Kampong Speu veteran keeps alive instrument-crafting traditions

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Mach Muy works on the traditional musical instruments for sale at his shop in Odong district of Kampong Speu province. FB

Mach Muy’s father was a Yike artist, and his father-in-law was a chapei dang veng player. The two musicians also made traditional instruments in their spare time, but Muy decided to get serious and turn to the craft to make a living.

In the early days, he would load a few drums and kongs (an instrument with number of gongs that are attached to a circular rack) on his bicycle and then pedal from village to village to peddle his wares, but now he looks back and is proud of what he has achieved.

Yike is a traditional form of Khmer musical opera, often accompanied by the chapei, a long necked guitar.

“My father’s name was Mach, he was also a yike artist, with a side business making wooden bowls. My ancestors made musical instruments, but not as a business. They made them to provide entertainment in the village. When it came to my generation, I decided I wanted to be a professional instrument maker,” the 63-year-old handicraft store owner told The Post.

The talented craftsman was born in Preah Sre commune’s Prakel village of Kampong Speu province’s Odong district, which is also the location of his family business today.

“The best place in the country to make pots, bowls and copper ornaments is this district. My father was the master of making them, as was my father-in-law. I’ve learnt from them,” he said.

The strong veteran first began making instruments in 1986 or ’87, when he took leave from military service.

“Later, when our country was at peace, the people began to have a decent life. I started making drums, both large and small. We were so poor at that time, that I would load them on to my bicycle and go out trying to sell them. I would not return home until I had sold them all,” he recalled.

Unlike other artisans who planned their work based on market demand, Muy said that he was in this trade because he did not think many people were interested in doing it and the traditional craft might soon varnish.

“If I didn’t do it, it would have been lost to the next generation. Before I left the army, I made instruments, but I never had enough time to really devote myself to it. In my retirement, I really started to expand my business,” he added.

His store is on National Road 51 in Brakel village. Muy sells four types of Khmer traditional instruments from some stringed, some wind, some leather and some percussion.

He has constructed many traditional instruments for weddings and other traditional functions.

Currently he has both local and foreign customers, who order many instruments from him.

“Demand for different items changes according to the season. This month, people want individual drums. During the Kathin season, I could sell one more suited to a pinpeat orchestra,” he said.

“The market has improved and we receive many international orders. Some are close, like to the Khmer Krom, and some are sent as far away as Europe,” he added.

His clients are not just professional bands who buy instruments to perform classical music at functions. Some people buy them to display because of their love for the heritage of Khmer music.

“Some people buy it to display abroad. In the towns, people often display them in their big stores,” he said.

According to Muy, the instruments retail for as little as $25 for hand cymbals, but can range up to several thousand for an intricately carved 1m round wooden drum.

“Our drums are made of tamarind tree, and Koki tree on the odd occasion. We only use trees that have fallen naturally or are decaying,” he said.

“The largest drums take a long time. Sometimes for a custom job we can modify an existing drum – this might take two weeks. From scratch, it will be at least a month before it is complete,” he said.

During the production of each instrument, the craftsmen, who combine the skills of their ancestors with the knowledge of the elders, always adhere to the style and rules of the Khmer national identity.

“Every day, we are creating something that ancient Khmer would recognise. If we copy a style from another culture, we could lose sight of the original. If we lose our traditional style, we lose our national identity,” he said.

In order to protect the national identity and continue the legacy of Khmer music in the younger generation, Muy has trained five of his seven children, and his son-in-law.

“I have trained many people, although the number is uncertain. Some of them leave to find work with higher salaries, but I always find people to replace them,” he said.

“Currently, I employ four or five people including some of my children and my son-in-law,” he said.

Even during the Covid-19 outbreak, when many businesses were forced to close, his workshop continued to make Khmer musical instruments.

“Our business seems fine. During the Covid-19 period, customers were still ordering from us, so I was able to retain my workforce,” he added.

Muy has ambitions to expand his business, but wasn’t sure how quickly it would happen.

“I don’t know if it’s possible. But our income is increasing, albeit gradually. I do not care how much profit I can make from my sales. I used to live in a remote area, with rice and vegetables growing around my house. We were barely surviving, but I still made instruments.

“Of course, I am proud that the business is successful. Thanks to the support of my customers, both foreign and domestic, I was able to send all of my children to school,” he said.