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Yeak Loam musicians perform in Phnom Penh


Photos: Laurel Daugherty-Seto

Yeak Loam Lake in Rattanakiri province is a place of eerie beauty: Nestled in the circular crater of an extinct volcano, the water is crystal-clear and surrounded by lush, semi-deciduous forestland.

Around the lake are five villages – Lapoe, Lon, Sil, Chree and Phnom – that are home to the Tampuen, a minority group who hold animistic beliefs and who consider the lake and forests to be inhabited by powerful spirits.

The area’s beauty has proven to be a blessing as well as a curse. In 2007, members of the Tampuen community formed the Yeak Loam Arts Group with the aim of preserving the region’s traditional music, dance and culture in the face of encroachments on indigenous lifestyles from outsiders seeking to buy up and develop land around the lake.

Group spokesperson Van Cae explained that the survival of Tampuen culture was dependent on the health of the lake and the forests that surround it.

“The forest is very important to us. If there is no forest, life will be very difficult for the villagers,” he said. “If they take the land and the lake, it will mean the loss of our culture, the loss of everything. That’s why we want people to understand our culture.”

This week, 25 members of the Yeak Loam Arts Group have brought an array of metal gongs, bamboo flutes and other instruments to Phnom Penh to spread the word by making studio recordings of their music and performing live at Gasolina and Café Living Room. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has covered travel and accommodation expenses for the musicians, as well as recording and CD production costs.

Meas Hurn, the group’s team leader, said he hoped that making a studio recording of their music and releasing it on CD would help teach people about Tampuen culture and raise awareness about the dangers posed by unscrupulous development.

“We came to record our songs because we are in danger of losing our land,” he said. “So we want to promote our culture because we hope it will help raise support for us to prevent loss of the land and forest.”

The songs themselves serve as an introduction to the musicians’ culture. Traditional songs cover the gamut of Tampuen life, from infancy (“Pallam Kon Bom Pay”, or the Lullaby Song), to work (“Paih Bok Srou”, or Pounding Rice), to making religious offerings (“Trom Koll Ka Pow”, or Placing the Buffalo Head on the Ling Cross), to death (“Bot Bun Sop”, or Funeral Songs).

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The group also plays newer songs that will sound traditional to the untrained ear, some written during the Khmer Rouge era and others composed more recently by team leader Meas Hurn. A few of these deal with decidedly modern topics, including “Karob Chbab Carachor” (Respect Traffic Song) and “Bongkan Preteat Ka Pear Pak Retan” (Protected Area Song).

The recording sessions took place at the Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) Studio on March 31 and April 1. Phany Tum, the country manager of CLA, said the recordings were part of the organisation’s main work, which is supporting “the revival of traditional performing arts as well as supporting the creation of new works of art”.

“The studio’s focus is archiving and documenting in video and sound, as well as creating new products in video and sound as well,” she said.

The studio, which was established with support from well-known English musician Peter Gabriel, has already created five CDs to sell with the aim of helping to provide some income for local artists.

The Yeak Loam Arts Group CD is expected to be released within two months and will include a booklet with information about the group, their songs and their instruments.

The Yeak Loam Arts Group will perform at Gasolina (#56-58 Street 57) on April 2 from 7pm-8pm. The group will also be at Café Living Room (#9 Street 306) on April 3 from 10am-4pm. Visitors can learn to play the group’s instruments (10am-11am), sample Tampuen food (12pm-2pm) and hear age-old tales during storytelling hour (2pm-3pm). All events are free.

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