An aging opera diva in Phnom Penh, a rap group from the rough side of Lowell,
Massachusetts, and a selection of ancient instruments immortalized in Angkor's
temple carvings. An odd mix, but not as strange as you might think.
Yim Saing, perhaps the best woodwind player in Cambodia, was working as a mobile barber in Phnom Penh when Arn found him.
may seem unrelated, but these are just some of the elements the Cambodian Master
Performers Program (CMPP), which records the country's forgotten musical
masters, has included in its projects both here and abroad.
best-known for its efforts to track down the old practitioners of Cambodian
music and opera and record their songs. These musical legends are also employed
to teach selected groups of students to ensure their knowledge of songs and
styles lives on after them.
Cambodian-American Arn Chorn-Pond, the
creative force behind CMPP, has tracked down ten masters in the US and eight in
Cambodia. CMPP currently has an archive of more than 200 songs.
probably got the biggest collection of traditional Cambodian music in the world
- all performed by masters," he says. The age of many makes it a race against
"Ninety percent of the artists were killed [during the Khmer Rouge
regime]," he says. "Of the survivors about 7 percent are still in Cambodia; the
rest ended up in other countries as refugees."
CMPP had its beginnings
when Arn visited Cambodia to find his family whom he had not seen since
"My father owned a famous opera company in Battambang," says Arn.
"He had four wives - all were actresses."
Chek March, one-time celebrated opera diva, found this record cover in which she stars...
Arn had 12 siblings and many
half-brothers and sisters, but when he located his family in 1991 he found very
few had survived.
"I met my mother and she told me about my family. Most
of them died because they were artists," he says. "I thought, 'My God what
happened to our culture?' She told me about my father: he was supposed to train
me to continue the tradition, but I was too young [to learn] before the Khmer
Rouge took over. He died and that's a waste, but he accomplished a
Arn says this gave him a strong feeling that he should carry on the
tradition. The idea to seek out the old masters crystallized a year later when
he found his old music teacher, Yoeun Mek. It was an emotional reunion. The two
had last seen each other at Wat Alk, near Battambang.
"The Khmer Rouge
put me in Wat Alk where I was forced to watch a lot of killings," he says. "I
was ten years old. Then the Khmer Rouge decided to have a revolutionary music
and dance troupe. We had not had food for two or three weeks, so I put up my
hand to be a musician."
The children selected were given more food, which
Arn believes saved his life. Yoeun Mek was one of two teachers brought from a
nearby cooperative. The first teacher was killed after only five days.
didn't even ask his name," says Arn. "I'm lucky they didn't make me kill him
- the KR played games like that."
Arn Chorn-Pond, creative force behind the Cambodian Master Performers Program.
Arn's instrument was the khim, similar
to a harp but struck with bamboo sticks. He says music saved his life and his
"They allowed me to practice at night. That's the reason they
didn't kill me, because I played for them," he says. "I learned to play in the
dark and my mind would go off somewhere. Back then the sound of the khim made me
feel like heaven."
When Arn found his former teacher in 1992, Yoeun Mek
was a barber in Battambang.
"Mek hugged me. He was crying uncontrollably,
and he's a very tough guy. He said 'I thought you were dead. I feel like this is
a message. I know you have something for me to do'."
Arn paid for Mek's
customers who were waiting to have their hair cut and asked Mek to spend the day
playing for him. People began to gather round and listen. It was then that Arn
decided to search for and record the surviving old masters to ensure their
skills and talent were not forgotten.
The concept is reminiscent of the
Buena Vista Social Club, in which US musician Ry Cooder tracks down the old,
forgotten musical legends of Cuba. At that time, though, Arn had not seen the
"I thought I was the only one in the world who had the idea," he
says wryly. "Then I saw the Buena Vista Social Club. They did good. It should be
everywhere [not just Cuba or Cambodia]. It's not necessary for any culture or
society to forget the old people."
While his dedication to the old
masters continues, Arn has recently been working with a hip-hop group called
Seasia, whose three rappers are former gang members from Lowell,
Lowell has the second-biggest Cambodian population in the
US, and many of the Cambodian-American youth are involved in gangs. Arn
encountered Seasia while working as a youth worker.
"Those guys were
making trouble," he says. "They were the leaders. If I wanted to talk to the
younger ones, I had to go through them first otherwise I could get
Although initially suspicious of him, they eventually forged a
relationship through their common bond of music. To teach the gang members how
to play the khim, Arn brought in Bin Phan, one of the old masters he had
discovered in Lowell.
"He was so happy to play again and to teach them,"
he says. "At first they were not interested because they liked rap. I told them
that two or three thousand years of traditional music was going down the tubes."
Arn told the gang members about the old masters he had found living on
the streets of Cambodia, or in slums eking out a living: Chek March, the great
Bassac opera diva, had been selling charcoal and cigarettes; Yim Saing, who Arn
dubs 'the best woodwind player in Cambodia', was working as a mobile barber.
Their talents and skills were overlooked, their glory days all but
"So [Seasia] said to me, 'Why don't we incorporate the
traditional music into our hip-hop and popularize it again?'."
That was a
year ago. Seasia has since recorded a track with the sounds of the Khmer flute
and the charpey, a two-stringed guitar. The band toured Cambodia at the end of
last year and plans to return and build a studio where local youth can record
modern music infused with traditional Khmer sounds.
CMPP's efforts to
revive traditional music extend beyond mixing it with rap and recording
forgotten stars. Another project in Siem Reap teaches students traditional songs
and music using instruments of ancient design.
The project was set up by
Wat Bo's senior monk, Pin Sem, well-known for his efforts to preserve Khmer
culture. He was concerned about the encroaching Thai and Chinese influence not
only on Cambodian music, but on the instruments themselves. He started a
collection of what he regards as 100 percent Cambodian instruments, many of them
several hundred years old.
"You don't see these instruments anywhere
else. Some of them we had to get custom-made," says Sem.
involved with the project when Arn visited Wat Bo last year. The organization
tracked down a master to teach the kseideo, perhaps the oldest and rarest
instrument in the country. He was living in Takeo, but now teaches at Wat
Pin Sem says he doesn't want the music to die before he
"These musical instruments are carved in the temples [of Angkor]. I
don't want them to be forgotten," he says. "Nowadays most people in Cambodia
don't even know the [true Khmer] music. If they hear it they will ask, 'What
kind of music is that?' It's up to these students to keep the music alive,
because they are the last ones to learn."