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The Last Master

Sok Duch, sole surviving virtuoso of the Kse Diev, worries for the future of traditional Khmer arts
Today, there are only about 20 professional Kse Diev players in Cambodia. Sok Duch trained them all.

Sok Duch may be the last expert practitioner of a classical Khmer instrument and a UNESCO "living human treasure," but he struggles to convince his granddaughter to sit and listen to him play. A hardwood, single stringed instrument not unlike South Asian zithers, the kse diev is ancient - it appears on the walls of the Bayon Temple - and produces a similar resounding pitch when plucked. With huge, swollen hands that are now prone to trembling, Duch, 88, demonstrates that by resting or lifting the halved dried gourd from his chest, the kse diev can produce a wide range of pitches - in fact, a full 12-note scale. It is materially and metaphorically an instrument "played from the heart."


Duch was the only kse diev master to survive the torments of the Khmer Rouge regime, when scores of artists starved or were killed. While he has mentored a new generation of players over the past few decades, Duch is still anxious for the fate of classical Khmer music. He worries that the indimidating instrument, which relies as much on the performer's expressivity as much as technique, and a lack of enthusiasm among younger musicians may consign the kse diev to cultural irrelevance. Read more in Vandy Muong's profile, featured in The Phnom Penh Post.

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