The pinpeat (ពិណពាទ្យ) orchestra or musical ensemble performs the ceremonial music of the royal courts and temples of Cambodia. The orchestra consists of approximately nine or ten instruments, mainly wind and percussion (including several varieties of xylophone and drums). It accompanies court dances, masked plays, shadow plays, and religious ceremonies. It is very similar to the piphat (ปี่พาทย์) ensemble of Thailand, which will feature in an upcoming article here on A Stamp A Day.
According to Chuon Nath’s Khmer dictionary, the word pinpeat is composed of the Sanskrit terms vina (វិណ) referring to a chapey (ចាប៉ី) which was formerly used as the premiere instrument in this ensemble and vadya (វាទ្យ) referring to an ensemble of instruments. Chuon Nath mentions that the term piphat was also used among Cambodians familiar with the Thai language; this can be attributed to the former annexation of the northern provinces of Cambodia by the Kingdom of Siam.
Cambodian Art music is highly influenced by ancient forms as well as Hindu forms. Religious dancing, many of which depict stories and ancient myths, are common in Cambodian culture. Some dances are accompanied by the pinpeat orchestra. Each movement the dancer makes refers to a specific idea, including abstract concepts like “today” (pointing a finger upwards). The 1950s saw a revival in classical dance, led by Queen Sisowath Kossamak Nearyrath.
The pinpeat orchestra includes a ching (cymbal), roneat (xylophone), sralai (oboes and flutes), chapey (bass banjo), kong (bronze gong), tro (fiddle), krapeu (plucked instrument) and various kinds of drums. These instruments are typically used during royal events, weddings, and festivals. For weddings and royal events, the musicians playing the instruments wear traditional Cambodian attire. Just like the Chinese, with regard to playing context, there is no conductor in traditional Cambodian music because musicians generally learned and memorized how to play the instruments aurally. These instruments provide a sense of identity for the Cambodian people.
Ching (ឈិង) are finger cymbals played in Cambodian theater and dance ensembles. Joined by a cord that runs through the center, ching are bowl-shaped, about 5 centimeters in diameter, and made of bronze alloy — iron, copper, and gold. They are struck together in a cyclical pattern to keep time and regulate the melody, and they function as the “timekeeper” of the ensemble. The rhythm typically consists of alternating the accented closed stroke with an unaccented open “ching” stroke. The name ching is probably onomatopoeic for this open sound.
Evidence of the ching has been found in Angkor, the great temple-city of Khmer civilization, where classical art flourished between the ninth to the fifth centuries. Scenes carved in the walls of the temple depict celestial dancers with their musical instruments, including small cymbals (ching). Melody in both Thai (where this instrument is called the chhing, ฉิ่ง) and Khmer traditions, music is regulated by cyclic patterns realized on the drums and ching.
There are several different kinds of roneat, or xylophones in Cambodian pinpeat ensembles:
- roneat ek (រនាតឯក;) — the lead high-pitched bamboo xylophone
- roneat thung (រនាតធុង) — a low-pitched xylophone
- roneat dek (រនាតដែក) — a metal xylophone or metallophone
The sralai (ស្រឡៃ) is a wind instrument used in the pinpeat orchestra. Its quadruple reed is made of palm leaf, and its body has a slightly conical bore. Its cousin, the Western oboe, has a double reed and a conical bore. The pinpeat instruments tune to the sralai‘s pitch, and the player must learn circular breathing to play continuously without stopping for breath. The sralai is very similar in construction and playing technique to the Thai pi (ปี่).
A khloy (ខ្លុយ) is an ancient traditional bamboo flute the was used in place of the sralai in the past. The khloy and other similar bamboo flutes can be found throughout Asia, due to bamboo’s abundance in the region. The khloy is a duct flute, about 15 inches (38 cm) long and 1 inch (2.5 cm) in diameter, with 8 or 9 finger holes, and a duct end where the player blows into to produce a sound. The Cambodian khloy is often mistaken for its close relative of Thailand, the klui (ขลุ่ย) flute. Unlike the klui, the khloy is generally played solo in an informal setting, mostly played using the pentatonic scale.
The kong (ฆ้อง) is a percussion instrument that takes the form of a flat, circular metal disc which is hit with a mallet. The instrument traces its roots back to the Bronze Age around 3500 BC. The Malay term gong originated in Java and scientific and archaeological research has established that Burma, China, Java and Annam were the four main gong manufacturing centers of the ancient world. The gong later found its way into the Western World in the 18th century when it was also used in the percussion section of a Western-style symphony orchestra. A form of bronze cauldron gong known as a resting bell was widely used in ancient Greece and Rome, for instance in the famous Oracle of Dodona, where disc gongs were also used.
In the Cambodian pinpeat orchestra, the kong thom (គង់ធំ) plays a melodic line almost identical to that of the roneat thung (large xylophone). The kong thom dwells more steadily on the pulse without pulling or delaying the beat (melody). The player uses soft mallets for indoor performance, hard ones for outdoors. The kong circle-maker creates sixteen bossed kongs made of copper with bronze admixture. He suspends them on rattan frames in a circle around the player. He tunes the individual gongs by dripping into the upturned boss a mixture of mud-lead, rice husks, and beeswax. The kong thom‘s smaller cousin is called kong toch. The equivalent instruments in Thailand are the khong wong yai (ฆ้องวงใหญ่) and khong wong lek (ฆ้องวงเล็ก).
Tro (ទ្រ) is the generic name for traditional bowed string instruments in Cambodia. Instruments in this family include
- tro Khmer (ទ្រខ្មែរ)) — three-string vertical spike fiddle made from a special type of coconut covered on one end with snake skin; closely related to the Thai instrument saw sam sai (ซอสามสาย)
- tro sau thom (ទ្រសោធំ) — two-string vertical fiddle with hardwood body
- tro sau toch — two-string vertical fiddle with hardwood body equivalent to the saw duang (ซอด้วง) used in traditional Thai music; the word toch means “small”
- tro u (ទ្រអ៊ូ, also spelled tro ou) — low-pitched, two-stringed vertical fiddle with a coconut shell body that has one end covered with calfskin or snakeskin and strings made of silk, gut, nylon, or metal, running over a bridge made of bamboo, wood, bone, ivory, or seashell; similar to the Thai saw ou (ซออู้) and the Chinese yehu, although the latter instrument has a wooden rather than animal skin face.
The krapeu (ក្រពើ), also called takhe (តាខេ) is a fretted floor zither or lute with three strings virtually identical to the Thai instrument called the chakhe (จะเข้). The word krapeu means “alligator” or “crocodile” in the Khmer language.
Skor (ស្គរ, “drums”) (drums) are very important in many Cambodian musical ensembles because, they help to regulate the tempo and, more importantly in dance, they control the gestures and movements of the dancers serving as a kind of musical cue for getting from one movement to the next. However in the pinpeat orchestra, it goes beyond that. The drums are always placed at the front of the orchestra. The two drums skor thom and samphor lead the orchestra in a traditional performance. Candles and incense sticks would sometimes be lit and placed on the drums to invite and invoke the spirits .
Skor samphor, or simply samphor (សំភោរ) is a small barrel drum indigenous to Cambodia. It has two heads and is played with both hands. The samphor is mounted horizontally on a stand and is permanently attached with two cords underneath the drum. The body of the drum is usually hollowed out from a single block of wood from any kind of tree. The two heads are covered with calfskin, and is laced with rattan or strips of leather to tighten the heads. tightened by strips of gut or rattan. One head of the drum is larger than the other to allow differing tones. The maker “tunes” each head by applying a circle of paste made of rice and ashes. Sometimes bread is added to the paste to create a deeper sound.
The player of the samphor leads the pinpeat, setting the tempo and beat. The drummer makes use of four distinct strokes: an open and closed stroke for each head. Each of these four sounds has a Khmer name:
- open stroke, small head (ting)
- closed stroke, small head (tip)
- open stroke, large head (theung)
- closed stroke, large head (tup)
The samphor has been known for centuries and are depictions of the instrument on bas-reliefs at Angkor. It has served a ritualistic and entertainment role through to the present day, often associated with the pinpeat orchestra, leading the ensemble. The samphor also accompanies the solo playing of the sralai (oboe) in freestyle-boxing matches.
Skor thom (ស្គរធំ) are two large bass drums similar to Japan’s taiko (太鼓) drums. They typically have buffalo skin heads that are struck with two wooden beaters, and are played in pairs. Sometimes the drums are struck on the sides with drumsticks. The drums are tuned such that one will give a bright sound when struck, while the other gives a lower and more flat tone. A skor thom is usually made from strong but light wood. The drum is 19.64 inches (50 cm) long and is 18.11 inches (46 cm) in diameter at the center and about 15.75 inches (40 cm) at the end. The drum is hollowed out from a single solid block of wood for its entire length at a thickness of 0.4 inch (1 cm).
The skor thom drums add dramatic hightlights to the compositions performed by the pinpeat ensemble. As accompaniment music to dances, they emphasizes certain movements of the dancers thus giving a more dramatic coloring to the development of the dance, making the dance a more lively spectacle to watch.
The chapei dong veng (ចាប៉ីដងវែង) or chapey was formerly the premier instrument of the pinpeat orchestra but is rarely used in the ensemble today. This is a Cambodian two-stringed, long-necked guitar that is usually plucked. It has two double courses of nylon strings. The top and bottom strings are typically tuned to G and C respectively, with the 12 frets having notes 1 D, 2 E, 3 F, 4 G, 5 A, 6 B, 7 C, 8 D, 9 E, 10 F, 11 G, 12 A.
Another instrument rarely used in present-day pinpeat performances is a wooden clapper called the krap (กรับ in Thai). These are quite common, however, in Thai piphat ensembles where the percussion instrument comes in three varieties:
- krap koo — made from two pieces of split bamboo, approximately 40 cm in length
- krap puang — made from thin wood or brass, often consisting of a number of pieces tied with string; used in royal ceremonies
- krap saepa — made from wood with a length of about 20 cm and a thickness of about 5 cm, rectangular in shape; used in pairs
On October 10, 1984, the postal service of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK; République populaire du Kampuchéa in French or Sathéaranakrâth Pracheameanit Kâmpŭchéa, សាធារណរដ្ឋប្រជាមានិតកម្ពុជា in Khmer) released a set of seven stamps depicting traditional instruments played by the pinpeat orchestra. The stamps were printed using offset and lithography The 10-sen denomination depicts a sralai (Scott #526) with the skor samphor appearing on the 40-sen value, the inscription reading just SKOR which is Khmer for “drum” (Scott #527). The 80-sen stamp pictures the double drums known as skor thom (Scott #528) and the 1-riel denomination features the three-stringed fiddle known as a tro Khmer (Scott #529). A xylophone called the raneat ek appears on the 1.20-riel value (Scott #530), a kong thom (mislabeled as raneat kong, mixing different instruments with similar sounds) is on the 2-riel stamp (Scott #531) while the 2.50-riel features another mistake, the inscription marking the instrument as a tro che — a two-stringed vertical instrument played upright — when it is actually a krapeu — a fretted three-string instrument similar to a zither or a lute which sits flat on the floor during performances (Scott #532). The stamps are all horizontally-oriented except for the 10-sen and 80-sen values which are vertical.
The PRK was founded in January 1979 by the Salvation Front, a group of Cambodian communists dissatisfied with the Khmer Rouge after the overthrow of Democratic Kampuchea, Pol Pot’s government. Brought about by an invasion from the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, which routed the Khmer Rouge armies, it had Vietnam and the Soviet Union as its main allies.
The postal service had been abolished when the National United Front of Kampuchea took over Cambodia in 1975 and established Democratic Kampuchea. The new regime allowed no civilian private communication. Service resumed in early 1979 when the Vietnam People’s Army drove the Khmer Rouge out of the capital Phnom Penh. The PRK issued their first stamps in April 1980.
Beginning May 1989, the PRK restored the name Cambodia by renaming the country State of Cambodia (SOC; Rath Kâmpŭchéa, រដ្ឋកម្ពុជា) in an attempt to attract international sympathy. However, it retained most of its leadership and one-party structure while undergoing a transition and eventually giving way to the restoration of the Kingdom of Cambodia. The PRK/SOC existed as a communist state from 1979 until 1991, the year in which the ruling single party abandoned its Marxist–Leninist ideology.
Following the Paris Peace Accords of October 1991, the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) was established in February 1992 as a peacekeeping operation in Cambodia. This was the first occasion on which the United Nations had taken over the administration of an independent state, organized and run an election (as opposed to monitoring or supervising), had its own radio station and jail, and been responsible for promoting and safeguarding human rights at the national level.
Over 4 million Cambodians (about 90% of eligible voters) participated in the May 1993 elections, although the Khmer Rouge or Party of Democratic Kampuchea (PDK), whose forces were never actually disarmed or demobilized, barred some people from participating. Prince Ranariddh’s FUNCINPEC Party was the top vote recipient with a 45.5% vote, followed by Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party and the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party, respectively. FUNCINPEC then entered into a coalition with the other parties that had participated in the election. The parties represented in the 120-member assembly proceeded to draft and approve a new constitution, which was promulgated September 24, 1993. It established a multiparty liberal democracy in the framework of a constitutional monarchy, with the former Prince Sihanouk elevated to King. Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen became First and Second Prime Ministers, respectively, in the Royal Cambodian Government (RGC). The constitution provides for a wide range of internationally recognized human rights.
Today, the nation is officially known as the Kingdom of Cambodia in English but in Khmer as Prĕəh Riəciənaacak Kampuciə (ព្រះរាជាណាចក្រកម្ពុជា) and in French as Royaume du Cambodge. The stability established following the conflict was shaken in 1997 by a coup d’état led by the co-Prime Minister Hun Sen against the non-communist parties in the government. In recent years, reconstruction efforts have progressed and led to some political stability through a multiparty democracy under a constitutional monarchy.
In July 2010, Kang Kek Iew was the first Khmer Rouge member found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity in his role as the former commandant of the S21 extermination camp and he was sentenced to life in prison. However, Hun Sen has opposed extensive trials of former Khmer Rouge mass murderers. In August 2014, a UN-backed war crimes tribunal, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (also known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal), sentenced Khieu Samphan, the regime’s 83-year-old former head of state, and Nuon Chea, its 88-year-old chief ideologue to life in prison on war crimes charges for their role in the country’s terror period in the 1970s. The trial began in November 2011. Former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary died in 2013, while his wife, Social Affairs Minister Ieng Thirith, was deemed unfit to stand trial due to dementia in 2012. The group’s top leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998.
The 1.20-riel stamp pictures a roneat ek (រនាតឯក, also called ronneat rut), a xylophone used in the Khmer classical music of Cambodia. It is built in the shape of a curved, rectangular shaped boat with twenty-one thick bamboo or hard wood bars that are suspended from strings attached to the two walls. They are cut into pieces of the same width, but of different lengths and thickness. Originally these instruments were highly decorated with inlay and carvings on the sides of the sound box. Now they are simpler. In the pinpeat ensemble, it is placed to the right of the roneat thung, a lower-pitched xylophone.
Roneat ek originated from the instrument called krap. A pair of krap was used to keep the rhythm in ensembles. Later, krap were put into a series. However the tones when the bars were struck were out of tune. Then it was decided to make a series of krap on two tracks to support it. After the instrument makers gained some experience and knowledge, the krap were made in a series of sizes with a track to hold them together making the tone clearer. To make them into a series, a heavy string was threaded through holes made near the ends of the krap. The krap were placed near each other on this cord and the entire “keyboard” was hung on a supporting stand. Later on, the keyboard was improved using krap and beeswax with lead shavings attached underneath each krap to improve the tone. This whole instrument was called roneat and the krap which made up the keyboard were called luk roneat. The whole series of krap or the keyboard is called pern in Thailand, where the instrument is called the ranat ek (ระนาดเอก). These are both similar to the Burmese bamboo xylophone called pattala (ပတ္တလား). However, the Burmese version has 24 bamboo slats (called ywet, ရွက်, or asan, အဆံ) suspended over the boat-shaped resonating chamber while the Cambodian and Thai versions each have 21 wooden bars.
The Thai ranat ek is used as a leading instrument in the piphat ensemble. At first the keys were made of two kinds of bamboo, Dendrocalamus nees (known in Thailand as phai tong, ไผ่ตง), and Indian timber bamboo (Bambusa tulda or phai bong, ไผ่บง). Later, different types of hardwood were used such as rosewood (Dalbergia oliveri or mai ching chan, ไม้ชิงชัน), Lakoochaand (Artocarpus lacucha or mai mahat, ไม้มะหาด) or Siamese rosewood (Dalbergia cochinchinensis which is called mai pa yung, ไม้พะยูง, in Thai). Normally Indian timber bamboo is preferred because of its tone. The support of the keyboard is shaped like a Thai riverboat, curving at each end.
The earliest Siamese instrument ensembles only used one ranat which had fewer keys than the modern version. Additional keys were added until the ranat became too large for one stand to hold. A second ranat with lower-toned keys was then created. This was called ranat thum with the original higher-toned version renamed ranat ek.
The modern ranat ek has 21 keys typically made from rosewood (Dalbergia oliveri). The lowest-toned key is 38 cm long, 5 cm wide and 1.5 cm thick. The keys decrease in size and become thicker as the tones go higher. The highest-toned key is 30 cm long. There are two types of mallets. The hard mallets create the sharp and bright sound, normally used for faster playing. The soft mallets create a mellow and softer tone, used for slower songs. Each octave is divided into seven equal parts, which results in complex musical ratios but easy transposition between keys (analogous to the benefits and drawbacks of Western 12-pitch equal temperament).
The earliest historical mention of the Burmese pattala is in the Kalyani Inscriptions (ကလျာဏီကျောက်စာ), located at Bago in present-day Myanmar, and dates to the fifteenth century. The stone inscriptions were erected by King Dhammazedi of Hanthawaddy Pegu between 1476 and 1479. at the Kalyani Ordination Hall outside Bago. They commemorate the reformation of Burmese Buddhism in Ceylon’s Mahavihara tradition and are the most important sources on religious contacts between Burma and Sri Lanka.