The Khmer harp, now extinct, has been the fantasy of generations of musicians and intellectuals. The ethnomusicologist Patrick Kersalé, who has been exploring the remote regions of Southeast Asia and India for the past 25 years, has set out in the footsteps of this mythical instrument in an attempt to unravel its mystery. His dream: to rebuild the Angkorian harp and reconstruct the orchestras of the glorious past of the Khmer Empire.
I (Patrick Kersalé) am by essence a wind musician since my first instrument was the accordion, the second the liturgical organ and the third the Romanian pan flute. I can say that I ran for many years after the flutes of the world, in Europe, Africa, Asia and America! But the harp, which I had not undertaken to pursue, never stopped coming to meet me. In ancient Greece and Rome, the flute was associated with the pastoral world and the harp (or lyre, often confused) with the city, the first in the hands of the god Pan, the second played by Apollo.
My first contact with the harp dates back to 1991; it was the gombi of the Aka Pygmies of Central Africa. I will bring one back to France and devote part of my first CD "Aka Pygmies: musics and polyphonic songs of the great forest" to it. My second encounter with the strings will be that of the Mandingo kora and the ngoni of the Senoufo hunters of Burkina Faso, both harp-luths deriving from an ancient Egyptian harp. These two encounters gave rise to the production of two CDs: "Gambia - Kemba Sussoko: the kora of the Manding griots" and "Burkina Faso - Song of praise of the Senoufo Tagoua hunting fraternity", published by VDE-GALLO, in the PEOPLES collection of which I was the editorial director at the time. A documentary film devoted to the Senoufos hunters and their music will also be released: "The masters of Nyama". Then a Parisian meeting with the Ecuadorian harpist Hugo Barahona who played in the subway and the streets of Paris for almost three decades. I will participate, with my panpipes, in several of his records. Then the story went crescendo, from the little pygmy harp to the great pedal harp. My meeting with two classical harpists, Élisabeth Bassereau and Béatrice Guillermin, led me to perform for a few years as a duo, panpipes and pedal harp, in France and Romania.
From these various experiences, encounters and recordings, the idea of publishing a CD dedicated to the harp and the harp-lute was born. But I lacked material. I then decided to contact the internationally renowned harpist, the late Elena Polonska, a specialist in ancient harps. She alone played no less than a dozen types of harps. Impressive character with whom I will befriend. Elena agreed to play several harps for the disc "Harps of the World" published by VDE-GALLO. From this meeting several discs were born which I recorded and produced, notably two opus published by ARION "L'art de la harpe", Vol. 1 & 2.
From 1995 and 2003, my life as an ethnomusicologist was divided between Europe, Asia and Africa. In Burkina Faso, the harp will catch up with me in an inconsiderate way since several ethnic groups (Dyan, Lobi, Gan, Bwaba...) from the south-east of the country play this instrument. I will devote four years of research and musical collection to the Gan and Lobi. Among the Gan, I met a musician who was both blind and brilliant, Akouna Farma. Two CDs were released: "Anthology of the music of the Gan" and "The harps of evening", and two films: “Musique et harmonie au royaume des Gan” and “Akouna Farma, messager du royaume”, the latter specifically dedicated to the Koninyan harp.
In January 2006, during a musical collecting mission in the south of Laos, I met, in the village of Pha Souam, Mr Et (77 years old) of the katu ethnic group. He tells me again that his grandfather played the talu harp. At the time of our meeting, he himself was making harps whose general shape was close to that of the ancient Khmers. He told me the legendary story of the birth of the harp among the Katu.
My story with the Khmer harp begins in 2009 (after a first visual contact with the bas-reliefs of the Bayon in 1998) through a research work published on the present site Sounds of Angkor. For reasons of intellectual pillage, I decided at the time to publish only a part of my research, notably iconographic.
In 2011, I decided to reconstruct the Khmer harp and all the musical instruments visible on the bas-reliefs of the temples between the 7th and 13th centuries, a period during which iconography existed in Cambodia, Thailand (to a lesser extent), Vietnam (Champa) and Indonesia (Java). At that time, I only have about twenty images of ancient harps, from the pre-Angkorian and Angkorian periods combined. By crossing the sources, I manage to identify three models: the pre-Angkorian harp of the 7th and 8th centuries, similar to the Indian instrument of the Gupta period, the Angkorian harp played at court and in the temples, and the Garuda's head harp, both from the Bayon period. I had, since the 1990s, a Burmese saùng-gauk harp that I played in my spare time. The boat-shape instrument, (and even bird-shaped one as far as the Khmer harp is concerned since it has a relationship with the bird!) was therefore familiar to me. But I was missing one technological data for the reconstruction: how did the tailpiece fit under the skin of the soundboard? To find out, I decided, in January 2012, to go to Myanmar to meet the Burmese luthiers. I have little time and the harp dealers are not very talkative about their suppliers. But after much discussion, a music store in Rangoon agreed to bring a saùng-gauk harp puzzle which finally allowed me to understand the arrangement of the tailpiece inside the sound box.
I also take the time to look for a harp teacher to complete my technical training on the Burmese harp.
In the meantime, I make a trip to the Karen people of southern Myanmar and northern Thailand in order to understand how their harps are built, so different from each other, whereas the Burmese harps are now standardized. In Thailand, I was guided by Professor Louis Gabaude who generously offers me his time and his scientific and linguistic skills! May he be eternally thanked here. After this short trip, I conclude that the Karen harps have one thing in common with the ancient Khmer harps: there is no standardization.
In 2012, I settle in Phnom Penh with my family. After some unsuccessful searches for a willing and competent candidate to reconstruct the Khmer harp, I meet the musician and instrument maker Keo Sonan Kavei. At that time, he was making roneat xylophones and kong vong gong chimes. He agrees to embark on the adventure with his team of musicians, carpenters and sculptors. He is so enthusiastic that in parallel to the rebirth of the first Khmer harp, his wife gives birth to a daughter whom the couple calls Pin, literally "Harp"!
As there has to be a beginning to everything, we begin by making two copies of Karen harps: one from a model in my possession, the other from a photograph. The experiment proves to be conclusive. We then continue with the making of a pre-Angkorian harp after a bas-relief of Sambor Prei Kuk (7th century) for which I provide the plan. The instrument is heavy and not very sonorous, but superb. Because of its low sound power, I decide to place a harp at the base of each string, made of a small piece of bamboo glued on the tailpiece with beeswax. The result is up to my expectations. The harp sounds like the Indian cordophones and the European harps reconstructed according to the 15th century paintings of Jerome Bosch. As we could not find goat skin in Cambodia, we use a python skin bought in Ratanakiri from a hunter.
Then we build a first Garuda's head harp for which I provide the general design, the bore plan and the shape of the head according to an Angkorian bronze pattern. This model is relatively easy to carve. For the soundboard, we use a cowhide but the result is not satisfactory because too thick.
The continuation of the manufacturing adventure will continue with a certain routine in the workshops of Keo Sonan Kavei on behalf of musicians and sympathizers.
Later, Kavei will create a harp whose tuning is done with guitar mechanics. It will become the basic model of the Music Conservatory of the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh.
For a musical instrument to live, you need manufacturers, but you also need musicians. And for musicians to acquire a skill, they need teachers. This is why I decided in 2012, unable to bring a Burmese harp master to Cambodia, to create a permanent course at my home in Phnom Penh in which I myself teach the technique while being assisted by a Cambodian musician for the Khmer musical part that I have no mastery of. The first lessons are given by a few motivated volunteers, professional musicians, amateurs and beginners: Snguon Kavei Sereyroth, Pov Reaksmey Moni, Sinat Nhok, Him Sophy and Chen Sopheak. The most assiduous are, from the very beginning, Snguon Kavei Sereyroth and Pov Reaksmey Moni, who are about twelve years old. Almost every morning, for several months, they come to learn both technique and music around pieces from the Mahori repertoire, with the help of a Khmer musician. This commitment will change their lives since these two young girls will very quickly have the opportunity to play on television, on stage and to be enlisted as harpists in the musical work Bangsokol by the Khmer composer Him Sophy.
In 2016, the Royal University of Fine Arts of Phnom Penh will create a harp class. Chhorn Sovannary is the professor. The students play on guitar mechanics instruments made by luthier Keo Sonan Kavei. The course is validated by an end of year exam at the University.
In 2017, Men Pheakdei, son of Master Man Men and disciple of Chen Sopheak, creates a Khmer harp class at the Wat Reach Bo in Siem Reap: Sounds of Angkor Academy. From the very beginning, he decided to also teach the monochord zither kse diev, the modern name of the Angkorian kinnara, and the trisari lute reconstituted by Sounds of Angkor. Two hours of lessons are given every Saturday and Sunday, assiduously attended by a perfect mix of girls and boys.
In December 2019, Sokim Keat creates a harp class in Phnom Penh.
The fate of the Khmer harp and its teaching was truly sealed by my meeting with the young musician Chen Sopheak.
Sopheak was born in Kampot in 1991 into a poor family of five children. At the age of five, he discovered his passion for music. While attending weddings, he began to memorize the traditional repertoire. But at the age of eight, his parents decide that he and one of his brothers will go to the public orphanage of Kien Kleang in Phnom Penh (now destroyed) because of their extreme poverty. In this institution, he met Master Phol who will teach him piano and percussion for three months before joining the kingdom of the ancestors. Then another musician, Master Meas Sambo, will teach him the instruments and music of the pin peat, a traditional melodic percussion ensemble. Sopheak will also learn to play the drums and will reach an excellent level despite the poor quality of his instrument.
In 2012, Sopheak will leave the orphanage a few hours a day to come and study the art of the harp at my home. In 2013, he leaves Phnom Penh to live with a family of traditional musicians from Siem Reap, the family of Master Man Men who agrees to welcome and support him. The White Elephant association then directed by Marie-Laurence Bon took care of food and lodging. Sopheak perfects his musical practice, learns a new repertoire and teaches by imitation the harp to the members of the family. Upon his arrival in Siem Reap, Sopheak knows a wide enough musical repertoire to sign a contract with the Amansara Hotel where he will play twice a week for four years.
This talented and self-taught musician quickly became and remains the best harpist in Cambodia. But Chen Sopheak is not only a harpist, he is also one of the best musicians of the new generation! He has now retired to Kampot where he joined his family. We miss him infinitely...
In 2012, with the moral and logistical support of the Cambodian Living Arts, I create the Sounds of Angkor troupe which will specialize in playing ancient Khmer instruments. In 2013, it will perform in front of the ambassadors of the 37th International Session of UNESCO and in 2014 it will accompany the visit of His Majesty Norodom Sihamoni to Angkor Wat.
In 2013, I moved to Siem Reap to continue my research and my program of reconstitution of Angkorian instruments. This situation, geographically as close as possible to the temples, suits me. In addition, Siem Reap is a pleasant city with a wide range of hotels and restaurants. Its small size makes it possible to cross it in 15 minutes by motorcycle. My research leads me to work on the bronze instruments of the Wat Reach Bo collection. Venerable Pin Sem endorses this research and makes me open the showcases. A collaboration was also established with Samnang Huot, then restorer of the bronzes at the National Museum of Cambodia. At the same time, I received scientific support from Dominique Soutif, director of the EFEO, a specialist in Angkorian religious objects and the Old Khmer language.
Several communication tools are used to spread knowledge about the ancient and reborn Khmer harp:
In 2014, there are no manufacturers of musical instruments other than skor daey drums and tro fiddles, which are mainly for tourism. Thanks to Barang Hely, I met Mr. Theang and his son Thean Nga who live near the temple of Ta Prohm. The current passes at once and the first reconstitutions of pre-Angkorian harps are born. Then other musical instruments and signs from Cambodia, India and Afghanistan!
I also meet the bronze maker Sopheap to whom I entrust the realization of copies of bell trees, hand bells and rattle-drums.
In 2015, the sculptor Leng Pohy creates the volutes of the pre-Angkorian harps. From this first satisfactory experience will be born in 2017 a more ambitious project, the construction of Angkorian harps as close as possible to the original forms offered by the iconography of the temples. Pohy builds a first instrument but it breaks under the tension of the strings. After repair, the instrument breaks again. Feeling a bad omen, the violin maker burns the harp and loses his still fragile enthusiasm. But I come back to the charge and encourage him not to stay on this failure. A second instrument is then made. The sound surpasses in clarity all that had been made until then. A single foot at the front stabilizes the instrument. But a way must be found to improve the stability. With the help of a malleable paste, we are working on a new design for a foot that is attached to the soundboard. An effective solution is found and will therefore be permanent.
From the beginning of this adventure, I had decided on a three-phase program:
In 2018, I create the group of Franco-Khmer craftsmen and artists: Prestige Art Khmer. Thanks to this team, prestigious harps are born. Noble materials and ancient techniques, both French and Cambodian, are used, notably for lacquer and gold leaf.
In November 2019, a prestigious harp made by Prestige Art Khmer is offered by Cambodian Living Arts to His Majesty Norodom Sihamoni. The circle is then closed since the harp is back in the Khmer Royalty after half a millennium of absence!
The Royal Harp combines sobriety and nobility, rough wood and gold leaf, a choice made on the advice of someone close to His Majesty.
Several symbols, visible or not, are hidden in this instrument. We do not reveal them all, but here are a few. First of all, Garuda's head. The Garuda is, in Brahmanism, the vehicle of the god Vishnu, and in Buddhism, the guardian of the teachings. Thus, the Royal Harp embraces the two religions of which the Royal Court of Cambodia is the heir.
The mother string of the harp, the lowest one, has nineteen strands and the soundbox is nineteen centimeters wide. The number nineteen refers to the nineteen souls or vital principles (pralung) of the Khmers... It is the animist part of the Royal Harp without which it would not be totally Khmer!
The return of the Khmer harp to the Royal Ballet of Cambodia is a major cultural event in the country's musical history. In December 2018, Her Royal Highness Princess Norodom Buppha Devi informed Patrick Kersalé of her wish to highlight the Khmer harp in the actual work created by Her Majesty Queen Sisowath Kossamak, "Apsara Dance", which would be performed in the presence of His Majesty King Norodom Sihamoni at the Elephant Terrace as part of the 25th anniversary of the ICC Angkor. But two disparate harps, with no symbolic relationship with those of the ancient courts, were loaned for the occasion by the Royal University of Fine Arts. So, as part of its know-how and its mission to promote the musical culture of Cambodia, Sounds of Angkor proposed in March 2019 to the late Royal Highness Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, Director of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia (UNESCO Heritage), to donate two exceptional Khmer harps. This proposal was immediately accepted by the Princess.
The two instruments were entirely made in Siem Reap by Prestige Art Khmer, our team of Cambodian and French craftsmen. The film below retraces the key moments of their manufacture.
Since 2013, the Khmer harp is again part of the cultural landscape of Cambodia. Two significant events, apart from television, have propelled it to the forefront:
The concert organized in 2019 by the CKS (Center for Khmer Studies) of Siem Reap had the great merit, beyond the traditional Khmer repertoire, to propose for the first time a listening of the harp according to a strictly Khmer scale (close to equiheptatonism) and no longer diatonic. The roneat xylophone was used as a basis. Here are played the harps made by Keo Sonan Kavei: on the left from a bas-relief of the Bayon (east inner gallery), on the right from the high relief of the Elephant Terrace. Both instruments are tuned with guitar mechanics, an innovation by Keo Sonan Kavei based on contemporary Burmese models.