Buddhist prayer chanting is an ancient art that dates back to the Chatomok period (1437 – 1525AD). It is also one of the most difficult arts to study, let alone master. However, one 20-year-old woman has, in recent years, been doing just that.
Phoeun Srey Pov, one of five children, is the daughter of farmers from Tror Peag Po village, Korg Pisey district in Kampong Spew province, and says that her childhood spent working the land left little time to dedicate to her love of Buddhist prayer chanting.
“Being a child of farmers, life was not easy because of the hard work we had to do on the farm. Moreover, sometimes, I had to walk through my village to sell some cakes that my mother made,” she says. “But I never complained about my life because my parents made sure I always had the opportunity to study like other children.”
In 2004, Phoeun Srey Pov began her studies into Buddhist prayer chanting via Cambodian Living Arts (CLA), a program that, among other initiatives, aims to revive traditional Khmer performing arts.
“Before joining this chant class in my village I had to do a voice test,” says Phoeun Srey Pov. “After I passed the test and studied for one year with my teachers Keot Ran and Prom Out, I could sing many of the chant songs, but I was not very good. However, I was always invited by older persons to chant Buddhism prayer songs at pagodas in the village.”
And while Phoeun Srey Pov says she was always excited to be asked to perform and that the elders in her village admired her skill level for someone so young, she knew she had a ways to go before she got to the level of older generation chanters.
Buddhist prayer chanting is extremely complicated due to the use of the Pali language and the fluctuation required in the performer’s voice, let alone the widely expected levels of pitch and tone associated with any voice-based art.
In 2006 and 2007, Phoeun Srey Pov performed in festivals in Battambang province as part of Cambodian Living Arts and says that since then, foreigners as well as
Khmers have begun appreciating her performances. This success then led to CLA awarding her a full scholarship in 2008, including accommodation and living expenses, to study at Pannasastra University of Cambodia (PUC) in Phnom Penh. Phoeun Srey Pov certainly hasn’t turned her back on her chanting studies, though.
“I have continued my Buddhism chanting with [a teacher named] Yan Borin in Phnom Penh. This is a good experience to learn with both the ancient countryside teachers [Keot Ran and Prom Out] as well as a certificated teacher because I get different knowledge from each of them,” she explains.
And it’s not just here in the Kingdom that Phoeun Srey Pov has found success with her chanting. To date, she has performed internationally twice, an opportunity she never thought this area of study would afford her.
“The first time was in April 2010 in the USA and was to help promote a book written by a monk which is about Cambodians moving to other countries during Pol Pot regime,” she says, adding that the trip was a CLA funded project.
Then, after being back in Cambodia for just a few months, Phoeun Srey Pov set off for the States yet again to take with her and share with audiences a CD and DVD she had produced herself.
“I had to spend much money for my own project,” she said. “However, what I have spent has been granted back from the people I met there. I was very successful indeed during my second trip, and they all want me to go back a third time.”
Today, Phoeun Srey Pov is not only a second-year student of international relations at PUC, but also a student at the Australian Centre for Education. And if her schedule wasn’t full enough after that, she also teaches Buddhist prayer chant studies through the Cambodian Volunteers Community Development organisation and was recently invited to be a presenter of a religious program on the television channel CTN.
“I am very lucky that I can have many good opportunities. In the future, I am keen on taking care of ancient art and want to be an example of Khmer artisans to others around the world,” she says, adding that she’s hoping to craft a Buddhist chant of her own in the near future.
Next month, Phoeun Srey Pov plans to travel for the third time to the USA, taking with her the new volumes of her CD and DVD which contain five songs predominantly relating to the relationship between parents and their children. And Phoeun Srey Pov’s own parents couldn’t be more proud of their fourth-born’s achievements.
“Srey Pov is a good daughter who always has overcome struggles and is very committed,” her mother says. “And she obeys whatever her parents say. Being the mother of Srey Pov, I am really proud of this daughter.”