Last update: June 3, 2021
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 mohaori 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 mohaori, phleng kar, and aayaaye wedding entertainment sets.
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 pieces are 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 mohaori music whose main instrument is the krapeu.
phleng kar wedding music . Kompong Cham.
mohaori music . Bakong, Siem Reap prov.