Ponn Yinn

Classical Cambodian music

Pin peat, the percussive classical music of Cambodia, has been passed from master to apprentice for more than a thousand years.  Because this art form has no written notation, it must be learned through imitation and repetition.

During the years of the Khmer Rouge’s “killing fields,” pin peat almost disappeared though the death of perhaps 90 percent of its practitioners.  Those who survived have spent the rest of their lives attempting to pass their knowledge and skill along to the next generation so that the art form will remain a lively and important part of Cambodian culture.

An ethnic Khmer, Ponn Yinn was born and raised in Cambodia, where he fell in love with music.  At sixteen he joined an orchestra and later organized his own musical group and joined the military band.  In 1959, he was appointed principal musician and teacher of the Classical Symphony of the Army for the Royal Ballet.  Even after fleeing Cambodia in 1979, Yinn was able to follow his love of music, participating in orchestras in the refugee camp in Thailand and later coming to the United States.   In 1986, he formed the first pin peat ensemble in California.  Ponn said, “In my head and in my heart live the complicated rhythms and sounds of the traditional music of my native country.  Playing music is the only vocation I have ever known.  It even saved my life.  During the barbaric rule of Pol Pot, I was accused of being a former government soldier, for which I would be punished with death.  When I told them I was a musician, they didn’t believe me.  So I drilled a few holes in a bicycle handlebar and played a tune for them.  With this proof, they allowed me to live.”

In 2001, Ponn was a master artist in ACTA’s Apprenticeship Program with his son and apprentice Andrew Yinn.  Ponn considers his son Andrew his “gift” to the future of Cambodian culture.  Andrew is Ponn’s most dedicated and promising apprentice and they have performed together hundreds of times since Andrew began studying music as an eight-year-old with his father.

Ponn passed away in 2001 after a lengthly illness.  His children continue to carry on the family mahori ensemble, led by Andrew.


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