Arn Chorn-Pond has dedicated most of his adult life to restoring traditional Cambodian arts. In his new project, he takes a bus load of musicians to showcase their instruments and talent in remote rural ares. Emily Wight reports.
Tucked in the jungle beyond National Road 4, which connects Phnom Penh with Sihanoukville, is the village of the Sa’och community. With just 35 families remaining, the ethnic minority group’s presence in Cambodia is gradually dwindling, and their Austro-Asiatic language is in danger of dying out.
Most people in this village live in basic wooden huts on stilts; many are incredibly old and falling apart. Malnutrition here is also rife: one lady is unable produce breastmilk to feed her two-month-old twins, who look no more than a couple of days old. Life is full of hardship for the Sa’och community, and there’s rarely such a thing as music to lift their spirits.
Until last week that is. For the first time since before the Khmer Rouge era, the elderly Di Long, who used to take great pride in his voice, was persuaded by his friend to break his silence in a tribute song to his mother, sang in the Sa’och language. Moved and scared, he shook as he sang.
Just 10 minutes later, Srey Piou, a man blinded and disabled by unsparing landmines, showcased his skills on the slek, a leaf plucked from a nearby tree, upon which he blew to create a pure sound which rang through the forest.
What stirred the music in the jungle that day? The answer would be the Khmer Magic Music Bus.
The project, with the motto “carpet Cambodia with music, not bombs”, aims to transport Khmer music to remote areas and reconnect villagers with their cultural heritage that was so badly decimated during the Khmer Rouge regime.
Last week, the Magic Music Bus was on its second tour, on which its driver and leader, Cambodian Living Arts founder Arn Chorn-Pond, took some 16 musicians from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville; the Sa’och village was just one of its stops along the way. Everywhere the bus went, the local reaction was one of intrigue and excitement: farmers working the fields dropped their machinery and ran over; children stared in awe; women started dancing.
Pond said: “People are so happy about hearing music for the first time in their lives, imagine that, to have for the first time someone to sing for them and someone to come to their village – they feel like God, they feel so important.”
Pond has a deep personal connection with music. His parents owned an opera company – he loosely associates them, he said, with the memory of a warm light on his face, and thinks they must have put him onstage at some point – but he was separated from them at aged eight, when the Khmer Rouge took power. He learned to play the flute in a prison camp, and learning and performing the regime’s revolutionary songs saved his life before he was forced to fight as a child soldier against the Vietnamese. Extraordinarily, Pond’s flute master from the prison camp, Yoeun Mek, is still alive today, and is part of the Khmer Magic Music Bus, playing the tro, a traditional string instrument. Pond said: “Master Mek is like my grandfather or my father – we were really close through the music. The Khmer Rouge were planning to kill him, but I asked them not to.”
Some 25 years later Pond found Mek in Battambang, “cutting hair for ex-Khmer Rouge and drinking”. Pond continued: “He was well known before Pol Pot’s time, but now he didn’t have anything to perform so he was in obscurity again. He told me he wanted to play music again. I didn’t know anything about him – whether he was alive or dead.”
Each musician on the Magic Music Bus has his or her own story to tell. At 27, Nouk Sinat is one of the bus’s younger players. Thanks to a Cambodian Living Arts scholarship, he moved to Phnom Penh from his hometown of Siem Reap, and claims he can play 25 instruments. Among them is the Khmer harp, or pin. An ancient instrument that can be found on the bas-reliefs of Angkorian temples, it disappeared over time, and earlier this year a model was re-created from the temple relief and was played in public for the first time in 800 years. Sinat’s instrument, which he crafted himself from wood, is one of only four or five in the country.
For Sinat, the Magic Music Bus experience has as much afforded him an invaluable opportunity as it has the communities it visits.
“I’ve lived in Cambodia for a long time and never seen the different styles of people, especially in the Sa’och community. They’d never heard this music before, so it made me happy to play for them. Also what’s important is the opportunity to show the very old classical Khmer instruments to people from different communities,” Sinat said.
This is exactly what prompted Pond and his friends and colleagues, Thon Seyma and Steve Riege, to put the Magic Music Bus together. Its trajectory starts with Mon Thai, a musician and master of the khene, a large mouth organ made from bamboo pipes. On June 30 last year, he was travelling with friends – including Pond – through his native province of Oddar Meanchey when their bus stopped at the side of a dirt road for a toilet break. While he stretched his legs, Thai took out his instrument and began to play.
The music gradually brought the still surroundings to life. One by one, curious faces popped up behind trees; children tentatively peered from behind their parents’ legs; after 15 minutes, 35 people had flocked from different directions to the side of the road to watch Thai play. He was transfixed by his instrument, and the crowd was transfixed by him.
Thai said: “When I started playing, many people came to see and I was very happy. I felt that I was giving something to the people.”
It dawned on Thai and his fellow travellers that these people had, for the most part, never seen a khene before; that the traditional music of their own people was significantly absent from their lives. It was out of this realisation, and Thai’s spur of the moment decision to pick up his beloved khene, that the Khmer Magic Music Bus was born.
Also on the journey that day was the retired American schoolteacher and longstanding friend of Pond, Steve Riege. Back in the US, Riege got a tech-savvy friend on board, set up an Indiegogo crowdfunding platform and within 30 days had raised $36,000, which allowed Pond and Thon Seyma, general manager of the project, to buy the bus, pay for expenses, and to pay their musicians, who are all professional. The Bus had its first official journey in September, when it travelled via rural villages to Battambang. On its second tour last week, the close knit relationships between its musicians was evident.
Both inside and outside the vehicle, they spent the entire journey singing, clapping and laughing together, with each other and at each other.
Pond seemed to agree: “We are all a family – the music creates a relationship between us. This music is magic music; it heals everything, it heals any disease including hate.”
For Pond, the reaction of the Sa’och community represented a re-awakening of a culture under threat. Looking out pensively towards the sea on a Sihanoukville beach at the end of the day, he said: “I felt very excited to witness something today… The man singing – it was like a reunion for him, like he was separated from music for such a long time.”
On top of this, Pond hopes that the Bus will bring healing, not only to the communities it visits but also to the musicians - perhaps even to himself.
“I was taught to hate so much by the Khmer Rouge when I was a little boy,” he explained, his words biting against the sea breeze. “I was forced to witness a lot of killing, sometimes of my own family. I was forced to do a lot of things I didn’t want to do. So now I think love, community, bringing people together feels so good, and why not, you know?”