Preserving Cambodia’s cultural heritage with the Magic Music Bus

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Ploy master Doung Nhoek plays the rare traditional ethnic instrument, which is at risk of dying out if the next generation does not take an interest. Photo supplied

Chhay Areng Valley is not only known as an ecotourism destination attracting local and international visitors, it is also a place with a rich ethnic minority arts and culture heritage. But this culture is increasingly threatened with disappearance.

Among the cultural artefacts at risk in the area is the ploy musical instrument associated with the Chorng ethnic minority group that populates the area. It is in urgent need of conservation so that it can be passed down to the next generation.

A ploy is played by a musician blowing into the mouth of a dried calabash gourd connected to three to five bamboo pipes of differing length. The instrument’s sound is described as similar to that of a bumblebee.

Tith Ly, chief of Steung Areng Community Based Ecotourism, located in Koh Kong province’s Thmor Bang district, expressed his concern over the endangered instrument in his region, and calls for support from all sectors to help save this ethnic cultural identity from disappearing.

“Today there is only one elderly person who can play this traditional instrument. He is ploy master Doung Nhoek, who is already in his mid-80s. He has gathered his strength to teach three students,” Ly says.

“Two of the students are girls. They are coming to learn how to play this wind instrument from the ploy master, who is very old and yet still has a strong will to not let his own ethnic music instrument die for good.”

Historically, the ploy instrument has been mostly used during ethnic weddings and spirit calling ritual banchoan areak, a gathering of family, friends and relatives.

“I’ve known from word of mouth from older people that the ploy has been an important part of this community for as long as they can remember. Previously this area was abundant with different ethnic minorities. Nowadays, only people of the Chorng ethnic minority know how to play it,” Ly says.

Revival of ethnic music

The revival of Cambodia’s ethnic music has been taken on by the Khmer Magic Music Bus, a project funded by and affiliated with Cambodian Living Arts. The project takes traditional music to villages all around the Kingdom, especially rural areas.

Thorn Seyma, Khmer Magic Music Bus project manager and co-founder, says: “Khmer Magic Music Bus was officially established in 2013 under an overseas funding partnership [with the US]. The idea of the project was initiated in 2011 by Arn Chorn Pond, who is a co-founder of Khmer Magic Music Bus and founder of Cambodian Living Arts.”

The organisation’s blue minibus carries rare, ethnic musicians and their students to rural areas around the nation to perform and share experiences about their musical heritage.

The Khmer Magic Music Bus project had been in Koh Kong province in search of a ploy musician for several months before the team found the elderly Nhoek through Steung Areng Community Based Ecotourism.

“Luckily we still have ploy master Doung Nhoek. Now he is 85-years-old and the only Chorng ethnic veteran who knows how to make the instrument from scratch and how to play it perfectly,” Seyma says.

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Nhoek’s three ploy pupils are entrusted with keeping the musical instrument alive for the next generation. Photo supplied

“We tried to coordinate and talk with Steung Areng Community Based Ecotourism, where Ploy master Doung Nhoek resides, and he gladly accepted our request for him to pass down his ethnic music knowledge to the next generation. In return we also sponsor his living by paying him a teaching salary.”

Ploy music classes

Seyma and her team began arranging ploy music classes this past year, preparing a classroom for Nhoek to pass down his knowledge to the next generation.

“This is the first class teaching the ploy musical instrument. At the beginning, we observed less interest from young people to learn how to play this rare instrument. Our first ever class received three students who live far away from Nhoek,” says Seyma.

The classes take place two days a week, on Saturday and Sunday. Each session lasts two hours, with the students living far away from the Steung Areng Community Based Ecotourism area.

“Their houses are between 30 to 50km from the music classroom. Every weekend they have to

embark on a long journey by motorcycle on a difficult road. It’s quite a challenge for them to fight for what they like to learn and preserve,” says Seyma.

“The programme acts as a stage for them and other types of rare music performers in the community to show their culture to the visitors and earn additional income from their unique art talent. The villagers have expressed their joy over this move and they hope that from now on the ploy musical instrument will never face extinction in Areng.”

After their success in Areng, in May Khmer Magic Music Bus continued its journey spreading the ploy to Angkor Chey district in Kampot province.

“This was the first time that our minibus took a ploy instrument to Kampot province. It was the first time that we brought a ploy musician to perform and share experiences about this rare music to the students in Pra Phnom elementary school in Kampot province,” she says.

Seyma says she hopes that eventually the Khmer Magic Music Bus will develop from a project into a fully formed NGO itself.

“In the future, we plan to develop our Khmer Magic Music Bus as an independent NGO that is dedicated to preserving Khmer culture, especially music and instruments, of which some are vanishing and some are struggling against extinction.”

You can find out more information on the Khmer Magic Music Bus on Cambodian Living Arts’ website (www.cambodianlivingarts.org).

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