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Singing Kites Spread Music Through Cambodia's Skies Again

November 13, 2005|Kanharith Socheat | Associated Press Writer

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Sim Sarak fondly recalls the nights of his youth, when the whirring of Cambodia's singing kites filled the air during harvest season.

"I was happy to watch the kite flying in the sky, to hear the beautiful sound of 'ek' and to learn how to make kites from the older people," said Sim Sarak, 55, a director-general at the Culture Ministry.

Those kite-filled nights are long gone -- the tradition was nearly wiped out during by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. But Sim Sarak and other fans of the "khleng ek" are leading efforts to revive its popularity.

"Khleng" is the Cambodian word for kite, while "ek" translates as both "unique" and "musical instrument" -- an apt name for an unusual kite fitted with a bamboo reed that can sound up to seven tones as it flies.

Some Chinese kites have bells or whistles, while other Asian kites have strips that make buzzing sounds. But apparently the only other traditional kite that can produce multiple tones is a Vietnamese kite that carries a row of bamboo flutes, said Sarah St. Vincent, who spent nearly a year in Cambodia researching the khleng ek for a book.

"Khleng ek are one of only a few kinds of musical kite in the world, and they're one of only a very few types that are capable of producing more than one tone," St. Vincent wrote via e-mail.

Close up, the sound is similar to the buzz of a beehive. But to many Cambodians, it is music.

"We always joked while we were flying kites, saying that ek's sound is beautiful and others are bad," Sim Sarak said.

It is thought the khleng ek originated around 400 BC. Ancient people in Cambodia apparently flew it to pray for rain for their crops and to give thanks for bountiful harvests.

Thousands of years later, Cambodians still flew it in the spirit of that agricultural tradition, but also as a way to bond with their neighbors -- the oversize kites can't be flown by just one person.

"I found that kite makers love kites for two main reasons: First, kites are a symbol of Cambodia and Cambodian people; second, kites give these men a chance to spend time with their friends, relatives and neighbors," said St. Vincent, whose work was supported by the Drachen Foundation, a nonprofit group focused on kites made around the world.

Making the khleng ek was one of several arts that suffered heavily under the spartan regime of the ultra-communist Khmer Rouge, which ruled the country from 1975 to 1979. Starvation, disease, overwork and execution claimed more than 1 million lives during the regime.

While watching a television program about kites several years ago, Sim Sarak recalled the khleng ek of his youth and set about promoting the craft. He founded the country's national kite museum and organized its first kite festival in 1994, with nearly 30 participants.

Last year, about 100 Cambodians and international kite fliers joined in that festival. The next one is scheduled for December.

Sim Sarak and some kite makers plan to teach rural Cambodian children how to make the kite.

"I feel proud to keep Cambodian culture alive," Sim Sarak said.

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