The Art Of AYAI
By: Prak Samnang..Photos by: Chan Thul ( December, 2002 Volume 2 No.12 )

Ayai is a popular art form that is held in high esteem by Khmer people all through Cambodia, particularly those living in rural areas. It involves two people pitching their wits against each other through singing. One singer poses a question or a quiz and the other sings an answer in response. Sometimes, like poems, Ayai verses are required to rhyme. Although there is no prize for the best lyrics, people always enjoy themselves and audiences love it. The art form originated from popular routines, like many other Khmer traditions. In the past, Cambodian people would perform traditional games - which often included singing and dancing - in their villages, most often during the Khmer New Year festival and other celebrations. People often sang these songs, and found them both uplifting and interesting. Later, people would organize groups of musicians to gather in different villages. The group with the best singer would be well applauded. Good singers need to be intelligent, have a strong voice and creative ideas. Legend has it that there was once a singer who had a very good tone and was also creative in composing songs for his musical group. His name was Ayai. Now, people name this kind of singing after the legendary singer.

Nowadays, people singing in Ayai performances are given a topic to sing about. Two singers stand at the front of the stage while musicians sit playing instruments behind them. The vocalists describe a story and tell jokes directly to the audience. These singers need to sing humorously and in rhyme. One singer begins the story then the other starts a new sentence that rhymes with the other singer's line. The singers need to be quick and intelligent in forming sentences that rhyme. Young Ayai singers have to learn rhyming words by heart at home before a performance.

Ayai combines the art of story telling with jokes, legends, politics and history. Singers do not need to look that attractive, as they need only to project their sweet voice. But it is a bonus if a singer is attractive as well as talented. Sometimes Ayai is performed on the radio, so there is no need to even see the singers' faces. People enjoy listening to Ayai on the radio, and several Cambodian stations broadcast programs late at night. When Ayai is boring, it can make people fall into deep sleep. But it can also keep people awake and very well entertained, when performed well.

Six kinds of musical instruments accompany an Ayai performance. There is the Tro Sor (a violin-like instrument with light tones), the Tro Ou (another violin-like instrument that has hard, heavy tones), the Takhe (a guitar-like instrument), the Kloy (a kind of flute), the Skor (a hand-drum), and the Choeng (tiny pair of cymbal) Some musicians also include one more instrument, called a Khim (a harp with 16 strings which is struck with bamboo hammers). About 15 songs make up an average Ayai performance.

No nation on earth can survive without its culture, customs, tradition and religion. Ayai serves three purposes in preserving Cambodia's heritage as the nation with the longest and oldest history in South East Asia. Firstly, Ayai preserves the Khmer traditions that were refined during the Angkorian period. Secondly, Ayai adds value to Khmer literature, because any singer needs to be well-read if he is to be a professional Ayai singer. The final purpose is to demonstrate the artistic and creative skills of Ayai singers to Cambodian people.

In previous times, singers learned the art of Ayai from elderly people or artists living in their community; there was no school where you could learn how to sing Ayai. But times have changed: since the start of this year, aspiring Ayai artists have been able to sign up to Ayai courses at the faculty of traditional Khmer music, at Phnom Penh's Royal University of Fine Arts. Chin Cheang and his wife Ouk Sopha, both very popular Ayai performers, are teaching the course.

The Dean of the faculty of traditional Khmer music, Ven Phat said: "We want to keep this tradition with us forever. People will forget about Ayai if there is no school for students to learn this art." But establishing a new course like this hasn't been easy. "We have only had 15 students since establishing the new Ayai School," the dean said. "We do not have many students yet, but we hope there will be more joining the course from the countryside," he added. It seems young people do not want a career as an Ayai singer because they think that they will earn a low wage. But there are still some people who love the style of Ayai and come to learn about it. "Eligible applicants must have a good tone, and have finished the 9th grade of high school," Ven Phat said.

To keep the tradition alive, Chin Cheang and Ouk Sopha are enthusiastically sharing as much of their experience as possible with the few students they now have. They are hoping that more young people will come forward to learn traditional Khmer arts, maybe not only to make a living out of it, but perhaps to just enjoy the art and help preserve a tradition that might otherwise become extinct.