Last update: October 4, 2023
The krapeu ក្រពើ is a three-stringed box zither. This Khmer term, also transliterated kropeu, means "crocodile". It is also known by the Siamese origin name takhe តាខេ (chakhe/jakhe จะเข้, itself derived from chorakhe จระเข้) and whose translation is the same. It owes its name to an ancient monoxyle crocodile-shaped instrument. It later evolved towards today's technology, but always with its crocodile mouth, before its lines became pure and neutral, probably because of the fear inspired by this reptile, symbol of death. Its origin is probably Mon.
In the mahori orchestra of the royal court of Cambodia in the 20th century, the krapeu came in two sizes: krapeu ek and krapeu thung.
The contemporary krapeu is the "grandson" of the monoxyle crocodile-shaped instrument. The latter was like the kyam ကျာံ (pronounced "chyam") from Myanmar. The literature affirms that the krapeu is a declination of the chapei. This assertion is unfounded, even if some organological principles are similar.
The crocodile-shaped board zither is the daughter of the ancient monoxyle zither. It seems to have been a necessary evolution because the monoxyle zither was not enough sound. The larger volume of the soundbox and the type of wood used (jackfruit wood) both contribute to better acoustics. This zither is no longer played in Cambodia. The last Khmer zither player, who lived in Surin, the Khmer-speaking province of Thailand, passed away in the early 2010's. The instrument opposite was built by Mr. Sok Houen at the instigation of Patrick Kersalé, from an original preserved in the Cambodian Cultural Village of Siem Reap.
Last Khmer crocodile-shaped zither player. Thailand, Surin province. Photo © Michel Antelme.
In this video, Men Pheakdey plays the instrument reconstructed by Mr. Sok Houen.
The krapeu is made of jackfruit wood. It is 1.30 m long and stands on three or five feet a dozen centimeters high. The anterior part, narrow, is rounded or triangular, while the posterior part, formerly corresponding to the crocodile's tail, is wider and ends in a triangle. The instrument has twelve frets (khtung ខ្ទង់) made of neang nuon wood which are usually covered with bone. They were once made of ivory. The three pegs (pronuot ព្រលួត) are also generally carved from neang nuon wood. The bridge (prakien) was formerly in ivory; today it is in wood, wood and bone, or in resin whose color and texture tend to imitate ivory.
The highest string is called ksae aek (ខ្សែ ឯក), the second ksae ko (ខ្សែ គ), and the third, lowest, ksae ko santor. All three are attached to a small thin copper box called គីង្គក់ “toad” whose role is to amplify the sound by making a crackle. This device already existed on the zithers of ancient India. This type of sound, which has always been sought after by Indian musicians, can be found on contemporary chapei and the pei ar oboe.
The krapeu playing uses the tremolo technique (like the mandolin playing). Some musicians are particularly virtuosos. The krapeu is used in mahori, phleng kar, and aayaaye wedding entertainment sets.
In October 2023, the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) in Phoenix, Arizona, sought Sounds of Angkor's expertise to examine a krapeu/takhe that had miraculously emerged from the 19th century. Although information on this instrument is limited, a combination of scientific investigation and intuitive archaeology has uncovered some tangible elements.
Photographs kindly provided by the MIM have led to a major discovery: the use of springs inside the instrument, similar to the chapei in the Musée de la Musique de Paris.
This instrument is similar to the one photographed by Émile Gsell at the Royal Court of Cambodia around 1866/71. There are two photographs of this instrument, one where it is played by a female musician at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, the other, still life style, among the instruments of the mahori orchestra .
What's different :
What's missing on the instrument :
At that time, at the court of King Norodom I, this zither was called takhe (តាខេ). We know this from a text by Frenchman Jean Moura: “Le royaume du Cambodge” - 1883”.
The soundbox is made of Jackfruit wood. The nut, pegs, feet and decorative parts are made of elephant ivory. The piece surrounding the opening into which the strings are plunged is made of pewter (MIM information).
Six frets remain from the original eleven. If we number them from the nut, frets 3, 4, 5, 6, 8 and 10 remain. On the photograph of the general plan, lighter traces can be seen marking the location of the missing frets.
The instrument has five "resonator springs", three on one side, two on the other. It was common practice at the time to insert this type of spring-loaded rod into the soundbox of Siamese krajappi.
We believe we can confirm that this instrument comes from the same workshop as the one photographed by Émile Gsell at the Royal Court of Cambodia. It is highly probable that this instrument was made by the Siamese and not the Khmers. Until 1866, when Cambodia signed a protectorate agreement with France, the country was under Siamese rule: the Palace dance mistresses were Siamese, and both Siamese and Khmer were spoken at court. Even the crown placed on the king's head in 1866 was made in Bangkok! Jean Moura asserts that the standard of Khmer craftsmanship was very low in Cambodia at the time. It is even likely that this krapeu/takhe was made in the same workshop as the chapei in the Musée de la Musique de Paris and the one in the Royal Court of Cambodia. This gratuitous assertion is based on the high quality of the craftsmanship.
As for the recent history of this instrument, we know from the MIM that it was bought from a Belgian owner who had himself purchased it from a Parisian antique dealer.
Since September 2023, Sounds of Angkor has been staffed by a team of intuitors to unravel the mysteries that science cannot solve. To find out more, click here.
So we've tried to glean some information about the instrument's past and how it was made. The initial results are interesting and relevant. Pending further information, it seems clear that it was made in Siam. It also appears that this type of instrument was made for the court (Siam, Cambodia) or for high dignitaries, but not for ordinary people, given the quality of its manufacture, the materials used and, consequently, its cost. There seems to be unanimous agreement that this instrument was played by women (as confirmed by iconography in both Siam and Cambodia).
In 1930, during his visit to the Court of Cambodia, King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) of Thailand received from the hands of King Sisowath Monivong several prestigious musical instruments, including this krapeu. Preciously preserved since then, it is now exhibited at the National Museum of Bangkok in a perfect state of preservation. All light-colored parts are in ivory. Thank you to the Thai curators for protecting this treasure!
The two videos below present respectively an example of phleng kar wedding music and mahori music whose main instrument is the krapeu.
phleng kar wedding music . Kompong Cham.
mahori music . Bakong, Siem Reap prov.