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Despite a funding scare, Phnom Penh’s youth brass band marches on

Band leader Phon Chanleakhena stands before nine members of the 18-strong Phnom Penh Marching Band, which managed to outlive the NGO-funded project that spawned it.
Band leader Phon Chanleakhena stands before nine members of the 18-strong Phnom Penh Marching Band, which managed to outlive the NGO-funded project that spawned it. Hong Menea

Despite a funding scare, Phnom Penh’s youth brass band marches on

Every Sunday afternoon the sound of trumpets echoes across Kolab Primary School in the capital’s Daun Penh district as a group of young people congregate to play as a band. Rather than performing stationary on a stage, they march while playing mostly brass instruments, a style largely unfamiliar to Cambodians.

The story of the Kingdom’s first marching bands began when the NGO Japan Team of Young Human Power (JHP) introduced brass music in 2001. With their funding support, six Cambodian professionals began teaching students at three public schools across the country. However, out of the six teachers, five quit when JHP funding was cut off in 2013.

But despite a lack of support, the Phnom Penh Marching Band was kept alive by the efforts of Him Savy, JHP arts education team member Heng Sarady, staffer Y Arun and Royal University of Fine Arts professor Keo Sophy.

“When JHP quit supporting the programme of marching bands in schools, I was really disappointed. I felt a sense of loss thinking of those sponsored instruments no longer being played,” said Savy, herself a flautist and teacher at the Secondary School of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh.

“For Cambodia, a marching band may seem meaningless because it is not our culture. But it is the world’s culture. If we know about marching bands, we can show the world our capability,” she continued.

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The horn section practices at Kolab Primary School. Hong Menea

For the Phnom Penh Marching Band, that message is carried by 18 young students from different schools who already had musical backgrounds.

“It is not a type of music that non-experts come to play. Marching band itself has a loud noise which always gets attention from the public when performed,” Savy said.

The band can be found performing at the openings of different restaurants, companies, charity events and a host of other venues.

Savy, who beyond teaching students also composes the songs for the band, emphasised the dedication and discipline required of her band members.

“Marching band is a type of music performance that requires hard practice and strong efforts to perform as a ‘community’. Training a group of students to play musical instruments in a marching band is like training a group of soldiers,” she said.

According to Arun, who manages the finances and schedule of the band, there are a set of rules to ensure that income from each performance is earned ethically and is shared equitably, and that members stick to fixed training schedules. Given their youth, they don’t play at events sponsored by alcohol or cigarette companies or any others considered “harmful to youth”.

“Ten percent of the income is distributed to the band in case there is any damage to the instruments to be fixed. We make it clear with the kids in the band how much it is for the teacher and for them,” she said.

RUFA student Phon Chanleakhena, the 20-year-old band leader, said that gaining the moral support of her own family is a challenge for her and many band members. Heng Chanreachmetry, 19, a fellow bandmate, has concealed his hobby from his parents.

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A drummer reviews sheet music at practice. Hong Menea

“My problem is I don’t have much support from my family. They said if I joined the band I would forget to study hard,” he said. “I’m not doing anything illegal and it’s better to spend time practicing for the band than hanging out with friends spending more money.”

Savy regrets that as of yet, a lack of income or sponsorship has prevented the marching band from being able to accept invitations to perform abroad or to compete internationally in marching band competitions.

“There was a time that we had planned to perform in Malaysia but we had problems with flight costs. Our band has no support so they could not even afford their own passports. Malaysia was willing to cover us half of the costs, but we do not have support to cover the other half,” she said.

Despite the uphill battle, the band hopes to compete internationally this year at an event in Indonesia. But for Savy, public awareness is the key to gaining any support.

“When not many people in Cambodia are interested in marching bands, they won’t help us,” she said.

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