In response to the hip-grinding, booty-shaking tunes of the West, one Cambodian teacher of music and poetry endeavours to keep tradition alive.
If we, AS Cambodian PEOPLE, don’t preserve our culture, who will preserve it for us?
While many of Phnom Penh’s teens listen to hip-hop and R&B, a group of around 30 teenagers at Baktouk High School are listening to a retired teacher of traditional drama.
The youngsters have formed a group to learn to compose and recite traditional Khmer poems and accompany them on flute, under the tutelage of 61-year-old Yan Borin.
The former Royal University of Fine Arts lecturer said he had given up his Sunday mornings to nurture the teenagers’ keen interest in studying this traditional artform.
“The students created this study programme and just invited me to teach them,” Yan Borin said. “I didn’t demand a fee from them, but they gave based on their capacity.”
Yan Borin said that while music is part of the curriculum in many countries, the Cambodian education system lacked resources to teach students to play musical instruments. So he endeavours to give his students two hours per week, saying he is proud of them and that they are gifted in poetry.
“They can even get it quicker than some of those who I used to teach at RUFA,” he said.
Seiha Oudom, 15, is one of the original Baktouk High School students who instigated the poetry club.
“We created this poetry club because Khmer poetry is not widely recognised in Cambodian society,” he said.
Seiha Oudom and three friends entered a poetry competition in Phnom Penh last June, with a “fighting drugs” theme.
Seiha Oudom received first prize while his friend, 15-year-old Chheiv Rachana, came fourth.
One of the club’s leaders, Seiha Oudom said the group was also promoting Khmer poetry to other students.
“We also welcome students from other schools as members of our club,” he said.
“We also want to suggest that even if we copy music from other countries, we should then develop it into the Khmer style.”
He said he felt it was important to preserve the Khmer national identity.
“We have asked permission from our school’s principal to recite poems we composed to persuade kids to study hard while showing respect to the national anthem,” Seiha Oudom said.
Yan Borin said he believed Cambodia has one of the world’s widest ranges of poetry styles.
“My co-worker and I have found about 60 kinds of Khmer poems and we believe there are still more,” he said.
Chheiv Rachana, who wants to become a doctor but also takes the poetry classes, suggested other students should try to learn about their
traditional identity rather than simply adopting foreign culture.
“If you are interested in poetry, please do not worry about your voice or talent,” she urged. “At least we can understand the prosperity of the plentiful Khmer poems, which have more value than modern music.”
Yan Borin said traditional music such as Yeke, Basak, and Mohaory had a place alongside modern music.
“If we, as Cambodian people, don’t try to preserve our culture, who will preserve it for us?” he asked.