The historic Canadian-Cambodian collaboration is part of a broader
agenda to promote long-term musical partnerships and positive cultural
Bruce More (left) and Arne Sahlen at keyboard) lead choir rehearsals on Thursday.
Phnom Penh's Chaktomuk Theatre may normally be the domain of TV celebrities, elite CEOs and pop stars, but this Saturday the venue is to be opened for free to poor, disabled and orphaned Cambodians. The spectacle they are invited to observe is the tribute concert of the Cambodia-Canada Choir, an unprecedented assembly of singers, composers, conductors and musicians that the organisers describe as "history-making".
Comprising members of Canada's Prima Chamber Singers Choir and students and graduates from Phnom Penh's Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA), the group was first conceived of in January 2008 by its Canadian conductor Bruce More and Arne Sahlen, founder of Canadian charity Cambodia Support Group (CSG).
"Bruce approached me to propose some kind of collaboration, and once the idea of the choir had been formed, it was like there was no going back," said Sahlen.
While the historic project may have been assiduously planned for more than a year, the majority of the participants only met for the first time last Wednesday.
Since the arrival of the Canadian singers, many of whom have never previously left their home continent, the members have been engaged in a flurry of touristic, musical and interpersonal activities. From surf-and-seafood in Kep to visits to the Stung Meanchey dump, the varied cultural program is an exercise in "friendship-building" with long-term implications.
"I want everyone to really know each other as people before they appear together on stage," Sahlen said. "We've all had our first experience abroad, and if it's a positive one, we will be more inclined to repeat it and adopt a kind of global perspective. In this sense, we are living history."
Cambodians want to raise their culture and belong in the world music scene.
Unlike his Canadian fellow artists, however, Sahlen is no cultural novice in Cambodia. Through sponsoring young Cambodians to study in Canada since 1981, he has become fluent in Khmer and is visiting the country for the 18th time.
Observing the respective isolation of both Khmer and Western cultural events in Cambodia, Sahlen plans to use the proceeds from the concerts to fund a long-term musical partnership organisation between Cambodia and the West.
"Music in Cambodia is like a chair with four legs: classical, modern, foreign and Khmer, and Cambodians want to raise their culture and belong in the world music scene," he said.
The concert program encompasses all these elements, from compositions by King Father Sihanouk to 18th-century choral music and a solo performance of Broadway classic "My Way" by RUFA protegee, Hy Chanthavouth.
The recipient of a CSG scholarship to study music in the United States in 2008, Hy Chanthavouth, who will give his own concert in a fortnight's time, is well-aware of the significance of the project for his homeland.
"It's history-making because it's the first time a Cambodian and Canadian choir will appear together on stage. It's marvellous," he said. "And now I'm giving my own solo concert. It's like I'm dreaming, I can't imagine how lucky I've been."
Despite its promising future, realising the project has been far from easy for the organisers.
"It's been like a gecko giving birth to an elephant. I never would have thought it would be so difficult," he said.
It may not have been an easy birth, but as he explains, music is only one component of what he sees as an important long-term investment.
"Many foreigners criticise Cambodia without realising that many of the problems were brought here by the West, but to build partnerships takes generations. Our support has to be unconditional," Hy Chanthavouth said.
Sahlen sees ongoing positive engagement as crucial.
"We must build ideals and constantly seek to demonstrate them in our own conduct through constantly showing and seeking understanding and forgiveness," Sahlen said. "To leave the project here would be like having a child and not caring for it."
The Cambodia-Canada Choir will perform at Chaktomok Theatre at 6:30pm tonight (admission by donation) with a Tribute Concert at 3pm on Saturday (free entry for poor, disabled or orphaned people and their carers.)