Story of Cambodian “Angkuoch” (Jew’s Harp)

The “Jew’s Harp,” a popular musical instrument, can be found in many places around the world, but the Cambodian version is special. It is a priceless component of Cambodia’s living cultural legacy and is known in Khmer as Angkuoch, which is generally pronounced “Aarng-koo-oy.”

It is a traditional musical instrument made of bamboo that has been cut into a long, flat shape with a hole in the middle and a bamboo tongue spanning the hole.

Since the bamboo is not removable, the instrument is traditional.

A round or tree-leaf-shaped metal version is also available. Metal bells could be attached to it.

The instrument has both wind and percussion features.

By holding it up to the mouth and pulling on the reed, it is played as a wind instrument.

There are at least three different kinds of angkuoch in Cambodia:

  • Bamboo (angkuoch russey)
  • Metal (angkuoch daek)
  • Stringed (angkuochksae).

It is unknown if there are any living instrument-makers who are capable of making angkuoch ksae.

How to play the Angkuoch?

Thumb and forefinger of the hand holding the instrument should be facing each other while it is gripped firmly. This gives the instrument more mass and increases its volume. The mouth serves as a resonator and a tool for modifying sound.

Both the majority Khmer population and several ethnic minorities in Cambodia’s different provinces practice angkuoch. Playing angkuoch and enjoying it were common hobbies in rural communities.  As an instrument and a method of performance, angkuoch is presently seriously in danger of disappearing.

Traditional social uses of the angkuoch include rural entertainment, a way for young men to approach and flirt with women, and the accompanying of simple folk songs. Although there don’t seem to be any cultural limitations on women playing or creating the instruments, angkuoch players and makers are mainly men.

Angkuoch russey is occasionally still found in rural areas and is frequently made as tourist souvenirs.

Today, there is an urgent need to preserve Angkuoch and its practices. Only a small number of people still know how to make and play Angkuoch in Cambodia due to social and cultural changes over the past 50 years.

Source: Cambodian Living Arts

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