In the mid-1990s, Arn Chorn-Pond saw master Youen Mek for the first time in 25 years. He was drunk and working as a hairdresser on the streets of Battambang. He looked a far cry from the father figure who had taught Pond the music skills that helped him survive the Khmer Rouge regime.
“He hugged me and he cried,” Pond said. “We were very emotional – he said: ‘You know what I want to do with my life, please give me work to do.’”
The reunion is one of the encounters that will be displayed in Cambodian Living Arts’ (CLA) new retrospective exhibition, 15 Years of Arts for Transformation, which will open tonight to celebrate the organisation’s 15-year anniversary.
As well as the opening of the photography exhibition, which will run until March, tonight’s ceremony will feature the screening of Where Elephants Weep, a film about the first Cambodian rock opera, plus a listening station loaded with recordings of traditional Cambodian songs, and a live music performance.
A gallery will tell the story of the founding of CLA, in particular Pond’s mission to reassemble Cambodia’s surviving artists in a country suffering the effects of decades of war.
The journey started with the Khmer Rouge regime, during which soldiers forced Pond to play revolutionary songs on the flute. Master Mek taught them to him, and saved his life several times. Pond was later forced to become a child soldier, given weapons and sent to the jungle to fight against the invading Vietnamese.
Twenty-five years later, Mek’s plea on the streets of Battambang – where Pond grew up before the Khmer Rouge took power – sowed the seeds of inspiration for CLA, Pond’s creation to which he has devoted the rest of his life.
One by one, he discovered the remaining icons of Cambodian music – all of whom had been dealt a hefty blow by the war – and brought them together to form the Cambodian Master Performers Program in 1998, which later became Cambodian Living Arts, to honour and support the masters of traditional arts.
Pond said: “I found Chek Mach, one of the last opera singers. I’d heard her before in Phnom Penh on the radio, and now I found her on the streets, also drunk. I found the king of the flute, Mr Yim Saing, also drunk on the streets.
There was another Cambodian opera master who sold fried banana on the street and collected trash. So I found them all, and that’s how I started my program.”
Once CLA started paying the artists a monthly salary, they recovered, a spokesperson for the organisation said.
Speaking about the exhibition, Phloeun Prim, CLA’s director, said: “The whole idea was really to bring back memories of the past 15 years: the people, the artists, the masters who have been involved, and showcasing some of that.”
The arts hold a special place in Cambodia’s national psyche, Prim said, because of how much was lost during the Khmer Rouge era. The regime didn’t believe in arts and culture, and killed some 80 per cent of the country’s artists.
Prim said: “Because of the Killing Fields, we lost a generation. The Cambodian tradition has always been passed on through oral transmission from generation to generation.”
Looking to the future, Prim said, CLA’s focus is to “really daring to imagine a Cambodia where the arts and culture are the national signature of the country, not just the killing fields, but the living arts”.
Where Elephants Weep will be screened this evening at 4pm, followed by the opening of the exhibition 15 Years of Arts for Transformation at 6pm and a performance at 6.40pm. The exhibition will run until March 15 and will be at the CLA Gallery, 128-9 Sothearos Boulevard.