By Catherine Grant, Seng Song and Say Tola | 10 September 2020
“I am very happy that I get to share my knowledge about Angkuoch with other people. When I can demonstrate how to make Angkuoch, I am very excited. Extremely excited! I feel happy about this project because I think the research team will spread this information widely. To let other people know more about Angkuoch!”
(Bin Song, Angkuoch maker)
Although the musical instrument popularly known as the “Jew’s Harp” is found in many countries around the world, the Cambodian version is unique. Called Angkuoch (pronounced something like “Aarng-koo-oy”) in Khmer, it is a precious part of Cambodia’s living cultural heritage.
Nowadays, Angkuoch and its associated practices are in need of urgent safeguarding. Social and cultural shifts in Cambodia over the last half-century, including the devastation of the Khmer Rouge era in the 1970s, mean that only a handful of people still know how to make and play Angkuoch.
Supported by the Endangered Material Knowledge Program of the British Museum (UK) and by UNESCO (Cambodia), in early 2020 Catherine Grant (Griffith University, Australia), Seng Song (Cambodian Living Arts), and Patrick Kersale (Cambodian Living Arts) documented Angkuoch and Angkuoch-making as it is practised in Siem Reap Province in northern Cambodia. Our aim was to help preserve this rich knowledge for the benefit and pleasure of present and future generations.
This article presents only a few of the many wonderful things we learnt through this project. We have also created a video documentary about Angkuoch and its makers and players, which is freely available online.
“Standing near the water pond, if your share with me your rice wine, I will dance for you to see, my dear.” (Lyrics of the Prern folksong “Santouch,” as recalled by Bin Song)
Bin Song (b. 1942) may be the only living person who still knows how to make the iron Cambodian Angkuoch: “Angkuoch Daek”. He was first introduced to Angkuoch Daek as a child, by a man from the neighbouring Kuy ethnic community. Intrigued, he taught himself how to play Angkuoch, and eventually to make it too. As a young man, he became known for his skills with the Angkuoch.
Like artists all over Cambodia, Bin Song stopped making and playing the Angkuoch when the despotic Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. When the research team for this project encouraged him in late 2019 to make an Angkuoch Daek, he had not made an instrument for nearly fifty years.
At first, Bin Song hesitated to accept our invitation. He was concerned that his eyesight was no longer up to the task. Moreover, since he had lost his teeth, he could not test the instrument out as he made it. Yet he agreed and later he told us: “I’m getting old now, and when I reflected on it, I realised it was important to pass this knowledge on to the next generation. If I don’t, who will? If not now, when?”
The British Museum will keep in its collection the Angkuoch Daek that Bin Song made for this project, along with video documentation that shows every step of the process. While Ta Song is happy that people from all around the world will have a chance to learn about the Angkuoch Daek, his foremost message is to young Cambodians: “do not give up on Angkuoch! This is our culture and heritage!”
“I want to tell people in the next generation that no matter what, you should certainly play this Angkuoch. Learn to play! If there is a teacher who teaches how to play and make it, you should go to learn. Keep it alive! Don’t let it be lost!”
“When I was a bachelor, I went to visit the houses of girls at night. When I reached my lover’s house, if she was already asleep, I played to call her. If I kept calling, she would wake up and come to meet me. And then we sat together. I could call her to meet me wherever I wanted as long as she heard the sound of my Angkuoch.” (Son Soeun)
Son Soeun and Bin Song (both born 1942) are lifelong friends. In the 1950s and ‘60s, they grew up together in Preah Ko village in Siem Reap Province, even entering the monkhood together for a time.
When the young Bin Song began to make and play the Angkuoch Daek, Son Soeun became intrigued by the instrument too. Over time, Son Soeun learnt to play proficiently. In the local lingo, the instrument was called “Angkuoch Bird” on account of its shape. The two boys would often slip an Angkuoch Bird in their pockets to play for pleasure whenever they chose.
When the two boys were growing up, boys and young men often used the Angkuoch to flirt with girls and young women. Words can be “spoken” through the instrument, although it takes some practice to interpret them. In this way, young people developed a secret language – the language of Angkuoch. As youths, Song and Souen would often use the Angkuoch for this purpose.
“I take my only fish-hook, to tie it on. The crocodile bites me, and the stitching of my pants unravels! Oh those who are beautiful, come to sew up my pants!” (Lyrics of Prern folksong, as recalled by Bin Song)
In addition to its role in wooing potential lovers, Angkuoch traditionally accompanied “Prern”, a type of folksong. An especially popular Prern song was “Santouch”. Several Angkuoch players – both male and female – could join in, first singing and dancing together, then playing Angkuoch with one hand and dancing with the other. People also enjoyed playing and listening to Angkuoch during festivals or special celebrations.
“People played Angkuoch in their houses. When they were free, sometimes they brought it to the rice field and played it right there. If they lived close to Sras Srong lake, they brought it to play around there.” (Krak Chi)
Krak Chi (b. 1950) is a rice farmer and bamboo Angkuoch-maker from Srah Srong village, a stone’s throw from the world-famous temple complex of Angkor Wat. Krak Chi has childhood memories of his father playing the Angkuoch in the evenings for pleasure. Chi also remembers local children buying the Angkuoch Russey (a bamboo Angkuoch) from instrument-makers in the village, then selling the instruments on to tourists at the nearby Angkor temples.
As with the iron Angkuoch Daek, boys and young men liked to use Angkuoch Russey to woo lovers. Krak Chi remembers an old custom of putting “charming wax” on the instruments to make sure that any advances that were made via the Angkuoch were irresistible.
In the mid-1990s, Krak Chi began to take an interest in Angkuoch-making. His young son Chi Chen used to buy Angkuoch Russey from the famous Angkuoch maker Mong Koeuy in the neighbouring Preah Dak village, and then sell them on to tourists.
Watching Mong Koeuy make the instruments, Krak Chi decided to learn too. He was motivated partly by the prospect of a modest income from selling the instruments and partly by the desire to keep alive the tradition of his ancestors.
These days Krak Chi doesn’t have much time for Angkuoch-making because of his rice-farming and because he is the head of his village. But to ensure the tradition continues, he has taught his sons and grandsons to make the Angkuoch. Still today, when Krak Chi holds an Angkuoch in his hands, he thinks of his father.
“Boys and girls flirted with each other through the Angkuoch. In this present generation, people use the phone to talk to each other – but at that time they used the Angkuoch.” (Krak Chi)
“Not many people know about Angkuoch anymore. Most who do are old. When old people saw me playing at the temple, they said: ‘Chao (grandchild)! This is Angkuoch. This instrument has existed since the era of our ancestors.’ But younger people said, ‘Brother! What are you holding? Is it a wooden pin to fix nets?’ I told them: ‘No, it is an Angkuoch. People use it to make music.’ I played for them and they were happy.” (Chi Chen)
As a young boy, Chi Chen (b. 1988) would sell Angkuoch Russey to tourists at the famous Ta Prohm temple near his village Srah Srong. By his teenage years, Chi Chen had become a proficient player and successful seller of the instruments.
Encouraged by Chi Chen’s success, and recalling that his own father used to play the Angkuoch Russey, Chi Chen’s father Krak Chi soon began to make the instruments. Krak Chi then taught his other son, Chi Monivong (b. 1990), how to make the instrument, who, in turn, later introduced some clever innovations to the making technique that even his father has since adopted.
Before, once Angkuoch-makers had chopped the bamboo into pieces, they used to dry it on a board in the sun for one or two days. My father used to do this too. But I choose to dry the bamboo by smoking it over the fire, because it is faster. Now my father copies my way of making.” (Chi Monivong)
The two brothers, Chen and Monivong, soon became known as new-generation makers and players of Angkuoch Russey. However, in their twenties they found that fewer tourists knew about Angkuoch. Consequently, fewer people were buying the instrument and it became harder to earn an income by making and selling it.
Now Chen and Monivong are in their early thirties with full-time jobs, and they no longer have much free time for Angkuoch-making. However, they are happy that their father is teaching his two young grandsons how to make Angkuoch. They hope that the family tradition will continue and develop, and that people of all ages will know and enjoy the Angkuoch in the future.
“My father [Mong Koeuy] told me that he started to make Angkuoch when he could hold a knife. That means when he was about ten years old. He learned from no one but my grandpa, whose name is Mong. Grandpa Mong always told my father he must learn to make Angkuoch because it is our instrument.” (Koeuy Reatha, son of Mong Koeuy)
At one time, Mong Koeuy (born c.1937) was the best-known Angkuoch Russey maker in Siem Reap province. He lived in Preah Dak village, not far from where Krak Chi and his sons Chi Monivong and Chi Chen live. It was Ta Koeuy (Grandpa Koeuy) who introduced the Angkuoch to the young Chi Chen, and who later taught Chen’s father Krak Chi how to make the instrument.
Mong Koeuy learnt to make Angkuoch from his father when he was a child. He sold the instruments he made to tourists at the nearby temples, along with coconuts and other things. Later, as a young man, Koeuy also worked as a farmer and a carpenter.
Mong Koeuy married his second wife Lav Mech (b. 1945) during the Khmer Rouge era. He began selling Angkuoch again soon after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and the income supported their children through school.
According to her daughter Leakhena, Lav Mech also played Angkuoch Russey when she was younger. Mech told us that her husband spoke to her through the Angkuoch, which he used to tell her “I love you.”
Mong Koeuy passed away in his late 70s in 2012. Four of his sons are proud to continue their father’s tradition.
“Before, women communicated through Angkuoch too, not only men. At night, they went for a walk and they played: ‘I love you!’ [Laughs!]. They communicated through Angkuoch.” (Lav Mech, wife of Mong Koeuy)
The Angkuoch in the British Museum
“When I first saw this photo [of the British Museum Angkuoch], I was very excited. I never knew my father’s craft had been promoted internationally. Even locally, some people do not even know about it, so I had not thought it was very prized. Seeing this Angkuoch, I miss him. To my family, the Angkuoch symbolises my father.” (Koeuy Leakhena, daughter of Mong Koeuy)
The British Museum has only one Angkuoch in its collection, an instrument donated in 1966, of unknown maker. When the research team showed a photo of the Museum instrument to the brothers Chi Monivong and Chi Chen and their father Krak Chi, they all thought that the instrument bore strong resemblance to the unique style of Mong Koeuy, especially in its shape, thickness and length, as well as a characteristic node near the tongue of the instrument.
When we showed Mong Koeuy’s wife Lav Mech and her children Leakhena and Reatha the photo of the British Museum instrument, they became emotional. They too recognised features of their father’s instruments, which he had once sold widely to local and foreign tourists. With the help of Mong Koeuy’s son, Angkuoch-maker Koeuy Reatha, the research team is working with the British Museum to include in its catalogue this new information about the likely provenance of the instrument.
This project was funded by the British Museum’s Endangered Material Knowledge Programme, supported by Arcadia, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin. UNESCO (Cambodia) provided additional funding for dissemination of outcomes in Cambodia. The project team also acknowledges the support of the Apsara National Authority and the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, Royal Government of Cambodia.
We are grateful to the Angkuoch makers and players who participated in this project, who so generously shared with us their knowledge and skills: Bin Song, Son Soeun, Krak Chi, Chi Monivong, and Chi Chen. We also acknowledge Lav Mech, Koeuy Leakhena, Koeuy Reatha and the family of Mong Koeuy, whose beautiful story we share here too, with their kind permission.
We hope that this project inspires people in Cambodia and around the world to appreciate the beauty and importance of Angkuoch, now and long into the future.
Photographs and text: Catherine Grant
Translation: Say Tola
Project management: Seng Song