On May 9, 1956, in a display of bi-national friendship, a band from the United States Air Force played a concert on the front lawn of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh to an audience of the royal family and thousands of Cambodians. Many more listened over the radio.
Sixty years later, on Sunday night, that concert was recreated in Phnom Penh with a US Air Force quartet from Washington playing for King Sihamoni and the Queen Mother at the Raffles Hotel Le Royal.
Joining the quartet on stage in the historic hotel’s Empress Room were two Cambodian classical musicians as they played songs, including some composed by the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk, which had made its debuted at the 1956 performance.
The 1956 show was an event that might have faded entirely into the well of history had one local arts promoter, Anton Isselhardt of the Arts Plus Foundation, not discovered an obscure article about it while sifting through archived newspapers. After the discovery, Isselhardt approached the embassy with the idea to recreate the event.
“It was just such a fantastic idea. When do you ever get the chance to recreate something like this we didn’t even know existed?” said US embassy spokesman and event organiser Jay Raman.
In an introductory speech, US Ambassador William Heidt said the event also celebrated current Cambodia-US ties, which he noted were “stronger now than ever”.
At 6:45pm on Sunday, Heidt led King Norodom Sihamoni and Queen Mother Norodom Monineath Sihanouk into the Empress Room to giddy applause. In attendance was Minister of Environment Say Samal, Minister of Culture and Fine Arts Phoeung Sakona, as well as ambassadors from Britain, the European Union, France, Russia, Singapore and other dignitaries.
The quartet played seven compositions, including one surprise piece, Monica, written by Sihanouk in honour of the Queen Mother (whose middle name is Monique), who was brought to tears by the pleasant tune.
After the show, Ikeda Bonsamnang, a Cambodian clarinet player who performed with the quartet, admitted nervousness at playing a mere few metres from the Cambodian monarchs. He had only practised twice with the quartet prior to Sunday night, he said.
Master Sergeant Bryce Bunner, a violist from Indiana, said that the whole trip, which took months to be approved through several command chains, had been a bit of whirlwind after they got the final go-ahead.
“This all just came together really quickly,” he beamed. “It’s been amazing.”
“I have never been to Cambodia. This is my first time,” said Major David Alpar, director of the US Air Force Band. “It’s been an absolutely wonderful experience. One that I am never going to forget.”