Last update : December 5, 2023
There are two xylophones among the Khmers: roneat ek រនាតឯក (also transliterated roneat aek) and roneat thung (roneat thong). Roneat ek is also called, but more rarely, roneat rut.
Each roneat consists of a boat-shaped wooden soundboard on which are suspended black or red wood (kranhung, beng, neang nuon) or bamboo (russey ឬស្សី) strips, 21 for roneat ek and 16 for roneat thung. The first stands on a central foot while the second has feet at the four corners. The blades are arranged in a plane along the curve of the sounding board, with two strings connecting each of them through two side holes. These holes are 2/9 of the total length from the ends, corresponding to the vibration nodes of the blades. During the manufacturing process, the blades are tuned :
1. By removing material from underneath, between the two vibration nodes and at the ends,
2. By applying beeswax mixed with lead shot to each lower end. Musicians themselves perform this last operation when they have to adapt their instrument to a new ensemble or retune it because the wax dries and disintegrates, changing the tuning.
The two pieces of wood (khawals, khaols) at the ends of the roneat ek's sound box are triangular in shape; those of the roneat thung are more like an arc of a circle.
The boat-shaped soundboard is either rough and varnished or decorated: stencilled painting of floral motifs, carving or bone inlay (formerly ivory).
In the pin peat orchestra, the roneat ek always stands to the right of the roneat thung.
Numerous undocumented beliefs and assertions flood the literature, both general public and scientific. Therefore we will not express ourselves on this subject. On the other hand, following our own research, we can advance: the first known images of a xylophone in Cambodia are found on two frescoes of the 16th century, (provisional date pending a scientific expertise), in the central sanctuary of Angkor Wat (bakan). They take place next to other instruments still known today in the pin peat ensemble. See our article here. However, it is likely that xylophones made of bamboo or wood, but without a soundbox, have existed for centuries. Ethnic minorities on the border borders of Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos have them. We know the multi-blade lithophones discovered in Vietnam and dating from very ancient times (no precise dating for the moment). It seems difficult to imagine that men have invented such magnificent and complex instruments without first having gone through a bamboo and/or wooden version.
The oldest photographs of roneat were taken by the French photographer Émile Gsell at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh around 1866-70.
Let us simply note that such xylophones, organized by couple, are also played in Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. They differ visually in the same way, with similar amounts, attesting to a common origin.
The range of the roneat ek is 21 blades / 7 notes per octave = 3 octaves and that of the roneat thung is 16 blades / 7 notes = 2 octaves and one second. The tuning depends on the generation of the musician, the region of Cambodia and the nature of the orchestra. In the past, it was equiheptatonic, but it became diatonic under the influence, first of all of the French Protectorate, and then of the massive diffusion of diatonic and chromatic Western music in the media.
These two instruments are used in pin peat and mahori orchestras. When the pin peat is complete, there are two xylophones: roneat ek and roneat thung; otherwise, only the roneat ek. From the point of view of tradition, the first is considered the female voice and the second the male voice, which, from the point of view of Khmer symbolism, is nonsense. Indeed, in a married Khmer couple (if these two roneat are considered as such), the woman is always placed to the left of her husband, a tradition already visible in the bas-reliefs of the Bayon period (late 12th - early 13th century). This tends to prove, if it were useful, that the pin peat set is not of Khmer origin. In ethnic minority gong ensembles, including some proto-Khmer ones, the largest gong - the lowest voice of the ensemble - is always named "mother" and the second - with the voice one higher -, "father".
The blades are struck with a pair of mallets whose cylindrical heads are covered with fabric or felt. On the roneat ek, the melody is played the melody with the mallets following each other by the octave. The musician of the roneat thung plays according to a dissociated play between the two hands. In the orchestra, the roneat ek plays variations of the melody, which is usually carried, depending on the type of ensemble, by a singer or the sralai oboe player. Stylistically speaking, the roneat ek is played mainly in octaves. To make it easier for beginners to play, the two mallets are linked together by a string at a distance of one octave, all blades being of the same width.
The roneat thung sounds one octave below the roneat ek.
On December 3, 2017, more than 5,000 orange-clad monks were invited by the Royal Government of Cambodia for a peace offering ceremony at Angkor Wat. The pin peat ensemble of the Royal Palace played traditional music while the faithful made offerings to the monks. Note the coat of arms of Khmer royalty and the floral decorations inlaid on the sounding board of the two roneat. The roneat thung stands canonically to the left of the roneat ek.
The pin peat and roneat in particular are a source of inspiration for the decoration of Buddhist monastery buildings. Here we offer some examples.