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Stories of Cambodian Angkuoch documenting a rare musical instrument, its makers and players

“I am very happy that I get to share my knowledge about Angkuoch with other people. … When I can demonstrate how to make Angkuoch, I am very excited. Extremely excited! I feel happy about this project because I think the research team will spread this information widely. To let other people know more about Angkuoch!” (Bin Song, Angkuoch maker and project participant)

The musical instrument popularly known as the “Jew’s Harp” is found in many countries around the world, but the Cambodian version is unique. Called Angkuoch (pronounced something like “Aarng-koo-oy”) in Khmer, it is a precious part of Cambodia’s living cultural heritage.

Nowadays, Angkuoch and its associated practices are in need of urgent safeguarding. Social and cultural shifts in Cambodia over the last half-century, including the devastation of the Khmer Rouge era in the 1970s, mean that only a handful of people still know how to make and play Angkuoch.

Supported by the Endangered Material Knowledge Program of the British Museum (UK) and by UNESCO (Cambodia), in early 2020 we documented Angkuoch and Angkuoch-making as it is practiced in Siem Reap Province in northern Cambodia. Our aim was to help preserve this rich knowledge for the benefit and pleasure of present and future generations.

Here we share with you only a few of the many wonderful things we learnt through this project. We have also created a video documentary about Angkuoch and its makers and players. We warmly invite you to watch it too.

We are grateful to the Angkuoch makers and players who participated in this project, who so generously shared with us their knowledge and skills: BIN Song, SON Soeun, KRAK Chi, CHI Monivong, and CHI Chen. We also acknowledge LAV Mech, KOEUY Leakhena, KOEUY Reatha and the family of MONG Koeuy, whose beautiful story we share here too, with their kind permission.

We hope that this project inspires people in Cambodia and around the world to appreciate the beauty and importance of Angkuoch, now and long into the future.

Bin Song, 78, iron Angkuoch-maker

Bin Song (b. 1942) may be the only living person who still knows how to make the iron Cambodian Angkuoch, “Angkuoch Daek”.

Ta Song (“Grandpa Song”) was first introduced to Angkuoch Daek as a child, by a man from the neighbouring Kuy ethnic community. Intrigued, he taught himself how to play it, and eventually to make it too. As a young man, he became known for his skills with the Angkuoch.

Like artists all over Cambodia, Bin Song stopped making music when the despotic Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. When the research team for this project encouraged him in late 2019 to make an Angkuoch Daek, he had not made an instrument for nearly fifty years.

At first, Ta Song hesitated to accept our invitation. He was concerned that his eyesight was no longer up to the task. Moreover, he had lost his teeth, so couldn’t test the instrument out as he made it. Yet he agreed. Later he told us: “I’m getting old now, and when I reflected on it, I realised it was important to pass this knowledge on to the next generation. If I don’t, who will? If not now, when?”

“I want to tell people in the next generation that no matter what, you should certainly play this Angkuoch. Learn to play! If there is a teacher who teaches how to play and make it, you should go to learn. Keep it alive! Don’t let it be lost!” (Bin Song)

The British Museum will keep in its collection the Angkuoch Daek that Bin Song made for this project, along with video documentation showing every step of the process. While Ta Song is happy that people from all around the world will have a chance to learn about Angkuoch Daek, his foremost message is to young Cambodians: “Do not give up on Angkuoch! This is our culture and heritage!”

Son Soeun, 78, iron Angkuoch player

One of Bin Song's lifelong friends is Son Soeun (also born 1942). In the 1950s and ‘60s, they grew up together in Preah Ko village in Siem Reap Province, even entering the monkhood together for a time.

When the young Song began to make and play Angkuoch Daek, Soeun became intrigued by the instrument too. Over time, he learnt to play proficiently. In the local lingo, the instrument was called “Angkuoch Peacock" on account of its shape. The two boys would often slip an Angkuoch Peacock in their pockets to play for pleasure whenever they chose.

When the two boys were growing up, boys and young men often used Angkuoch to flirt with girls and young women. Words can be ‘spoken’ through the instrument, although it takes some practice to interpret them. In this way, young people developed a secret language – the language of Angkuoch. As youths, Song and Souen would often use the Angkuoch for this purpose!

“When I was a bachelor, I went to visit the houses of girls at night. When I reached my lover’s house, if she was already asleep, I played to call her. If I kept calling, she would wake up and come to meet me. And then we sat together. I could call her to meet me wherever I wanted as long as she heard the sound of my Angkuoch.” (Son Soeun)

In addition to its role in wooing potential lovers, Angkuoch traditionally accompanied “Prern”, a type of folksong. An especially popular Prern song was “Santouch”. Several Angkuoch players – both male and female – could join in, first singing and dancing together, then playing Angkuoch with one hand and dancing with the other. People also enjoyed playing and listening to Angkuoch during festivals or special celebrations.

(sings:) “I take my only [fish] hook, to tie it on. The crocodile bites me, and the stitching of my pants unravels! Oh, those who are beautiful, come to sew up my pants!”

(Lyrics of the Prern folksong “Santouch”, as recalled by Bin Song)

(Sings:) “Standing near the water pond, if your share with me your rice wine, I will dance for you to see, my dear.”

(Lyrics of a Prern folksong, as recalled by Son Soeun)

Krak Chi, 70, bamboo Angkuoch maker

Krak Chi (b. 1950) is a rice farmer and bamboo Angkuoch-maker from Srah Srong village, a stone’s throw from the world-famous temple complex of Angkor Wat. Chi has childhood memories of his father playing Angkuoch in the evenings for pleasure. Chi also remembers local children buying Angkuoch Russey (bamboo Angkuoch) from instrument-makers in the village, then selling the instruments on to tourists at the nearby Angkor temples.

“People played Angkuoch in their houses. When they were free, sometimes they brought it to the rice field and played it right there. If they lived close to Sras Srong lake, they brought to play around there.” (Krak Chi)

As with the iron Angkuoch Daek, boys and young men liked to use Angkuoch Russey to woo lovers. Chi remembers an old custom of putting ‘charming wax’ on the instruments to make sure that any advances that were made via the Angkuoch were irresistible.

“Boys and girls flirted with each other through the Angkuoch. In this generation, people use the phone to talk to each other - but at that time they used the Angkuoch.” (Krak Chi)

In the mid-1990s, Chi began to take an interest in Angkuoch-making. His young son Chen used to buy Angkuoch Russey from the famous Angkuoch maker Mong Koeuy in neighbouring Preah Dak village, and then sell them on to tourists.

Watching Mong Koeuy make the instruments, Krak Chi decided to learn too. He was motivated partly by the prospect of a modest income from selling the instruments, and partly the desire to keep alive the tradition of his ancestors.

These days, in addition to his rice-farming, Krak Chi is the head of his village, so he doesn’t have much time for Angkuoch-making. But to ensure the tradition continues, he has taught his sons and grandsons to make Angkuoch. Still today, when Krak Chi holds an Angkuoch in his hands, he thinks of his father.

Chi Chen, 32, bamboo Angkuoch maker

Chi Chen (b. 1988) is the son of Krak Chi. As a young boy, Chen would sell Angkuoch Russey to tourists at the famous Ta Prohm temple near his village Srah Srong. By his teenage years, Chen had become a proficient player and successful seller of the instruments.

Encouraged by his son's success, Chen’s father Krak Chi soon began to make the instruments, recalling that his own father used to play Angkuoch Russey. Then Krak Chi taught his son Monivong too.

Chi Monivong, 30, bamboo Angkuoch maker

Monivong (b. 1990) introduced some clever innovations to the making technique, some of which his father has since adopted.

"Once Angkuoch-makers had chopped the bamboo into pieces, they used to dry it on a board in the sun for one or two days. My father used to do this too. But I choose to dry the bamboo by smoking it over the fire, because it is faster. Now my father copies my way of making.” (Chi Monivong)
Chi Monivong makes bamboo angkuoch, January 2020

The brothers Chen and Monivong quickly became known as new-generation makers and players of Angkuoch Russey.

However, in recent years, they found that not many tourists knew about Angkuoch any more. Fewer and fewer people were buying the instrument, and it became harder to earn an income.

“Not many people know about Angkuoch any more. Most who do are old. When old people saw me playing at the temple, they said: ‘Chao [grandchild]! This is Angkuoch. This instrument has existed since the era of our ancestors.’ But younger people said, ‘Brother! What are you holding? Is it a wooden pin to fix nets?’ I told them: “No, it is an Angkuoch. People use it to make music.” I played for them and they were happy.” (Chi Chen)

Now Chen and Monivong are in their early thirties with full-time jobs, and they no longer have much free time for Angkuoch-making. However, they are happy that their father is teaching his two young grandsons how to make Angkuoch. They hope that the family tradition continues and develops, and that people of all ages will know and enjoy Angkuoch again.

Lav Mech, wife of Mong Koeuy (c.1937-2012), bamboo Angkuoch maker

At one time, Mong Koeuy (c.1937-2012) was the best-known Angkuoch Russey maker in Siem Reap province. He lived in Preah Dak village, not far from where Chi and his sons Monivong and Chen live. In fact, it was Ta Koeuy (“Grandpa Koeuy”) who first introduced Angkuoch to the young Chen, and who later taught Chen’s father Chi to make the instruments.

As a child, Koeuy learnt to make Angkuoch from his father. He sold the instruments to tourists at the nearby temples, along with coconuts and other things.

My father told me that he started to make Angkuoch when he could hold a knife. That means when he was about ten years old. (Koeuy Reatha, son of Mong Koeuy)

Later, as a young man, Koeuy also worked as a farmer and a carpenter.

Mong Koeuy married his second wife Lav Mech (b. 1945) during the Khmer Rouge era. Soon after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, he began selling Angkuoch again. The income supported their children through school.

According to her daughter Leakhena, Mech also played Angkuoch Russey when she was younger.

Earlier, women communicated through Angkuoch too. At night, they went for a walk and they played: ‘I love you!’ [Laughs]. (Lav Mech)

Yeay Mech ("Grandma Mech") told us that her husband spoke to her through the Angkuoch too. He would tell her, “I love you”.

Lav Mech and her daughter Koeuy Leakhena with photos of Angkuoch-maker Mong Koeuy

Mong Koeuy passed away in his late 70s in 2012. Four of his sons are proud to continue their father’s tradition of Angkuoch-making.

Family of Mong Koeuy

The British Museum has only one Angkuoch in its collection, an instrument donated in 1966, of unknown maker. The research team showed a photo of the Museum instrument to the brothers Monivong and Chen and their father Chi. They all thought that the instrument bore strong resemblance to the unique style of Mong Koeuy, especially in its shape, thickness and length, as well as a characteristic node near the tongue of the instrument.

When we took the photo to show Mong Koeuy's wife Mech and her children Leakhena and Reatha, they became emotional. They too recognised features of their father’s instruments, which he had once sold widely to local and foreign tourists.

With the help of Koeuy’s son, Angkuoch-maker Koeuy Reatha, the research team is working with the British Museum to include in its catalogue this new information about the likely provenance of the instrument.

“When I first saw this photo [of the British Museum Angkuoch], I was very excited. I never knew my father’s craft had been promoted internationally. Even locally, some people do not even know about it, so I had not thought it was very valued. Seeing this Angkuoch, I miss him. To my family, the Angkuoch symbolises my father.” (Koeuy Leakhena, daughter of Mong Koeuy)

This project was funded by the British Museum's Endangered Material Knowledge Programme, supported by Arcadia, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin. UNESCO (Cambodia) provided additional funding for dissemination of outcomes in Cambodia.

Photographs and text by Catherine Grant. Translations by Say Tola. Videography by Thon Dika. All fieldwork and interviews were conducted in January 2020.

To access the full documentation, video documentary, and other project materials, visit the Endangered Material Knowledge Program website of the British Museum.

Project team: Thon Dika (videographer), Say Tola (research assistant), Catherine Grant (project leader), Patrick Kersale (collaborator), Song Seng (collaborator & team leader)

Institutional partners: Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University (Australia) and Cambodian Living Arts (Cambodia).

The project team acknowledges the support of the Apsara National Authority and the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, Royal Government of Cambodia.

Further information: Catherine.Grant@griffith.edu.au

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