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Finding purpose in song

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Heng Sovann Reaksmey turned to music as a way of overcoming despair of his disabilities. Now, he hopes to help others transform their lives with music

Photo by:

Sovann Philong

Heng Sovann Reaksmey performs outside Pencil Supermarket in Phnom Penh in January.

Making music has never come easy to the Reaksmey Band, but a love of performing and a strong dedication to its members have helped the group overcome a variety of challenges, not the least of which are physical.

Formed in 2000, the Reaksmey, or "disabled", band now comprises 12 members with physical disabilities ranging from blindness to withered or missing limbs.

Heng Sovann Reaksmey, 29, the namesake and founder of the band, lost his sight in one eye and suffered a broken leg that never properly healed when he was 12. He first made something of a name for himself as a solo performer.

"I worked hard to create the band because I love music. I can sing and play music. Many audiences supported my performances. They liked to listen to me, so I decided to put together a band," he told the Post.

In 2000, the newly dubbed Reaksmey Band began performing in front of Wat Botum. City officials later forced the group to move, and they began performing nightly from 6pm to 8pm outside Pencil supermarket off Sothearos Boulevard.

From the start, Heng Sovann Reaksmey said, sustaining the band was difficult because of lack of funds and because they were limited to performing only in the dry season.

But he persisted for the sake of his fellow disabled musicians.

"I formed this band for disabled people because I didn't want them to have to beg for their survival," he said, "even though we don't make much money from our performing".

He said on a good day, the band can earn as much as US$25 in donations from their performances. "We share it equally among everyone in the group. Sometimes we get $2.50 each. Other times, we might only get $0.25 each," he said.

The Reaksmey Band has drawn interest beyond their gigs at Pencil supermarket. Beginning in 2004, the band was invited to perform at local television stations and also went on tour in Siem Reap, Kampong Cham, Kampong Thom, Kampot, Battambang, Prey Veng and Svay Rieng provinces.

"I wanted to die after I became a disabled person, but my mother encouraged me to continue my life. Then I told myself that I had to live, though I didn't really know what to live for," Heng Sovann Reaksmey said.

Helping others find purpose

The band provided the necessary focus, and now Heng Sovann Reaksmey hopes it might provide support for other disabled people struggling to find a purpose for their lives.

"If I can raise enough money, I will transform the band into a local organisation for training disabled people to play music and sing, and to give them jobs," he said.

Ouk Solavy, 38, a member of the Reaksmey band, was born blind and struggled as a young man with his disability.

"When I was young, I felt hate and hopelessness because I could not do anything," he said. "I hated when I heard someone call me a blind person."

Ouk Solavy was encouraged to study at a Maryknoll school, part of a US-based Catholic mission movement, where he learned to read braile in both Cambodian and English, and where he studied music and massage.

"I want to tell all disabled people to struggle against hopelessness because they can do the same things as other people," he said.

For the last five months, Chhang Chantha, 25, has sung with the Reaksmey Band. Blind since birth, she previously performed for weddings in her home province of Kampot.

She sees her disability as a strength. "I think that some people cannot do what we disabled people can do, so don't look down on us," she said. I am only physically disabled. My mind, my ability and my heart are good. I can do anything."

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