Just before dawn, I am roused from sleep by soft sounds of early morning and the gentle stirrings of my neighbours as they prepare for the day: sweeping, shuffling feet, low voices, a radio playing softly, the faint hiss of frying food. Then, gradually, as the sky lightens, new layers of sounds expand my aural horizon and extend it into the city beyond my neighbourhood: bread vendors crying "numpan" as they walk through the streets, the steadily increasing hum of motorcycle traffic, the beeping of horns on the main streets. It is now 6 A.M. on a February morning in Phnom Penh, and, as I sit down to breakfast, I suddenly hear, in the distance, the voice of a popular Cambodian singer, blaring, distorted through loudspeakers. It is a recording of the song, "Caiw Priehm," played by a phleng kar somai (popular wedding music ensemble). Somewhere nearby, a household is preparing for a wedding.1
In her ethnography of Khmer village life in the early 1960s, "Svay, a Khmer Village in Cambodia," May Ebihara writes that "[Khmer]2 [w]eddings are the most joyous, delightful and (along with funerals) the most extravagant and elaborate of all life cycle ceremonies."3 In the years following the publication of that dissertation, Cambodia entered perhaps the darkest period of its history, a period of prolonged violence and despair that has shattered the lives of its citizens and left the country's infrastructure and institutions in tatters: the genocidal horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime, a decade of Vietnamese occupation, years of civil war, hardship, loss, and poverty. Through at least some of that time, many traditional Khmer practices were banned, including life cycle rituals and traditional performing arts. The UN-supervised democratic elections of 1993 brought some hope of an end to the years of political and social unrest, and for some Khmer, new economic opportunities as thousands of peacekeepers arrived in the capital. Although fighting between government forces and the Khmer Rouge continued in several provinces after the elections, during my research (late 1993 to early 1994), Phnom Penh was relatively safe and peaceful. Khmer weddings in Phnom Penh, once again, were lavish, festive, and expensive, requiring days of preparation and straining the budgets of both families. Once again, the sounds of wedding music could be heard in the early morning hours on the streets of Phnom Penh. Although many Cambodians insist that the "proper" Khmer wedding ceremony should be (and was, several decades ago) a three-day event, today, most Khmer weddings in Phnom Penh are held on a single day, the ceremony proper in the morning, a photo session and visit to the temple in the afternoon, and, if the families are wealthy enough, a dinner-dance party in the evening.
From the time the ceremony begins, with the procession to the bride' s house to its conclusion some five hours later, wedding musicians play almost continually. Pre-recorded phleng kar somai is used before the ceremony begins, broadcast at the bride's family house as participants busily prepare for the event, and it is this music that one often hears blaring from neighbourhood houses in the early morning.4 But once the wedding begins, the rituals of the ceremony must always be performed with live music. In other Khmer rituals and ceremonies, such as funerals, it is perfectly acceptable to use a prerecorded cassette instead of live musicians, but for any proper Khmer wedding, no matter how modest, live wedding music is not merely preferred, but considered essential.
In recent years, there has been an explosion of traditional Khmer weddings in Phnom Penh, with a corresponding increase in numbers of wedding musicians to perform at them. Socio-economic changes brought by the bubble of economic prosperity and political stability surrounding the UN-supervised democratic elections have encouraged more urban Cambodians to incur the tremendous financial costs the average Khmer wedding entails. …