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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Mysterious memm makes a comeback

Mysterious memm makes a comeback


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U nknown and unnamed for centuries, the recently rediscovered musical instrument - made from wood, vine and lizard, and depicted in bas-reliefs at the Bayon - is gaining popularity under tutelage from the world's only memm master.

An aging man curls himself over his instrument, clasping a small lizard scale between his teeth. Connected to his single-string instrument by a delicate thread, the scale vibrates his head as he pulls the bow.

The quiet sound of the instrument, known as the memm by the Kreung tribe of Ratanakkiri province, was long thought to be lost. In Siem

An apsara playing the memm is depicted in a twelfth-century bas-relief at the Bayon temple, Siem Reap. The years have worn away the thread that strethches from the base of the instument to the player's mouth.

Reap for a week-long music camp, Phorn Dav and his handful of students share their knowledge with other Cambodian artists, hoping to ensure the memm survives.

The Siem Reap site has special significance; etched into the bas-relief adorning the twelfth-century Bayon temple is a crumbling image of the memm. But time has worn the lizard scale and thread off the wall. All that remains is a short stick with a single string, seemingly incapable of making a sound. The instrument baffled musicologists. How could the memm make a sound without a resonating box?

Nothing resembling it had been seen or documented in recent Cambodian history. But the musicologists were only looking at half the picture.

In 2001, a Ministry of Culture research team traveled to Ratanakkiri province to study traditional instruments. When they arrived at Ou Chum village, they discovered Phorn Dav playing an instrument they had never seen before. The team's ethno-musicologist was familiar with the mystery instrument on the Bayon temple and realized what they had just stumbled across. The instrument's secret was finally revealed. As the player draws his bow across the string, the sound travels up a second section of the thread to the lizard scale held between the player's teeth: the memm produces its sound by transforming the player's head into a resonating box.

Phorn Dav, 56, began playing the instrument when he was 10 years old. "Since I was a boy, I heard old masters playing the memm. I thought the sound was very beautiful, and I wanted to learn it," he said.

When war began to disrupt everyday life in his village in 1970, Phorn Dav was forced to give up his music. After surviving more than a decade of conflict, in 1981 Phorn Dav decided to rediscover his musical talents. "I thought traditional art needed to be revived in the village," he said. He knew of no surviving masters of the memm, so he had to draw on his memory and restore his skill by teaching himself.

As the people in his village scraped their lives back from the ravages of the Khmer Rouge, the subtle sound of the memm could once again be heard coming from a wooden-stilted house. As he plays, he feels close to his ancestors. He believes the lizard scale in his mouth acts as a receptor for his thoughts; they are intimately expressed in his music.

When Phorn Dav met the research team in 2001, he was the head of culture and fine arts for the Ou Chum district. The cultural coordinator of Amrita Performing Arts organization, Suon Bun Rith, was aware that simply finding Phorn Dav wouldn't preserve the art form, so he put him in contact with the Cambodian Master Performers Program (CMPP). A year ago, Phorn Dav was offered the opportunity to become a master, giving him a teaching salary and the chance to pass his skills on to the younger generation.

The CMPP was inspired by Cambodian-American flute player Arn Chorn-Pond. In 1995 he decided to make the journey from the United States and return to Battambang to search for his childhood music teacher. He found his teacher and several other old masters, and decided to set up the CMPP so their skills wouldn't be lost when the aging artists passed on. It is estimated nine out of ten performers died during the Khmer Rouge regime, and Arn Chorn-Pond wanted to preserve the skills of those who remained. The first three masters were enrolled in the program in 1998. Today, 19 masters teach 250 students - aged from six to 25 - in nine provinces. More and more youngsters are becoming excited about learning these ancient instruments, and take their responsibility as keepers of Khmer tradition seriously.

When the program first began, the entire board was American. As CMPP has developed, more and more Cambodians are taking up positions of responsibility; now the board is half Khmer, half American. Project coordinator Charley Todd hopes the project will eventually be run by Cambodians, with foreign support when necessary.

Phorn Dav and three of his students made the journey from Ratanakkiri to take part in the music camp organized by the CMPP, January 9 to 14. The memm players had been told by the research team their instrument was depicted in the bas-relief of the Bayon temple, but none of them had ever been there.

As the sun rose over the Bayon, Todd admitted he was possibly more excited about the memm players seeing the bas-relief than the players themselves. Phorn Dav soon proved him wrong. "I am very happy and excited, especially seeing the carving of the memm. This is exactly the same instrument people played when I was young," Phorn Dav said.

His 22-year-old student, Pak Saveun, was also enthusiastic about the experience, "I was surprised, and very happy when I saw the instrument on the temple," said Saveun.

Phorn Dav currently has 14 students - seven girls and seven boys - but he wants more. All of his students are from Ou Chum village, but he's keen to start teaching students from neighboring villages. The memm master is particularly impressed with Pak Saveun's progress. "He is among the three most outstanding students," he says. "He learns very quickly and is very talented."

Pak Saveun has known Phorn Dav all his life. Whenever he went to Phorn Dav's house, he was mesmerized by the sound of the memm. "I saw my master play it, and I liked it. I thought the sound was very beautiful."

Saveun works in the rice paddies at home, and without the memm he would never have been able to travel so far; the instrument is his passport to Cambodia. Now he has been to Siem Reap twice, and he hopes his instrument will take him even farther. "I have hope. If I can perform, I can be like my master. I hope I can earn a living from it," he says.

Memm Master Phorn Dav, from Ou Chum, Ratanakiri.

The memm players are joining 130 other young Cambodian artists to share their skills. Many students have never been to Siem Reap before, and have never seen Angkor Wat. Throughout the week the students take part in workshops, listen to other ancient instruments, watch different dance forms, and build awareness of ancient arts. The culmination of the festival is a big concert at the end of the week. Each of the nine forms of music represented at the festival has a cameo performance. Then, according to Todd, comes the most exciting feature. "The fun part is when they develop a performance piece from all nine forms of music. This is new for Cambodian music," he said.

Eleven of the 19 masters involved in the CMPP have attended the workshop. Next year, Todd is hoping to secure enough funding to allow all 250 students and 19 masters to attend the 2006 festival.

During the memm workshop, Phorn Dav is asked why the memm is so quiet. There are two reasons, he says. One, the memm is never a loud instrument because the player's head is limited in its resonance. But the second reason is the rarity of one of its key components. On an authentic memm, the string is made from a tree fiber found only in the northern jungle along the Lao border. The memm was used as a court instrument, so was made from the highest quality materials. For the Kreung people, this journey is a time-consuming and expensive adventure, so Phorn Dav settles for a simple metal string instead.

Todd heard this story and asked Phorn Dav if a journey could be made to find this tree. He said no; it would be too expensive.

"How expensive?"

Phorn Dav said it would cost $50 to mount an expedition. Todd immediately told him he could get some men together and find the tree.

The fiber has been found, but a new instrument hasn't yet been made. "In the future we will experiment with making the instrument the old way," Todd says.

The CMPP plays an important role in reviving ancient instruments, but Todd says the CMPP can't take full credit for the instruments' survival. Cambodian art forms are very hardy, he says. Wedding music would definitely have survived, but without help, other forms would have been lost. "Some of the forms, ten years from now, would have ceased to exist. But the arts in Cambodia are survivors. Many of them popped up like seeds in the desert, when the first rains come. Many of them just needed to be put in the nursery. It needed a lot of CPR ... to help after this disaster, the tsunami of Pol Pot, to help get things back to good health."

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