Whistling a leaflute tune and keeping the art alive

Tthe leaflute is a traditional instrument played by people in rural areas as a form of entertainment, as well as mahouts or hikers who use it to attract animals such as roe deer or elephants.

Pann Rethea

Pann Rethea

The Phnom Penh Post


Master Chhorn Sam Ath plays a musical leaf, known as Phlom Slek, on August 4. CULTURE MINISTRY

August 18, 2022

PHNOM PENH – On August 4 of this year, a team from the Department of Performing Arts under the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts filmed leaflute musician Chhorn Sam Ath, one of the few remaining music masters who can whistle a tune into a leaf to make music.

The filming was conducted to document a unique Cambodian musical instrument made out of leaf for the purpose of research and posterity.

According to researchers, the leaflute is a traditional instrument played by people in rural areas as a form of entertainment and also by mahouts or hikers who use it to attract animals such as roe deer or elephants.

Expressing his support for Sam Ath’s compilation of leaf musical instruments, Chhieng Chhordapheak, deputy director of the Department of Performing Art, said the composition and preservation of a rare art form was necessary, starting with a few remaining resources.

“Because there is not much documentation on this musical instrument and people with skills to play this rare musical instrument, there are very few people who know how to play it now,” Chhordapheak told The Post.

After realising that Sam Ath knew how to play the leaflute, Chhordapheak’s team at the department prepared to film the documentary, which is being done as a basis for further research on the art of the musical instrument.

Currently, Sam Ath, a retired 63-year-old civil servant, works as an assistant in the ministry where he has been working since 1979, but in the traditional dance unit of the Department of Performing Arts.

Sam Ath was born in Koh Chen village in Ponhea Leu district, Kandal province. His father was also a musician in the district and currently lives in Phnom Penh.

Sam Ath is the youngest brother of Professor Pich Tum Krovil (actual name Chhorn Torth) who was born in 1943 but passed away in 2015.

Tum Krovil was a Cambodian scholar of Khmer literature and one of the most famous performing artistes in the Kingdom. He acted in the art theater in the late 1960s and helped to revive several performances after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Sam Ath is a veteran artist with a wide range of artistic talents as he used to be a folk dancer, a Lakhon Bassac and Lakhon Yike actor as well as a flute and leaflute musician for more than four decades.

In an interview with The Post, Sam Ath shared that he studied dance between 1972 and 1973, becoming the youngest to pass the Lakhon Bassac exam at the age of 15 in 1973.

“At the time, I was acting as a comedian in Bassac and Yike. I performed in the roles of Mean Nguon in Tumteav and Phyanoy in Mak Theung,” he said.

From 1981 to 1982, Sam Ath learned how to play the flute, followed by leaflute, though he was not proficient yet. So, he worked as a folk dancer or traditional dancer performing Robam Kngork (peacock dance), Kohtralaok dance and Chhai Yam dance.

“It wasn’t until 1995 when I began playing the leaflute [professionally], which I am doing until today. I am also a traditional dancer with the Department of Performing Arts, where I perform the peacock dance, percussion dance and chaiyam dance,” he said.

Sam Ath also teaches the younger generation how to play the leaflute at the Royal University of Fine Arts.

“In the past, I used to teach students at the School of Fine Arts, but they found it hard to master the art of leaf music. There are almost no students interested in learning it and even when we opened for enrollment, no one was interested to join,” he said.

The technique for leaf whistling requires one to place the leaf between the lips and blow hard to make a sound. There are also several types of leaves used as musical instruments and which produce good sound.

“The leaflute can play all kinds of songs from the past. It just depends on the leaf whistling technique to produce the song,” Sam Ath said, adding that if the leaf is hard, it would be difficult to whistle or make music.

“From my experience, the leaves that produce good quality sound or whistle well are Rumduol, Chrey and Lumpong leaves (similar to Sangke leaves).”

Meanwhile, he shared, it is unfortunate that there is no proper documentation of the origin of the art of leaflute, seeing that it has been passed from one generation to another.

He finds that the melody of the music has a melancholic or romantic feel, often echoing the musician’s sentiments.

“The instrument is often played to while away the time in the rice fields and by a group of mahouts or hikers to attract animals such as roe deer or elephants,” Sam Ath said.

Concerned about the disappearing art of the leaflute and having seen videos of good leaflute players in rural areas in Cambodian provinces on social media, he asked relevant institutions to reach out to them and mobilise resources for those who specialised in the musical instrument.

“In addition to the pleasure of seeing the Department of Performing Arts organise a documentary on me, I hope it would also support and film people who know how to leaf whistle [to document it] for the next generation,” he said.

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