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Percussionist beats challenges to preserve art

Update: September, 14/2014 - 17:31
Concert: A pentatonic music band performs in Soc Trang Province.

Soc Trang musician Danh Sol brought new life to the Khmer tradition of pentatonic music. Chanh Da and Trung Hieu report.

People always refer to Danh Sol of Dai Tam Commune, My Xuyen District, in southern province of Soc Trang, as the master of the Khmer pentatonic orchestra.

In Soc Trang, Sol is renowned as the oldest and best teacher and performer of pentatonic music, which involves the beating of percussion instruments.

Though 85 years of age, his senses remains sharp, his hands are still deft and most especially, his hearing remains sound. When listening to a trainee musician playing, he can detect whether the instrument needs tuning or fixing or whether the student is playing the wrong way and needs guidance.

In past years, Sol's fame continued to spread beyond the confines of Soc Trang, and it is not unusual for him to receive invitations from pagodas in neighbouring provinces to teach pentatonic music bands there.

His father died when Sol was only eight years old. At the time, he was sent to Chroy Tum Kandal Pagoda to train as a novice.

At that age, children usually prefer to eat, sleep and play. But Sol was different. Every night, upon seeing local elders arrive at the pagoda to play pentatonic instruments, he would sit, listen and remember. He was able to play numerous pentatonic melodies from memory.

Whenever he had the time, Sol asked the monks for permission to practise alone on a pentatonic instrument set in the lobby of the pagoda. Day by day, with his passion for music and the expert guidance of elders, Sol became proficient in the use of the instruments.

"Seeing that I loved pentatonic music, the old musicians became enthusiastic about guiding me. There are 50 to 60 pentatonic music pieces, so I had to learn how to play for almost two years to master them," revealed Sol.

"At first, I found it hard to remember. I had to number each fret to beat up the music. I had to focus my ears on the music and my eyes, hands and fingers on the instruments to beat the right rhythm," he recalled.

At age 15, Sol became the youngest performer of the pagoda's pentatonic music troupe.

Since then, he had joined the troupe in numerous performances in and outside the province.


Beat box: Musician Danh Sol plays a traditional pentatonic musicial instrument. — VNS Photos Chanh Da


But after some time, the troupe's elder members died, and the troupe became inactive.

Saddened by the troupe's inactivity. Sol joined other public arts groups to perform pentatonic music. After four years working for public arts groups, he returned to Chroy Tum Kandal Pagoda and asked the chief monk for permission to resurrect the troupe.

"When I returned to the pagoda in 1959, I found out that many of the troupe's musical instruments were damaged, left in storage and neglected, so I decided to re-organise the orchestra and maintain them until my last breath," he said.

About the Khmer

The Cuu Long (Mekong) River Delta is now home to more than 1.2 million Khmers, mostly in the provinces of Soc Trang, Tra Vinh, Kien Giang and An Giang.

The ethnic Khmer are wet-rice cultivators who rely on the plough. They are also experts in fishing, mat and textile weaving, knitting, pottery and the extraction and processing of sugar from sugar palm-trees. They have their own script and a rich collection of legends and folk tales.

He restored the musical instruments to their old glory and visited each family in the region to persuade local people to join the band. He was able to recruit seven people, enough for a Khmer orchestra.

Sol began teaching them, and the troupe continues to perform to this today. Venerable Thich Thanh Dung, the pagoda's chief monk, remarked: "Today, Soc Trang has many pentatonic music groups, but people comment that the troupe of Danh Sol is the best as it can make their ears happy."

"The pagoda has a good troupe of skilled players and a talented music teacher like Sol, which is like a very precious treasure," the chief monk said. "Thanks to him, the preservation of the unique culture and arts of the Khmer people remains sustainable."

Besides Sol's troupe, Soc Trang also has other art troupes who have devoted their lives to the practice of traditional arts.

They include the Ro Bam Bung Chong troupe. Ro Bam is a Khmer stage art. The troupe was determined to preserve the art despite financial difficulties.

There are also the farmer artists of Du Ke, a Khmer folk dance, in the districts of Tran De and Chau Thanh. They are farmers by day but dancers by night, and perform daily to entertain residents.

These artists have made great contributions to the preservation of unique art forms in Soc Trang, said Sol.

"Pentatonic music is the soul, the root, and the essence of the Khmer community. Teaching this folk art to younger generations is my greatest joy and happiness in life," Sol added. — VNS

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