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Crossing borders: the sound of American folk set to meet Cambodian traditional song

Yos Chandara, the dean at RUFA’s Faculty of Music
Yos Chandara, the dean at RUFA’s Faculty of Music. Charlotte Pert

Crossing borders: the sound of American folk set to meet Cambodian traditional song

This weekend, American country group The Amigos will perform with musicians from the Royal University of Fine Arts. Emily Wight reports.

What do American country music and traditional Cambodian songs have in common? Not much. Funny, then, that Kan Chanthou, a teacher and singer of the Kingdom’s traditional folk, has recently become a keen student of accordions and bluegrass country music.

The 26-year-old singing teacher at the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA) is part of a group of teachers and students set to perform this weekend with The Amigos, a folk band from the US, after swapping songs over the internet. She was immediately struck by the differences in style.

“Their songs were happy and rhythmic whereas with ours, the audience just gives themselves to the song, feeling their way along,” said Chanthou, speaking in the peaceful grounds of RUFA’S Faculty of Music earlier this week.

The Amigos, who arrived in Phnom Penh on Tuesday, will perform with RUFA’s musicians on Friday evening in the circus tent opposite the National Assembly, and again in Kampong Speu on Saturday evening, in an event organised as part of the American Music Abroad programme initiated by the US State Department.

Yos Chandara, the dean at the Faculty of Music at RUFA, has chosen five musicians from the university, including Chanthou, to take part in the collaboration. They have been practicing songs from The Amigos, he said – and he sent The Amigos Cambodian songs to practice in the States before they arrived in Phnom Penh. During their performances, the two groups will play both genres together and separately.

Chandara said: “I think it’s very important for our students and teachers to have the chance to exchange cultures, ideas and skills.”

He added: “The people in this world don’t live alone. Cambodia is not an isolated country – we have friends; we have connections in other countries. And culture is not just for our country – it’s for everyone.”

Keo Sophy, a composition teacher at the faculty, is well versed in sharing the music of his homeland with other countries. Last year, he went to South Korea for six months to teach music at the National Theatre of Korea in Seoul. While he was there he also learned to play the gayageum, a traditional Korean harp-like instrument.

He said that he hopes the collaboration with Amigos will offer a similar experience. “I don’t want to live alone in this country. I want it to be multicultural, not just one culture. If students here have more abilities, they might be able to join international people in other countries,” he said.

The members of The Amigos, who come from all over the US but base themselves in New York, are accustomed to mixing different genres of music. Singer and guitarist Justin Poindexter said back home, the band collaborates with great artists of bluegrass, soul and swing among others.

The band’s accordionist, Sam Rieder, said they’re excited to be working with RUFA’s musicians, adding that he expects to find more similarities than differences in their approach. He continued: “It’s easy for people to forget that the history of music really is one of travelling, of music crossing borders. The collaborations we do are a way of expressing the way that the history of music is very interconnected and diverse.”

After performing in Cambodia, the AMA will send The Amigos to China, Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos to collaborate with musicians there.

In Phnom Penh, the US embassy is co-managing the scheme alongside Amrita Performing Arts. The embassy’s public affairs officer Sean McIntosh said that the AMA program is to build on the legacy of the “jazz ambassadors” of the 1950s who, counting Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong among them, travelled the world to connect people through music.

McIntosh said: “We hope these exchanges by Amigos will help promote a positive image of the United States through arts and music, and give Cambodian audiences the chance to directly interact with American artists.”

He added: “The United States is honoured to stand with the Cambodian people as they work to preserve the heritage of their past and nurture new talent and art forms in the present in order to create a better future for generations of Cambodians to come.”

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY VANDY MUONG

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