(AP) - Ell Bunna had to hang up his guitar 18 years ago or risk execution. Now after
surviving the brutalities of one government and being forced to write propaganda
for its successor, he's back as one of Cambodia's most popular songwriters.
Ell had been a rising star when theKhmer Rouge took over in 1975. He had hit tunes
covered by some of the country's best known singers. But then the Khmer Rouge banned
popular music, along with all musical instruments. The only tunes people could listen
to were ear-piercing revolutionary songs, played over loudspeakers to the workers
in vast rural communes.
Ell was forced to hide his past lest the Khmer Rouge target him for having practiced
what it considered a bourgeois profession. Exhausted by forced farm work, malnourished
from the communal diet, he soon forgot the lyrics he had composed in happier days.
Simple survival remained his priority even after the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer
But in 1980, Ell spotted a stranger with a guitar that had somehow survived the Khmer
Rouge's anti-bourgeois campaign.
The instrument was battered, its wood chipped, its strings broken.
He brought it for a precious 22 pounds of rice-enough to feed him and his wife for
a week-and replaced the broken strings with a bicycle's brake cable.
"A whole new world opened to me when I played the guitar again," the 46-year-old
Ell said. "I had given up my music and only prayed to survive. I had always
felt something was missing."
Even under the less radical communist regime installed by the Vietnamese, Ell and
his wife still struggled. His main work was smuggling clothing across the country
from Thailand to Vietnam.
When several more instruments that had survived the Khmer Rouge turned up, he began
playing a broken flute for the government. After a time, as the Phnom Penh regime
tightened its grip on power, he began writing anti-Khmer Rouge tunes for them.
"I suffered when I wrote songs about life under the Khmer Rouge," he said.
"When I wrote the lyrics, I remembered that time doing hard labor, having no
food to eat, no house. Only blood and tears."
To escape such memories, he began writing soulful love songs, secretly selling them
to Cambodians visiting from abroad. In 1989, as the economy was liberalized, the
government allowed the open sale of such music, and he turned his energies more fully
to his ballads of the heart.
Two years ago, after the government signed a peace accord, Ell quit his job and built
a studio in his apartment building, soundproofing the room with wood, layers of cloth,
and straw mats.
Now he and other musicians record cassettes there, mixing traditional Cambodian sounds
with those of the West. Between the 30 cassettes they have produced and gigs around
town, Ell earns about U.S. $100 a month.
"During the Khmer Rouge time I never expected that I would live long enough
to write songs again," Ell said. "At least before dying I can leave something
for Cambodian children."