Master Seng Norn works in the business of shepherding souls from life to death, and he’s survived a few brushes with the latter.
Six years ago, he slipped into a coma, suffering from tuberculosis. His wife purchased his coffin. His grandsons set up his musical instruments for a performance and waited for him to die.
At 75 years old, Seng Norn is now one of a few remaining masters of kantoaming, ancient Cambodian funeral music. Last month, he found himself in New York City on his first trip outside of the Kingdom. The musician was selected to perform as part of American artist Taryn Simon’s multidisciplinary work An Occupation of Loss at the Park Avenue Armory.
Simon brought together 30 “professional mourners” from across the globe, from Cambodia to Kyrgyzstan, placing them inside tall, concrete columns that amplified the somber performance. The exhibition ended on September 25, and Seng Norn returned home, to Siem Reap – the only place in Cambodia where kantoaming is still taught.
“I was so excited to be there, and as a representative of Cambodia,” says Seng Norn. “I’ve never been anywhere in my life.”
In June, An Occupation of Loss will reconvene in London.
A kantoaming performance requires three musicians, who play gongs, drums and the srolai flute while sitting back to back. It is believed that it is the only music that can be played, while a soul leaves the body, at the funeral ceremony.
Likewise, it should only be performed when a soul leaves its body. So students must practise away from any listeners.
“If we would like to teach someone about kantoaming music, we cannot teach them in the village,” Seng Norn explains. “My masters said that it is funeral ceremony music . . . if [we] perform it when there is no one who has died, it will bring bad luck to the people and the village.”
Seng Norn was born in 1941 in Spean Koeak village in Siem Reap province to a farming family. At the age of 16, he started learning pin peat music – and later, kantoaming – from an old master, Um Cheib, and soon began to perform locally.
“After seeing kantoaming’s masters were old, I decided to learn more about kantoaming,” Seng Norn says. “I think that if I had not carried this music on, it would be lost.”
Under the Khmer Rouge regime, it nearly was. Seng Norn recalls the period bitterly.
“There were no performances. We were not allowed to do anything,” he says. “There was nowhere to play and no audience to perform for.”
Seng Norn had to lie about his career to spare his life. “If they knew I was an artist, they would kill me,” he says. He wrapped his instruments in clothes and buried them under his master’s house, where they stayed until the regime fell.
Since 2004, Seng Norn and another kantoaming master have been supported by Cambodian Living Arts (CLA). They both helm troupes that teach in their communities, aiming to preserve kantoaming among the younger generations.
For years, Seng Norn has taught his own grandsons kantoaming on weekends at Wat Bo. Pong Pon and Pong Rean, both in their late 20s, travelled to New York with him, completing the trio on display in An Occupation of Loss.
“Not everyone would like to learn kantoaming music. It is not a happy music,” Seng Norn says. “But luckily, both my grandsons agreed to learn. I am no longer afraid that kantoaming will be lost.”
Speaking about his own near-death experience, the master recalls only gratitude to his grandsons.“That moment, I was so happy to hear that my grandsons set up the kantoaming performance,” Seng Norn says. “I knew I did not have to worry about kantoaming music.” He laughs.
“But I was sad, as I still wanted to live,” he says. So he did.