Updated traditional instruments include the Western Music Scale
Two models of “twin” traditional Khmer instruments, the twin takhe and the twin khim, were developed in 2014 by a professor of geography in Phnom Penh. It aims to release updated, easier-to-play versions of its instruments by the end of this year.
Sak Bophavan, who teaches grade 12 at Bak Touk High School, told The Post that he started working on his idea in 2011, but pitched them first – and received recognition from the Ministry of Education. Culture and Fine Arts – in 2014.
The 52-year-old explained that the updated models were smoother to play than his original concepts.
“I have no one to help me in my work. The lack of time, combined with my advanced age, means that I can only work on the project bit by bit. If I could focus on it full time I could do it in a month, but as things stand I think they’ll be ready by October – or by the end of the year at the latest “, did he declare.
Its twin takhe is a new interpretation of the traditional Cambodian musical instrument. Although based on the traditional three or four string version, Bophavan’s has a useful feature which he says makes it more flexible than the original.
Like most takhe, the instrument is made from the wood of the jackfruit tree and has a large body, which rests on its own legs – essentially resembling an oversized tower guitar with a hollow body. The special thing about the twin edition is the division of its frets into two parts: 12 frets are Khmer tones and 21 are the Western musical scale, which means that a player can switch between the two.
The khim is a flat string board, the strings of which are played with light bamboo hammers. Like his takhe, Bophavan’s can be played in Khmer and Western tones. He worked on the khim design with his eldest son, Bophavann Chetha Udom, in 2012.
Originally a guitarist, Bophavan was once asked by a foreigner: “If you are Khmer, why can’t you play Khmer instruments? This led him to think about what he could do to preserve his culture and he began to study traditional instruments. Once he was proficient, he bought his to play at home with friends. Eventually, his eldest son joined them.
“When we started playing Khmer instruments, my son wanted to play the khim. The others preferred the tro, so I ended up with the takhe. To be honest, I don’t mind which one I play – I love all traditional Khmer instruments,” he said.
“After playing for a while, I realized that we were limited in that we could only play traditional music. It was very difficult to adapt them to modern songs. That’s how I came up with the idea of twin khim and takhe,” he added.
He explained the features and benefits of the two updated instruments, saying that the two sets of frets on each allow the player to easily follow Khmer and Western notes.
“Apart from these two, I also designed a takhe koat – which can be played in the traditional way or like a western fiddle – and a four-string tro, which combines a two-string and a three-string tro on one instrument. This means that an ensemble requires fewer musicians,” he said.
Keat Sokim, musician and director of Friend Music School, has created manuals that employ Western melodies on traditional instruments, with the aim of introducing young musicians to their cultural heritage.
He expressed a keen interest in Bophavan’s designs.
“I think designing traditional Khmer musical instruments so that they can be used to play a wider range of music can only be a good thing. His designs appear to be flexible, advanced concepts that will help classical instruments adapt to the modern era,” he said.
“Many countries have found similar ways to innovate with their traditional instruments to keep them relevant,” he added.
Despite the flexibility of the updated models, there doesn’t seem to be much support for them – either from mainstream gamers or younger students.
Sak Bophavann suggested that the Ministry of Culture work to encourage musicians and artists of younger generations to pay more attention to the cultural heritage left to them by their ancestors. He is concerned about their preservation in an increasingly globalized world.
“I am afraid that the creation of these instruments was not enough. I hope the younger generations have better ideas than me,” he said.
Sokim also spoke about this lack of support, saying that: “Traditional Khmer musical instruments are not very popular with young students – they want to learn modern Western instruments. My music school has been open for four or five years, but there are very few students who are interested in Khmer music. Since I opened the school until now, less than ten students have registered to study takhe and khim, even compared to other traditional Khmer musical instruments.
“When I talk to many Cambodians about traditional instruments, they often don’t know the takhe and the khim at all – so what about the modern twin versions? I think they are perhaps far from most people’s minds,” he added.
In the future, Bophavann would like to open a school that trains students in traditional instruments – with a modern twist. It remains a dream, and will require financial resources and the support of several partners, but the recognition he received from the Ministry of Culture encouraged him to believe that it could one day be possible.
“I want to find cooperative partners to open this school. If I have to do it alone, the project will not be possible,” he added.