A Frenchman revives traditional Cambodian kites

Meet Yann Defond who undertakes to revitalize an ancestral Cambodian know-how, that of musical kites.

Known for his process of assimilation thanks to his television appearances and thanks to his testimonial book A Christian in Cambodia, Yann DEFOND continues on his way with a partial professional conversion. He trained in Cambodian musical kites. Beyond their ability to fly, these handcrafted toys are the fruit of a multi-millennium tradition.

Use natural products

Under the name KLENG, Yann manually manufactures aerodynes in accordance with the Khmer tradition. They are made of bamboo, for the structure, rattan, for the sound slat, beeswax, for the sound quality, palm sugar palm, for the tails, jute twine, for the thread of retainer, water hyacinth stalks, for the ties of the arches and sticky rice glue, to fix the recycled paper sail. Could our creative forty-something be an environmentalist?

At first, I made kites from scrap materials. But they are not as attractive as the kites made of natural materials as originally.

He confides to us, and to continue: “These days, this requirement is extremely rare. Manufacturers almost all use nylon, synthetic canvas or chemical glue. Obtaining the same robustness with natural materials requires more work. My creations resist winds of force 6. The fragile rattan ribbons stretched on their bow fixed at the top of the kites are particularly long and delicate to produce. They whistle melodiously as soon as the wind stirs them.”

Yann thus leaned on a local tradition that he appropriated. “As a child, I was a Lucanist. I remember in particular two kites in diamond cut silhouette. They were plastic, one represented a bird and the other a character from the GoBots cartoon that I kept. As a teenager, I also remember my jealousy at seeing one of my little brothers acquire a two-line spinnaker canvas kite to do tricks! Arriving in Cambodia in 2003, I gradually discovered that unlike Europe, Southeast Asia had a real kite-flying tradition. Since then, the idea of ​​learning this art has been in my head. However, it was only six months ago that I took the plunge. I read books, articles, I watched hours of video then I met enthusiasts, participated in festivals. Eventually, a master taught me his skill. »

do everything yourself

This is how Yann tried himself with, at first, more or less success. “Initially, I thought it was just a matter of buying hoops and gluing a canopy. But I was disappointed when I discovered that the production was extremely complicated because you had to do everything yourself! In addition, when you live in town and look for bamboo and rattan, you only find furniture, not living plants that are still tender, ready to be cut and worked! After managing to gather all the required materials, I perfected my technique. The hardest part was bending the hoops when hot. I broke dozens knowing that the preparation of just one represents an hour of work… It cost me a lot of irritation! Nevertheless, by dint of perseverance, I gained experience. I thus developed a first type of musical kite called “old fashioned” 180 centimeters wide by 215 centimeters high. At the same time, I developed a standardized manufacturing process. Now I am also producing a 135 by 150 centimeter musical kite with a so-called “male” wing shape. In addition, to be more easily transported, they are now all removable.

Cambodian kite

The origin of the Khmer kite tradition

The first kite was born in the Indonesian archipelago during prehistory. It was invented within a people of sea fishermen familiar with the use of the force of the wind. Before becoming global, the use of this type of aerodyne first spread to Southeast Asia where, over the centuries, each country developed its own tradition. Kites have been flying in the Southeast Asian peninsula for at least 2000 years. No one knows when the final design of the different silhouettes of Khmer kites dates back to. Nowadays, only the characteristic pnong kites and the kândaung (square) kites truly remain. Among the 27 types of Khmer kites listed, the most common is the pnong kite. This name goes back to before the time of Funan, that is to say before the birth of the Khmer people. It is likely that it was the bounongs, or pnong in Khmer, who invented this family of flying toys including the emblematic musical kite whose rattan slat emits a sound in contact with the wind. At the beginning of the Christian era, this autochthonous ethnic group had not yet found refuge in the hilly and forest regions. Thus its influence in the societies of the Indochinese peninsula was more marked than it is today. Another explanation would have it that the word pnong comes by phonetic derivation from the Khmer word proloeng, soul, since the kite is a universal symbol that connects earth and sky. According to this explanation, the Pnong denomination would therefore not be linked to the Bounong ethnic group.

And to Yann to conclude:

My long-term ambition is to expand my range by reviving all the silhouettes of Khmer kites that have fallen into disuse.

The kite an activity that brings generations together

Since the dawn of time, the use of kites has been linked to the rhythm of agricultural work. They are mainly flown in the dry season, between harvest and the New Year of the Theravada Buddhist calendar, from December to April. These have always been the months of the year when farmers are the least busy. This space of time is also favorable from a meteorological point of view since the winds are more regular there.

It is rather adults who fly the pnong kites and in particular men. Given their size, it is preferable to be several to make them take off. This game favors the collective and intergenerational dimensions. Beyond the excitement or appeasement provided by this game, these kite flyers generally feel great pride in perpetuating an ancestral tradition that had disappeared during the war years.

The Khmer legend of NénChey tells how this ingenious man escaped the hands of the Emperor of China thanks to the invention of the musical kite. Carrying a symbolism linking profane and sacred, material and spiritual, these paper silhouettes were used in Cambodia for royal ceremonies and religious rites. The belief that misfortune befell the hearth from which a kite would fall on the house persists. This superstition explains why people usually play kites away from homes.

KLENG is a transcription in Latin characters of the Khmer word ខ្លែង [khlaɛ:ɲ] which means kite. In fact, this word originally had another meaning which, nowadays, is obsolete. It designated the osprey (pandion haliaetus), a species of diurnal raptor widespread in a large part of the world including Southeast Asia.

Orders are made online. KLENG delivers for free to all cities in Cambodia.

Cambodian kite

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A Frenchman revives traditional Cambodian kites