At Wat Reach Bo in Siem Reap, the sound of monks giving their afternoon prayer duels with the nearby pounding of drums.
Inside an old wooden building, which houses the NGO Cambodian Living Arts’ Heritage Hub, five women in their 20s are rehearsing with Khmer traditional drums, or skor. In the sweltering afternoon heat, sweat pours down the women’s faces as they strike the drums with either their bare hands or with sticks, and clap, dance and cry out. Their expressions are hard – even war-like – with smiles breaking out here and there.
Known as Medha, meaning “sagacity”, the band is taking on gender imbalance in traditional Khmer music – especially in the instrument perhaps seen as the most masculine.
Over the past five years, the Heritage Hub has been working to preserve various traditional art forms. However, for manager Song Seng the mission is not only to preserve the legacy from previous generations but also to create new forms of art to be passed on. That’s why last year he initiated a project to sponsor innovation among local artists.
“While outlining the project, we also considered the social issue related to art,” Seng said. “Then, the issue of domination by men in playing drums came up.”
According to the manager, a woman playing skor goes against the generally held conventions of their physical beauty.
“People believe that playing drums, either with sticks or hands, will cause a woman to grow muscle, and according the local stereotype, she will be considered unattractive,” Seng says. “Meanwhile, many think that women could not play drums well because the drums are too heavy for them.”
In early 2017, seven women with experience in other traditional arts volunteered for training under Sous Sopheak, a traditional drum master. They came up with the name, and composed their own music, which also includes other instruments like the sneng, a type of horn and the gong.
Despite pressure from their families discouraging them from playing, and the trials of learning an entirely new instrument, they picked a variety of types of drums.
Medha member Rithy Serey Panha, 23, says her husband has been trying to persuade her – unsuccessfully – to quit the troupe, and focus on being a housewife and singer.
“I love playing drums, and I will not stop even if my husband forces me to or I have to grow muscle,” Panha says. “I want to be famous and travel to places around the world with the band.”
In October last year, the group first gained positive acclaim at the international festival REPFest, held in Siem Reap, when it performed Soul of Victory Drum, which featured five different types of drums, including a pair of skortob, a type of Angkorian military instrument.
“The audience expressed delight about their performance,” Seng said. “It was something they’ve never seen before, and we felt Medha has a great future.”
At a rehearsal this week for Soul of Victory Drum, the two skortob players set the rhythm, pounding the drumheads with sticks. The other members, also drumming, show military postures, with severe facial expressions. At one point, the skortob pair shout out: “Struggle!”, “Brave!”, “Commit!” and “Strength” – the war cry of Medha, with each of the words echoed by the others.
So far they have given five performances, with another expected in May. Apart from helping them look for opportunities to perform, Heritage Hub gives them a place to rehearse every afternoon for three hours.
Despite being three months pregnant with her second child, band leader Saing Sreypich still comes to rehearsals. She has trained to be a traditional musician and dancer since her early childhood, but her master never allowed her to touch a drum, saying that it was taboo and would “ruin your soft body”. The warnings had the opposite of their intended effect – with Sreypich vowing to one day learn how to play the drums.
“I will not quit, and I will do whatever I can to prevent the other members from leaving the band,” she said. “We all have a dream of Medha receiving national and international recognition, and we want them to think of us when they want to listen to drum music.”