Last update: May 9, 2021
The sralai ស្រឡៃ is an oboe. There are three types of oboe in Cambodia:
1. sralai toam ming ស្រឡៃទាំមីង played in the funeral ensemble kantoam ming កន្ទាំមីង (sralai, sralai toam ming, pei ប៉ី).
2. sralai pin peat ស្រឡៃពិណពាទ្យ from the eponymous ensemble. This instrument comes in two tessitura: sralai touch ស្រឡៃតូច (soprano) and sralai thom ស្រឡៃធំ (alto).
3. sralai jaiy played during martial arts competitions. Because of its Thai influences, it is sometimes called sralai klong kaik or sralai cheang.*
Contrary to the general public and scientific literature, no oboe is represented in the 12th century iconography of Angkor Wat, but only in the mid-16th century iconography in the northern historical gallery. There are also two representations of the same type of instrument on two frescoes of the central sanctuary (bakan) identified by Sounds of Angkor, which could a priori date from the same period (to be consolidated by scientific expertise). * Keo Narom. Cambodian Music, 2005.
All Khmer oboes are characterized by the use of a quadruple reed made from the dried leaf of the sugar palm tree ដើមត្នោត. In the video opposite, the Khmer musician Pon Pong shows the making of such a reed.
The oboes represented in the 16th century are conical in shape. They are recognizable by their coconut pirouette in the shape of bat wings. See our oboe page in the old instruments section. In the kantoam ming ensemble attached to the Wat Svay Thom in Siem Reap, the oboist Pon Pong plays with this pirouette. Keo Narom, in her book "The instruments [with coconut pirouette] seem to have been used continuously up until the 1960s. Today, teachers no longer use coconut pirouette to assist continuous breathing."
In our early years of research, we were aware of the 16th-century bas-reliefs depicting these pirouettes, but did not know that they were still in use in Cambodia. It was during a meeting, one day of rehearsal with the kantoam ming ensemble of Wat Svay Thom, that the oboist Pon Pong took the famous pirouette out of the bag. We then asked him why he didn't use it. He answered: "not in public". He used it only during rehearsals. This seems to answer once again a problem related to ego; a musician who would play with the pirouette would show that he does not fully master the technique of continuous breathing. We then encouraged Pon Pong to reuse this object to demonstrate the permanence of musical practices in Cambodia. And so it was done.
Sralai pin peat or simply sralai takes its name from its exclusive use in the pin peat ensemble. It consists of a large wooden body, biconical and with a central bulge. It is pierced with six play holes. The four upper holes are equidistant while the two lower holes are slightly further apart, forcing the player to spread the two lower fingers further apart than the four upper fingers. There is a decoration around the holes called kantuet. In addition to its quadruple reed, what characterizes it is its very slightly conical bore, whereas conicity is a characteristic of oboes throughout the world. The body is made of black or red wood: kranhung, neang nuen. The instrument has no pirouette, this piece of horn or metal inserted between the base of the reed and the upper body of the instrument because the large diameter of this sralai already plays this role.
Depending on the structure of the pin peat, the availability of the musicians or the wealth of the sponsor, the pin peat can play without a sralai, with a sralai touch or with the latter associated with the sralai thom.
The playing of sralai, whatever its nature, is based on the technique of continuous breathing, thus meeting the criteria, dear to Khmer music, of refraining from silence, however brief it may be. This constraint, combined with the length of certain ceremonies, makes the practice of the oboe a physical performance. In the past, the oboe was the leader of the pin peat orchestra, a role that is now played by the xylophone roneat ek.
The pin peat ensemble, and the sralai in particular, are a source of inspiration for the decoration of Buddhist monastery buildings. We offer here some examples.
kantoam ming ensemble.
kantoam ming ensemble with one sralai.
kantoam ming ensemble with two sralai.