newly married couple. The ensemble comprises of modern string instruments including Khim and Tro, drums and flute. A singer also accompanies the ensemble. Cambodian weddings can last for three days and three nights, and music is often played throughout nearly the entire event.
Lakhaon Bassac began as Lakhaon Treoung Klok in the Bassac region of Kampuchea Krom. In the 1930s, a troupe brought this Opera form to Phnom Penh and other provinces along the Bassac River, where its popularity led to its being renamed Lakhaon Bassac. Lakhaon Bassac is strongly influenced by Chinese and Vietnamese Operas. The stories performed in Bassac include legends, the Jataka (stories from Buddha’s life), and even Arab legends. Lakhaon Bassac is identified by its comic and exaggerated gestures depicting, among other things, the battle between good and evil spirits.
The Memm is an extremely rare and ancient instrument whose image is carved into the walls of Bayon Temple at Angkor Wat. For thousands of years, however, no one even knew its name. The instrument was rediscovered in 2001, when staff members from Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture found a master artist from the Kroueng ethnic group playing it in the Ratanakiri province. The Memm is made from a tree fiber found only in the northern Cambodian jungle. The instrument is both a string and reed (like a flute) instrument, in which the player makes sound by pulling the bow across the string while opening and closing holes along the instrument’s body. The sound of the Memm is unique and haunting.