Last update: December 5, 2023
The use of the angkuoch អង្កួច bamboo Jew's harp has become extremely rare in Cambodia. In the past, this instrument was mainly used in seduction rituals between young men and women in Southeast Asia. Nowadays, however, it has been largely supplanted by the smartphone.
Sounds of Angkor met several times the last Khmer craftsman, Mr. Krak Chi.
Born in 1950, Mr Krak Chi lives in the village of Srah Srang, in the heart of Angkor's archaeological park, close to the eponymous basin and the temple of Banteay Kdei. As well as being a rice farmer and village chief, he spends his spare time making jew's harps. His childhood memories are imbued with the melodies of his father playing the Jew's harp, especially during evenings of relaxation. He also remembers how village children used to buy these instruments from local craftsmen to sell to visitors to the temples, especially those near nearby Ta Prohm.
Krak Chi distinguishes four parts of a Jew's harp: the head, the tongue, the covers and the handle. The covers are two thin strips of bamboo inserted (sometimes glued) to follow the contours of the tip of the tongue. They are essential for sound production.
In the past, young men used it to woo girls. Krak Chi remembers an old custom of putting "charm wax" on the tongue of the instrument to ensure the irresistibility of advances made to girls. This charm wax, more commonly used today by the Khmers, is still used on the jew's harps of ethnic minorities living in the forested areas bordering Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. A wax charge in the shape of a buffalo horn modifies the speed of vibration of the blade and, consequently, the pitch of the basic sound.
Krak Chi also bears witness to the old-fashioned use of the Jew's harp as a tool for "verbal jousting/singing" - but without words! - chhlaey chhlang ឆ្លើយឆ្លង.
The principle of Jew's harp playing is based on varying the opening of the mouth cavity, as if speaking or singing, but without using the vocal cords. The instrument's tongue replaces them. When playing a song, for example, the Jew's harp player follows the melody and lyrics from memory, and activates the instrument's tongue on the words or syllables. Vowels are simulated by varying the volume of the mouth cavity.
Krak Chi became interested in Jew's harp making in the mid-1990s. His young son, Chi Chen, used to buy them from a famous manufacturer, Mr. Mong Koeuy, in the nearby village of Preah Dak, to resell them to tourists. In March 1998, during my (Patrick Kersalé) first trip to Cambodia, I myself met a young disabled boy, Lath Soy (25 years old at the time) who made Jew's harps in this village; he was a disciple of Mong Koeuy. These two men are no longer in this world today.
Watching Mong Koeuy make his instruments, Krak Chi decided to learn too, motivated on the one hand by the prospect of earning a modest income from their sale and, on the other hand, by the desire to perpetuate the tradition. Today (2021), given his age and his activities as a village chief, Krak Chi devotes little time to making Jew's harps. He generally works there between 8:00 and 10:00 in the morning. The manufacturing time is around 50 minutes for a very expert person like him. In order to perpetuate the tradition, he taught manufacturing to his sons and grandsons.
This video shows all the details involved in making a bamboo harp. The material is cut from large bamboos growing in clumps, with culm walls varying in thickness from 1 to 3 cm or more, depending on their age. The use of a limited number of tools is noteworthy: a traditional Khmer long-handled knife (kambet bantoh - កាំបិតបន្ទោះ) held under the armpit, two wood chisels of varying widths and a knocker, in this case an axe whose head Krak Chi uses as a hammer. The fibrous structure of the bamboo also makes this precision work possible to within a single fiber thickness.
Filming date: December 15, 2017. Srah Srang village. Siem Reap Angkor.