Chum Ngek, Cambodian musician, performer and teacher arrived in the United States in 1982 on a dance tour from a refugee camp. Since then he has become a leading figure of the Washington, DC, Cambodian community.
He is also a nationally acclaimed teacher of the roneat (a classical Cambodian instrument that resembles the xylophone) and been honoured by the National Endowment for the Arts for preserving traditional Cambodian music.
Carolyn Lang caught up with Ngek earlier this week at the Cambodian Community Day in Alexandria, Virginia where he was instructing the Mohori Phirum Ensemble, which plays traditional Cambodian music.
1. When and where did you begin playing the roneat?
I learned by ear from my grandfather in Battambang, where I was born and raised. I listened to him while he was teaching his students. I was the first and only child in my family who studied music. I lived with my grandfather when I was growing up, not with my father and my mother. A lot of students came to our home to learn music from my grandfather, but he didn’t want me to learn music, he wanted me to study in school.
But when I saw the other students learning, I had a strong desire to learn myself. Since my grandfather wouldn’t let me, I went outside to play, but I could still hear the music, and my ears were always listening. I don’t really know what happened to me. I think that every day, all day, I heard music. It stuck in my mind and I wanted to learn.
2. How did you learn to play?
The first thing I learned was keeping the beat. My grandfather agreed to teach me the songs by having me sing the melodies without words.
I just sang, “nai, nai, nai, nai” before I started to play on the instruments. He had me start out humming the tunes like that. After that, he let me play the drums, the big drums, and he taught me to play easy patterns on them. But my grandfather was not a professional in roneat aik.
So when he learned that I wanted to play roneat, he sent me to study with Master Chou Nit. Later, I studied roneat with Krou Van and Krou Chhuorm, too. So, in all, I had three teachers for roneat aik.
3. At what point did you realise you would be able to teach others?
I can say that I started to teach when I was about 15 years old. But back then, I could not be called a ‘teacher’. People looked at me as an ‘assistant teacher’. If I had taken a teaching test, I would have passed; however, based on my age at that time, it was difficult for people to give me respect.
People were more concerned with age. Yet, once in a while, when my teacher was busy, he asked me to coach on his behalf. And the fee was different.
4. It is clear your musical expertise has contributed to the Cambodian community in the Washington, DC, area. When and why were you recognised by the National Endowment for the Arts?
I was able to come to the Washington, DC, area of the United States because the National Council for Traditional Arts was taking a dance group I worked with (the Khmer Classical Dance Troupe) in Khao I Dang Refugee Camp on a tour of the United States. That was in 1982.
The tour was facilitated by the National Endowment for the Arts and the State Department. They needed a music director and musicians. They remembered me from the camps and brought me to the US to make the music for the tour. That’s how I began contributing to the community, not only in the DC area but all over the US.
In 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts honoured me with the Bess Lomax Hawes Award, the NEA National Heritage Fellowship conferred upon one artist who has significantly benefited his or her tradition through teaching and preserving important repertoires. I received it for all of the work I do to preserve my music, as a teacher and a performer.
5. How do you find students? Do you teach your younger students about the history of Cambodia they might not be familiar with?
I have a lot of students in the Cambodian community who study with me on Sundays. They come to me mainly through two local organisations where I teach: The Cambodian Buddhist Society in Silver Spring, Maryland, and Cambodian American Heritage in Arlington, Virginia.
Some students extend their learning by studying privately with me. I use traditional teaching methods, where we focus on playing through imitation. Students also learn about the history and context of the music.
6. Has it been easy to connect with the Cambodian community in Maryland? What other kinds of events do you attend that are related to Cambodia?
The Cambodian community brought me here in 1982. I have been a part of it ever since. So you might say it has grown around me. I also play wedding music (phleng kar), so I perform for a large number of weddings in the Cambodian community. Sometimes I travel to other states to do so. I also teach music at the Cambodian Buddhist Society in Silver Spring, Maryland. I am a member of the temple, and I play music there with my ensembles and students for the New Year, seasonal ceremonies and festivals.
7. How is the music of the Mohori Phirium Ensemble influenced by Buddhism? What other influences are present in your musical expression?
The Mohori Phirum Ensemble plays music from the mohori repertoire. Mohori is considered to be secular entertainment music. Common people enjoy it and the songs depict various aspects of daily life in Cambodia, such as working in the fields and separating from a lover. Buddhism plays no role. Our group does play at celebrations at the temple, though, because our temple is as much of a community centre as it is a religious centre.