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Arts explosion in Battambang

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arts.jpg

Chean Long

All types of art were performed during the festival. From modern dance, top, to plays, center, music, left bottom, traditional dances, bottom right or the master Kong Nai bottom of the page.

For sheer exoticism, it would have been difficult to beat the memm. The eerie stringed

instrument made with vine and lizard skin fascinated the audience at the fourth annual

Mohaosrop Silapak Khmer Amatak festival in Battambang.

The almost extinct instrument - depicted in the bas reliefs of the Bayon temple,

but now played only by members of the Kreung hill-tribe of Rattanakiri - was one

of about 20 traditional and contemporary art forms presented at the weeklong August

festival, which this year brought together 360 performing artists from around the

country.

To play the memm, the musician holds the wood instrument in his teeth, so that his

head is transformed into a resonating box.

Cambodian Living Arts (CLA), an NGO that focuses on preserving endangered Khmer art

forms, extended the festival by four days this year to run from Aug 19-26. The Mohaosrop,

which means "place to perform music", was held at the forested campus of

Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS), an NGO where young people from rural areas can study traditional

Khmer music, visual arts, circus performance and street theater.

The festival brought together masters and students of at least 18 traditional performance

arts, giving an impression of an explosion of arts in Cambodia's rich but decimated

culture, still reeling after about 90 percent of its musicians, dancers, writers

and artists were murdered or forced into exile during the Khmer Rouge era.

The performances were as varied as Lkhaon Bassac (traditional Khmer opera), Sbaek

Thom (a form of shadow theater, perhaps Cambodia's oldest performance style), and

Kantoam Ming, (funeral music with gongs, drums and a reed instrument - one of Cambodia's

rarest art forms).

Because many of these art forms are on the point of extinction the festival has become

a major player in the preservation of Khmer culture.

"I was so excited to see all these art-forms," said Chea Ravi, a 22-year-old

PPS drama student. "I didn't know they all existed. When I heard the yike [folk

opera] it made my hairs stand on end. When I heard Kong Nai play the chapei (traditional

two-stringed Khmer guitar) I wanted to laugh, to cry - to hug everyone. It really

compelled me to participate - like waves going through my body."

On the contemporary side, Tiny Toones, a group of at-risk youth from the slums of

Phnom Penh, did break dancing. This Bridges Across Borders project is headed by Kay

Kay, 30, a Cambodian-American returnee who saw children in his Phnom Penh neighborhood

getting into trouble as he had done growing up in the US. He formed the group to

provide a positive environment to channel the youths' energies.

The festival's 360 participants, up from 300 last year, attended workshops and classes

during the day and performed at night in PPS's massive circus tent. The evening events

were unique and outrageous extravaganzas, free and eagerly attended by the local

people who crammed inside the tents.

CLA country manager Phany Tum said the performances were all packed with about 600

people. "Next year we will get even bigger," she said.

The Mohaosrop was moved to Battambang last year after the first two years being held

in Siem Reap as part of a policy of rotating the festival to different cities.

As with many arts events, the opulence of the festival belied its financial situation.

"We've got donors from the US, but we're still going to have to keep fund raising

after the event," Phany said. CLA is supported by World Education in the U.S.

The last living master of the memm was Porn Dav, who died last year while being sponsored

by CLA's "masters program", which supports 16 masters of ancient Cambodian

art forms.

Concerned the instrument would die out with him, CLA has mounted a campaign to continue

training Dav's students and players of seven other instruments found in the traditional

memm ensemble. Some of his students played the memm at the festival.

"I am so happy and excited to meet my brothers and sisters here and share this

music with Khmers," said Taeng Sokha, 16, a Kreung tribe member from Nonlek

village in Rattanakiri, who plays the hethot, a wind, "courtship" instrument

in the ensemble.

She said the music will never die out. "In fact this is a very productive time

for our music. Since starting our class many other groups around our village have

started playing the instruments," she said.

"I loved organizing this," said Dimple Rana, CLA events coordinator. "Having

the young people here is great, because they don't get the opportunity to learn their

traditional art forms from the public system," said Rana.

"I want to be an artist forever now," said PPS's Ravi. "I want people

to see the richness of our culture around the world."

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