PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — A man draws a bamboo bow across a stringed instrument. The soft, tinny noise sounds like a harmonica.
A young man's fingers float across a wooden flute that sounds like a bird, while a woman chants in the trio's tribal language.
They are in a recording studio hundreds of miles from their villages at the edge of a jungle, performing the music of the Kroeng, an ethnic minority in northeastern Ratanakkiri province.
It's part of an effort by a Cambodian American group, Silapak Khmer Amatak (Cambodian Living Arts), to breathe life into a dying art that is thought to have once been a staple in daily life.
But their work is tough: Many musicians were killed by the genocidal Khmer Rouge, and youth today seem more interested in karaoke than their ancestors' legacy.
The program began about five years ago, starting with finding Cambodia's top musicians, known as masters.
Today, it runs several projects, including paying masters to teach, creating a music library and taking a mobile recording studio around Cambodia.
The music has been passed down orally through the generations, so historians aren't sure how old it is, but some of the instruments are depicted in stone carvings at the temples of Angkor Wat, which are up to 1,200 years old.
Efforts to put the music on paper were under way in the 1960s but ground to a halt under the Khmer Rouge.
The 1975-79 regime abhorred intellectuals, including teachers, artists and doctors. It has been estimated that up to 90% of Cambodia's musicians died, said Sam-Ang Sam, a Cambodian ethnomusicologist living in Arlington, Va.
In "the oral tradition, when the musicians die, they take along with them the knowledge and memory ... before it can be passed on, so it's gone," he said.
The Silapak Khmer Amatak program was founded by Arn Chorn-Pond, a Cambodian American who was forced by the Khmer Rouge to play the flute during executions.
He left Cambodia as a teenage refugee, settling in Jefferson, N.H. He returned nearly 20 years later to find his family and his music teacher, Yoeun Mek -- a man who helped him survive the Khmer Rouge. The pair had a tearful reunion.
"He said ... 'I know, I feel you have something for me to do, Arn, I know.' So that was it," said Arn Chorn-Pond, now a human rights campaigner.
From there, he went hunting for some of Cambodia's other greats, offering them money to teach.
Some had become barbers, cigarette vendors, trash collectors. Many had become heavy drinkers and were in poor health.
Now about 20 masters, whose expertise ranges from the two-stringed fiddle to the long-necked guitar, are teaching at least 200 students, including Americans. They receive $80 a month.
"I'm racing against time, but it's an explosion. I could not be happier now," Arn Chorn-Pond said.
The group has identified extinct instruments like the Cambodian harp, which they plan to bring back to life.
It's possible to revive something that is "basically vanished," said Scot Stafford, a San Francisco music producer who heads the recording efforts. "Things can be re-created, like we're re-creating the harp."
Cambodia's vast musical repertoire has been influenced by Indian culture, animist beliefs and Buddhism, the country's main religion. The music is part of ceremonies marking events in a person's entire life, Mao Phoeung, a master, wrote in his book "Understanding the Art of Khmer Music."
Mao Phoeung, who was present during the Ratanakkiri trio's recording, said they should learn each others' music.
"It's like eating habits. It's not good when I only eat rice or bread and you eat only fruit," he said. "We have to try each others' dishes to know what our ancestors thousands of years ago have left for us."
"There are dozens of forms of music that are on the edge of extinction, like a species," said Charley Todd, project coordinator for the Boston-based program, part of World Education, a nonprofit group.
If no one intervenes, they could "disappear within 10 years," he said.
The music is especially important to a people recovering from three decades of conflict.
For Cambodians, "music and culture and their dance is their soul," Arn Chorn-Pond said. "How can we find healing if we don't even know who we are?"
Young musicians are banging, clattering and tapping out that healing in the masters' classrooms.
On a recent winter day, Mao Phoeung was teaching eight students the chords of an ancient song -- one by one and without sheet music.
He knelt or stood with his eyes almost closed, listening to the students and their instruments: a horn, drums, xylophones, cymbals and gongs.
For one student, learning such music as "pinpeat," played in shadow theater, court dance or royal ceremonies, is a way to connect to people in her village who play traditional instruments.
"I used to think that I have to help revive the Khmer culture, to make the pinpeat music flourish like the pop music," said Uy Chantra, 21, who plays the iron xylophone. Now, "I feel that one day I can really show my achievement in my village."