Searching for unique music experiences while travelling has been a long-term agenda of mine. Learning the traditional music of a country not only helps me to connect with an unfamiliar culture but also transcends my journey into a more private and personal experience. As usual, I was looking for a music experience in Cambodia, and I was quite excited to come across Backstreet Academy‘s Khmer Music Instrument Class.

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Learning From Local Musicians

We arrived the shadow puppet theatre where the class was held by a tuk-tuk on a sunny afternoon. Our translator Kannan greeted us at the gate with a friendly smile. When I saw the traditional instruments lying on the stage, I was excited and could not wait to try them! The teacher Dali is currently a student at the local Khmer traditional music school, majoring in bamboo flute (Khloy). Besides working towards becoming a professional Khmer musician, Dali performs at the theatre and different events around the city.

We began the class with the bamboo xylophone (roneat ek, a smaller xylophone). First, we worked on playing with the mallets up and down the instrument as a warm-up, then we started learning two Cambodian folk songs. One of the songs was about a brother and a sister, and the other one was about floating down the river.

As a musician myself, I was curious about how Dali would proceed his teaching. Dali taught me the songs by rote and singing. In the beginning, it took me a little time to memorize the song since I am used to reading scores, but I soon caught on. In fact, the tunes are still stuck in my head until today! He also showed me how they improvise on the Khmer instruments.

Khmer Traditional Music: An Art That Needs to Be Recorded

Dali said most of the tunes they perform are folk music that everyone knows, so the music is usually taught without musical notations. This scared me a bit. What if nobody wants to learn Khmer traditional instruments anymore? Will the traditional music be lost forever? Yet, at the same time, I found it comforting that young Cambodians like Dali are inheriting the art form.

The class lasted for an hour. Besides the bamboo xylophone, I also asked Dali to let me play around with the gong chimes (kong) and the hand drum (thon). Another Cambodian drummer joined our session and taught me how to properly make a loud sound with the hand drum. (I didn’t know I had to SLAP it! :p)

See us playing in motion here!

We noticed there weren’t any woodwind and brass instruments in sight, so we asked, and they brought out the horns and the bamboo flutes. (That was when we learned that Dali is a professional Khmer flautist!) They explained to us that Cambodians use the horns as the call signal to each other when they are out hunting in the mountains.

The Class Isn’t Just A Class, It’s Connection

After the class, I saw the backstage of the theatre and watched the master making hand drums from scratch. I asked the master how long does it take for him to make one drum? He looked at me, smiled, and said:

“It’s hard to say. We need to find the right wood, buy the goat skins from the market, dry them, and put everything together … It could take weeks.”

Knowing the amount of time he put into production certainly made me appreciate the beauty of their crafts even more. Furthermore, meeting the artists in person gave us the opportunity to buy their work directly from them. 

Jim bought a beautiful handmade mouth harp from the master. mouth harp is used in many different cultures, particularly in southeast Asia. 

Before we left, our translator Kannan stayed with us and had another hour of great conversation. Through speaking with him, we felt that we understood Cambodia on a different level and a deeper relationship.

I’m very glad to have this music experience in Cambodia with Backstreet Academy. It gave me what I always crave for in my travels and what I believe everyone should look for when they are visiting another country – A full immersion and connection to local culture.


What is Backstreet Academy?

Backstreet Academy is a peer to peer travel platform that connects travellers with locals who are devoted to their arts and crafts. The Academy brings travelling to another level where travellers get to sit down with a master and take time to learn like an apprentice.

Watch this video to learn more about Backstreet Academy:

This post is a part of a partnership between myself and Backstreet Academy in exchange for our complimentary Khmer Music Instrument Class experience in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I took the class on December 30th, 2017. All opinions are my own.

The shadow puppet theatre has performances every week. If you are interested in seeing the shadow puppet show with live tradition Khmer orchestra, visit Sovannaphum Arts Association for more information.

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Also published on Medium.

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