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Masters struggle to save folk music traditions

Masters struggle to save folk music traditions

Ben Lerer, 18, gets to grips with his new charpey while Kong Nei tunes his instrument.


he sun had not yet risen when Kong Nei and his family were ordered to walk to a

labor site near Phnom Tkov in 1978. Finding himself at the mercy of the Khmer Rouge,

Nei knew what would come next.

"They lied and said it was not safe where we were and that we should move,"

he says. "I knew myself they would kill us but I could do nothing. So at three

in the morning, I went with my wife and six children." A military skirmish broke

out near the site and the soldiers fled leaving their prisoners behind.

Two decades later, Nei's survival has helped save an almost forgotten musical tradition

he carried through those horrific years.

As part of the Cambodian Master Performers Program (CMPP), Nei is reputed to be Cambodia's

most skilled charpey player-the distinctive instrument resembling a guitar with two

strings. Nei, who lost his sight to smallpox, learned the charpey when he was 13

years old. Often compared to the blind American musician Ray Charles, Nei occasionally

appears at the Sovanna Phum theater in Phnom Penh and booked a concert in Siem Reap

on New Year's Eve.

But Nei is just one of 19 musicians brought together to preserve the threatened art

of traditional Khmer music. The pioneering work of CMPP has resurrected the careers

of previously well-known and respected musicians to pass on their skills and knowledge

to another generation of Khmer performers.

The initial aim of the project was to find musical masters and archive their works.

Since then, the CMPP has grown into 15 different projects to stem the loss of musical

knowledge in Cambodia.

The effort is coordinated by a new umbrella NGO called Silapak Khmer Amatok, which

means Khmer Living Arts. The change in name illustrates the diversity of activities

including shadow puppets and training students in technical music production.

One of their projects is an attempt to catalogue what remains.

In the early 1970s, Mao Pheung, a former professor at the Royal University of Fine

Arts and one of the program's masters, was commissioned by the King to create a musical

encyclopedia. This document, which was never completed, was lost during the Pol Pot

regime. Now Pheung has been commissioned to write it again. Ultimately, it could

document as many as 500 songs and include an inventory of Cambodia's musical instruments,

biographies of artists and transcriptions of many of their songs.

The vast majority of the pre-Khmer Rouge musical recordings have been lost. While

most preservation work has focused on reviving classic Royal arts such as apsara

dancing, common folk music is often overlooked. This means that without the work

of inspired individuals many of these skills and art forms could be lost within ten

years, explains Charley Todd, project coordinator for CMPP.

The work of CMPP has been compared to that of the Buena Vista Social Club, the revered

group of aging Cuban jazz masters credited with saving their music from obscurity.

Both have resurrected pre-revolutionary music and saved it from being lost for ever.

While the Cuban effort has attracted international acclaim, Cambodian musicians are

still relatively unknown.

Only a few of Cambodia's musicians survived the purges of the Khmer Rouge. An estimated

80 to 90 percent of professional musicians died under the regime between 1975 and


Those dire statistics inspired one young Cambodian musician, Arn Chorn-Pond, 37,

to found CMPP and resurrect the music of the masters before it was lost forever.

When Chorn-Pond was ten, he was forced to labor in the fields under Pol Pot, but

his life was spared because of his musical talents.

His father and grandfather had run an opera that toured the country before the Khmer

Rouge. His survival was in part due to the fact that the regime picked him to play

the khim (a stringed instrument struck with hammers similar to the dulcimer).

But Chorn Pond knew the plight of most musicians during this period.

A craftsman plays a new trdo ul in Phnom Penh.

Eventually, Chorn-Pond escaped and made it to the refugee camps in Thailand. Here

he was adopted along with two other boys and moved to Lowell, Massachusetts, in the


In Lowell, Chorn-Pond realized how he could help his country. He began to give speeches

about the genocide in Cambodia. At the end of each speech, he would perform a short

flute solo.

With his talent for oratory and flute playing, his message spread. Chorn-Pond continues

his work fundraising in America and arranging Khmer music festivals. A documentary

of his life was recently released called "The Flute Player".

When he returned to Cambodia for the first time in 1989, Chom-Pond found his khim

master working as a street barber in Battambang. After an emotional reunion, Chorn-Pond

sought out other master musicians.

In 1996, his efforts culminated in the creation of CMPP to revive the country's thriving

musical scene, once considered among the most vibrant in Southeast Asia.

The program now supports 20 masters and about 200 students. So far, the musicians

have recorded more than 200 traditional songs that will be available on CD in 2004.

But to ensure the longevity of this music, the group not only encourages students

to appreciate the art form but a new audience as well.

In one novel approach, four American students and jazz musicians are studying with

the masters in Cambodia. They are experimenting with fusing traditional jazz and

Khmer music.

Todd describes the philosophy as "fluid collaboration" that will spark

the music to evolve.

Eli Carlton-Pearson, 18, plays the trdo ul for the first time.

There are also plans to establish a music summer camp with the students and master

players. While informal versions of the camp have been held for the last two years,

they plan to develop a more structured operation. Eventually, it is hoped, this will

encourage young Cambodians to sing the same songs their ancestors once did since,

without a change in the attitudes of young Cambodians, the work of the organization

would be futile.

"There is a growing revival in the classic arts," says Todd. "We are

getting more and more students."

But ancient knowledge is not the only thing at risk. Some instruments are on the

verge of disappearing as well. In another aspect of its quest to preserve Khmer music,

CMPP is seeking out these nearly extinct instruments and the people who can make

and play them.

That was the case with the mum, a two-stringed instrument that resonates with a gourd

placed over the heart. It appears on the bas-reliefs of the ancient Bayon temple

in Siem Reap.

The program tracked down a man in Rattanakiri in October considered to be among the

last mum players. He is now joining the masters program.

While the program's director says he does not know how many masters are left, or

how many songs remain unrecorded, he plans to make Cambodia a center of music once


Arn Chorn-Pond, founder of the Cambodian Master Performers Program.

By 2020, Todd says he believes Cambodia will take its place as a regional leader

in the arts with a reputation for creating groundbreaking music using traditional


While it seems a Herculean task, the example of musicians like Chorn-Pond has inspired

others to keep Cambodian's traditions alive in a world quickly moving into the future.

"It is unclear how much has already been lost but at least now we are preserving

the remainder," says Todd.


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