Cambodian Culture Revival Heals Trauma and Offers Opportunity

Updated on January 8, 2024 by Meg Pier

Cambodian culture and history have a tragic past, but thanks to Arn Chorn Pond, the country is healing. Pond is the founder of Cambodian Living Arts, an organization he established in 1998 to support the revival of traditional Khmer performing arts and to inspire contemporary artistic expression.

Approximately ninety percent of Cambodia’s performing artists died during the Khmer Rouge regime, a devastating blow to all of Cambodia’s oral traditions. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, this cultural tragedy was compounded by two subsequent decades of economic hardship, when very few of the surviving master musicians could make a living performing or teaching.

Cambodian Living Arts works with the belief that supporting arts education is a way for people to grow and develop and heal from the traumas and hardships of both the past and the present, not only because knowing the traditional arts keeps younger generations connected to their heritage and the elders in their community, but because through the mentoring and guidance process, the students and masters build their confidence, are able to exercise leadership skills, and nurture hopes for the future.

Arn’s own healing from the horrors of existence under the brutal Khmer Rouge began when he was adopted by an American minister and moved to New Hampshire as a young teenager. He found through sharing his experience of Cambodian culture, he could forge meaningful connections with others, finding a salve for his sense of isolation and anger, while at the same time awakening a sense of compassion in others. Arn saw the power of those positive exchanges and built on them, embarking on a humanitarian career that has moved millions.

Among his many observations that struck a chord with me is that whatever our personal history may be, a sense of isolation is deadly to our spirit. Only through sharing our experiences, and being open to each other’s pain, without what he calls “partializing” it, can we move beyond it. Arn’s story reminded me to appreciate the deep need for connection inherent in our human condition, so essential to mastering the art of living. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Arn.

In Conversation With Arn Chorn Pond, Founder of Cambodian Living Arts

Cambodian Living Arts Masters and Students © Charley Todd
Cambodian Living Arts Masters and Students © Charley Todd

Meg: You are the founder of Cambodian Living Arts — can you tell me what the organization’s purpose is?

Arn Chorn Pond: Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) was founded in 1998; for the organization's first decade, we focused on the preservation of endangered performing art forms and rituals. 90% of Cambodia’s artists did not survive the Khmer Rouge regime; the arts, which are transmitted orally from master to student, were in danger of being lost forever.

Originally, the way CLA worked was by matching surviving master artists one-to-one with students, usually in the village or near where the Master lives.

The masters were paid a salary and health benefits and the students received a stipend in lieu of working to help support their families.

The masters recruited students from the local community. Some students were homeless or too poor to go to school, so the classes gave them something to do and a sense of family. Often students came to CLA by word of mouth. There are many stories where a student heard music being played nearby and went to investigate. And this is how they came to study the arts.

After 10 years CLA had evolved from supporting four Master Artists to encompassing 16 Master Artists and 11 assistant teachers reaching over 200 students in eight provinces in Cambodia yearly.

The masters taught many instruments traditional of Cambodian culture like those used in the kantaoming (classical wedding music), pinpeat ensemble, the chapie, or long-neck 2-string guitar, and the Memm, which is an instrument constructed from a tree fiber found only in the northern Cambodian jungle, string and lizard scales; it uses the player’s head as a resonating box. They also taught performing arts such as traditional Cambodian opera, folk dance and classical dance also known as Cambodian ballet.

CLA has paid particular attention to teaching rare and endangered art forms in Cambodian culture and instruments such as the ksai diev--the instrument of the heart, made from a gourd and played over the chest cavity. Smot is a rare Buddhist chanting form sung in various religious ceremonies. Citizens now can hear live smot being sung in the temples rather than old tapes from before the Khmer Rouge.

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Cambodian Living Arts Masters. Photo: CLA

Now that Cambodian Living Arts has been working with these masters and students for almost two decades we have expanded the types of work we do. We’ve started offering scholarships to excellent students to study in high school and college. We work to help emerging professional artists make a living, a good example is the Children of Bassac, a dance group we have supported since 2003 and that has performed in other counties.

Over our near-20 year history, Cambodian Living Arts has always evolved our work in line with the rapid development of the country and the re-emerging arts sector. In recent years, we have focused on implementing platforms that will nurture Cambodian culture, as well as talent and equip young people with essential skills; for example fellowships for emerging cultural leaders; scholarships for career advancement of artists and administrators; performance platforms that create jobs and grow audiences for performing arts, and advocacy and networking activities that result in national and international engagement with the Cambodian arts sector.

As we look to the future, we will focus more of our efforts on stimulating creativity and innovation in the arts sector. We will continue to build links between the arts sector in Cambodia and those of our neighbors in the Greater Mekong region and further afield in Asia. We are seeking to further integrate arts and culture into the Cambodian public school curriculum, while also further increasing performance opportunities for Cambodian artists while further cultivating audiences, both at home and overseas. To make sure that artists’ voices are always at the heart of all our programs, Cambodian Living Arts has created a new committee of four Associate Artists to oversee the implementation of the strategy.

We work to bring different arts groups in the country together, to build capacity and generate a movement that will facilitate the transformation of Cambodia. We want Cambodian culture to be known for its arts, not just the killing fields. This is how we can have peace.

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Children of Bassac display Cambodian culture in each performance (c) Chean Long

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Meaningful Interactions at Cambodia Living Arts

Meg: Can you describe an interaction with a Cambodian Living Arts student and an interaction with a master that you found were especially meaningful, that told you the program was working and making a difference in people’s lives?

Arn Chorn Pond: Sinat is one of CLA’s most outstanding students. He plays the Ksai Diev and the Tro Khmer, a three-stringed instrument played with a bow. Having been a student for five years with a leading CLA master, Sinat is now performing and recording nationally and internationally. He regularly appears on popular Cambodian TV.

Kong Nai is a blind master of the chapei dong veng–a long neck guitar. After being obscured on the street and living in a squatter community, he is now renowned in Cambodia and has performed with Peter Gabriel at the WOMAD festival in England and Australia as well as the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland.

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Kong Nay playing the chapei dong veng, a popular instrument in Cambodian culture (c) Dylan Maddux

Meg: Since its founding, Cambodian Living Arts has grown to encompass some really far-reaching programs that include initiatives in Cambodian culture, community arts, capacity building, creative industries, and living arts fellowships. Can you describe how these all came about?

People Are Culture's interviews and stories offer a free valuable resource to teachers looking for meaningful material for their culture lesson plans.

Arn Chorn Pond: CLA’s success is the result of a team effort by a staff that now numbers almost 30 people. We have an Asia-Pacific annual arts management, policy and development conference; a documentary and archive initiative that has produced hundreds of important recordings and filmed three full-length documentaries; the Amatak festival with performances by ten CLA-trained troupes, designed to demonstrate that traditional arts can be creative, dynamic and relevant to Cambodian culture and society today—fittingly, Amatak means "eternal" in the Khmer language.

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Amatak Festival (c) Philip Sen

In 2012, Cambodian Living Arts launched Plae Pakaa (“Fruitful” in Cambodian) which is a daily show at the National Museum near the Royal Palace, employing over 100 young artists.

Last year, CLA launched the “Season of Cambodia” festival, a unique initiative by Cambodian Living Arts, brought over 125 artists from Cambodia to New York City for a major celebration of Cambodian culture, arts, and humanities. Distinctive works from over 125 master and emerging artists and scholars—in ritual, music, visual art, performance, dance, shadow puppetry, film, and academic forums—were presented by more than 30 of New York’s most renowned arts and educational institutions, marking an unprecedented city-wide initiative to celebrate one of the world’s most vibrant and evocative cultures.

CLA’s ideas have made the organization influential in helping national and international policy-makers to set new standards and public policy for arts in education. We are currently conducting a study of the impact of the arts on youth resilience as part of an international youth resilience research study.

The Board members say ‘How do you get all of these ideas? We can’t keep up with you! [laugh] I say, ‘Without creativity, we die!'

Cambodian Culture | Opera and Pol Pot

Meg: Can you describe your youth growing up in Cambodia?

Arn Chorn Pond: My family owned an opera company. I did not really realize very much about what my dad and my mom and my whole family were doing because I was so young. I remember being on stage, somebody holding me and all the light shining on my face. I think I was driven to perform since I was a little boy. I didn’t see my parents very much because they went out and performed. Much, later on, I found out about my dad and my whole family and their careers when I went back to Cambodia and went to the province.

Many people knew of their performances. Many older people in many provinces that I went to knew my dad and my grandfather, and they told me all about them. People knew them very well, better than I even knew them.

Cambodian opera includes stories from the Buddha and some are quite modern stories that my dad made up. It’s different from American opera. My family’s opera company didn’t have a theater or a big opera house in the city. They were mobile and went to different temples and rice fields around Cambodia. Not only rich people but ordinary people can afford the tickets. In the system that was set up by my family, some money they give to the temples, and some money that they earned from the opera performances they gave to the nation. Every time they performed, it was like a charity to the nation and to the temple. My dad was a really energetic actor. He was not only owner of the opera, but he was really a star. I was too young for my father to train. He trained my cousin right before Pol Pot came.

We had a large family in Cambodia. During this time I heard people talk about war between American and Vietnam. They said Vietnam is our neighbor, and that’s all I heard, and that the Americans are from far away. I had never met an American before. They said they were white people, and they were fighting with the Vietnamese. I heard some of the artillery and gunfire farther away from the city, but I didn’t really care. I was just a little boy and trying to gamble on the street, listening to music. We had a radio singer who would sing beautiful songs, like Diana Ross songs. I just figured out now that she was singing Diana Ross and Elvis Presley songs, and she made it Cambodian.

The Khmer Rouge were Cambodians fighting for the Communists; it was ideology. They were siding with Vietnam, and with China and the Russians, trying to kick out the imperialists, who they said were the Americans, the French, the English, and the West. That’s what I heard. I had no idea what they were saying. The Khmer Rouge were Communist Cambodians and didn’t believe in any religion, they don’t believe in any system of education or anything like that. In fact, they’re against it. They helped the Vietnamese.

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In 1974, a year before Pol Pot came to power, I was about nine years old and I was sent into a temple in Battambang province near the Thailand border to become a temple boy and serve the monks. In the temple there’s music everywhere. In Cambodian culture it is still customary for young boys to be sent to their temple to serve the monks in exchange for religious and education instruction. Some will carry on to be monks for life. The cultural norm is for these young boys to go to a temple and serve the monks in order to pay respect to their parents and ancestors.

When the Americans lost the war in Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge came into Cambodia. They said that the war was over and peace is coming. So I was cheering them, like everyone else.

We did not know that they were going to close Cambodia and they going to separate us from everybody and they were starting to kill anybody. The artists were targeted before anyone else. Those that were famous, our best, the musicians, they were the targets and the Khmer Rouge killed them viciously.

I was sent into a temple called Wat Ek with 700 other children. Only 60 survived after three years of Pol Pot, and I was one of the lucky ones from that temple. The Khmer Rouge forced me to watch the executions every day, and they asked me to help by pushing people into the graves. For four years, I witnessed the killing three or four times a day and they killed everybody.

They killed everyone who was educated - teachers, master musicians, master singers, doctors, chemists, all of that, they were rounded up and just killed with the axe. They didn’t round them up and shoot them. They were keeping bullets, probably to fight the Vietnamese. Most of my family starved to death and some were slaughtered. I watched thousands be slaughtered with my own eyes, and some of them I was involved in helping out. You know, they pushed me to do it. They forced me to do it, and I was only nine or 10 years old. So that was four years, and I realized only later they killed two or three million.

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Unimaginable Punishment

Meg: That is just so mind-boggling that you were put in a position to have to witness that kind of horrible violence. How did you get through that?

Arn Chorn Pond: During the time while it was happening, I saw some of the other kids be victims of their own feelings, of their own tears. They went crazy. Some kids were not strong enough to numb their hearts, to numb themselves not to feel what’s happening. They ended up in the mango grove, also, with the axe in their head. They were showing emotion. They were crying, and the victims were not their relatives at all. But they went crazy. You have to not care, really. You don’t show in your face, in your eyes, that you really cared about the victims. But it was very hard.

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Arn Chorn-Pond, age 16

The Khmer Rouge would watch you. They rounded you up and they punish people miserably, unbelievably, like hell beyond words. They did so many, many, many incredible things. They would ask the children to pee on the victims’ heads, which is a great degradation in Cambodian culture. They did all of this unimaginable punishment. I think I made myself numb, literally. My eyes were seeing what was happening, but you know, you don’t smell the blood anymore and you just shut off.

I have to shut myself off completely not to feel it, and I did that very well. That’s why I’m still talking to you today because the thing is that it’s unbelievable. Not everyone probably can survive the starvation, the killing, you cannot survive. If you’re not killed, you are starved to death. They didn’t give you any food to eat, sometimes for months, and this is for four years. They woke you up at 5:00 a.m. until about midnight. So just imagine that, the disease and so many problems. And I’m not sure how I survived the killing at all, you know? That numbing myself, it’s all part of the package, I don’t know how I did it myself. I could have ended up like everyone else, but I don’t know why. Even that survival skill, even that, I don’t know why.

Meg: How did you come to be a musician?

Arn Chorn Pond: When the Khmer Rouge came, they chose five, six other kids to play the revolutionary songs for them on the khim, which is like a dulcimer. A master taught us for five days. I didn’t even know his name, he was old, with gray hair. I have a lighter skin, that’s what the Khmer Rouge hate because they think I am a rich boy, and my family was pro-American. So I knew I had no chance but just to really work hard, and I knew I was faster than the other young men. A week later, the Khmer Rouge killed them and also our master, they ended up in the mango grove. And I also sort of knew myself that if I didn’t play well and work hard during the Khmer Rouge time, I would end up in the mango grove in no time.

Escape From the Khmer Rouge

Meg: I know that you escaped from the Khmer Rouge and that you were in the jungle for a period of time–could describe that experience?

arn chorn pond

Arn Chorn Pond: I was taught like thousands of other children by the Khmer Rouge to carry guns. I was just 10 years old, you know, 10 or 12 years old. I didn’t know my real age. Some other children, I saw their heads were blown up by the Khmer Rouge because they refused to carry guns and fight. So I just took the gun and for part of the war I was put onto the front line as a decoy by the Khmer Rouge.

I saw many thousands of people shot in the head, in the stomach. I couldn’t take it anymore, and so I ran off into the jungle, living in the jungle, I don’t know how long, a few months.

To survive in the jungle is crazy. There was no problem with water, but if I picked up the wrong fruit, I would probably have killed myself with the poison. There are monkeys everywhere in the jungle, so I started to follow the monkeys. They were in the tall trees and they have plenty of fruit. They joked around, and the fruit would fall on the ground, and I would pick it up and eat it. So I identified that kind of fruit after the monkeys, so that’s how I survived there. I caught some fish with my hands. I walked near the streams, I don’t know how many months.

I became delirious, I talked to myself and I don’t know how I survived. I ended up along the border of Thailand, and I was in a blackout. I didn’t even know it was Thailand. I was unconscious and blistered all over my body. That’s the way I met my foster father Peter Pond there. He visited the border camp and found me. I was probably on the ground about to die. I probably weighed 30 pounds. I was 14 then, probably.

Probably I was in the jungle close to six months. I’m not sure how I survived in the jungle by myself. That ordeal, I don’t know, it takes luck and some skill, I think. I saw a few bones in the jungle, people were starving and there were snakes all over the place. You have no chance to survive in the jungle. I’m not sure how I did it.

Cambodian Culture | Healing Through Sharing

Meg: Is what you’re doing now with Cambodian Living Arts part of your healing process?

Arn Chorn Pond: I think the healing process for me began in America and trying to survive here, too. I almost thought I couldn’t survive in America, not to buy a gun and shoot myself. My dad brought me here in ninth grade. That was the first grade I ever had, and I had to learn the A-B-Cs while I was in high school, and kids made fun of me, calling me names. In New Hampshire there were a lot of white kids, there were not any Asian, Black, Hispanic or anything like that in 1980. So I ran away from home, and at that time, I was not willing to talk like this, like I am doing now. I was always ready to strike, and I was really suicidal.

My dad knew about this and he encouraged me to speak out about my life, and I began to emerge from that. I spoke at the church. I never thought American kids and young people would care and give a shit about what happened to me in Cambodia. They don’t know where Cambodia is. In my mind, I thought that they are so busy shopping and lying to their parents for money to go shopping and to clubs and all that, they don’t give a shit about Cambodia.

I was thinking that, but I was wrong. When I start speaking in the church, a lot of American kids really came to me and gave me hugs, and they were in tears and saying what can they do? What can they do, you know? They wanted to help. They didn’t know about Cambodian culture or it's story. So I was willing to talk with them. My first time I admitted to them that I was wrong in thinking that they didn’t care about me and about what happened to me. As soon as I opened my mouth, they were really affected by it, you know? And I was so happy that they came, that was my turning point in my life.

And so I let a few people in my life, too, you know? Like Judith Thompson, who co-founded Children of War with me, John Burt and Alan Morgan who helped me form the Cambodian Living Arts organization. It is just recently that I went back to try to find master musicians, and it’s a full circle of my life with music and art.

Earlier, I had started a few other things like Children of War in America, where we brought about 40, 50 young people from different countries, usually from both sides of the conflict, like Palestinian, Israeli, Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Northern and Southern Ireland, you know, Catholic and Protestant. And I learned to be a model to them, and I would stand up and speak before anybody else because I was willing to do that. Because what brought me into a corner and to planning to buy a gun and shoot myself was not only the problem that kids were making fun of me, it was that they didn’t understand the shit I went through, and I was very pissed. And it was through being more pissed, and more angry that I was encouraged to start talking about my past.

As soon as I started talking about my stories, share deeply about what I went through, I was really able to come to terms about my own work. I came to really feel what I said, you know? Even right now I’m telling you I have not got over that yet. I began to feel what I was telling those kids and really have to go through, over and over again, what I went through really emotionally, which is very difficult. That probably heals me than anything else, if they are able to feel what I say. Being able to feel the suffering, really, and be able to really, finally, cry. It wasn’t really easy for me to be able to cry, which I’m doing right now with you. That’s really difficult, and that I think the healing process comes when I have someone. It’s a two-way street. Its people willing to encourage me, to care enough for me to say, ‘Arn, you better do this or we’re all going to die together,’ like my dad, Judith Thompson, and John Burt, who really are behind me all the way and support me all the way. ‘If you don’t do this, you’re going to die, Arn, and we’re not going away from you. We’re going to continue to help you.’

And then there are audiences all over the world. There are audiences with these young American children that hug me and support me all these years. I was able to really cry and learn how to cry, really. That’s healing me. So when I cry, when I share the story everywhere I go, and more and more, even right now, I’m just at the beginning of my healing process after these 25 years. It’s a process, and I really trust this process, and I never thought that possible, sharing story on the phone with you and trust you enough to cry, really.

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Photo: CLA

Partialize Suffering

Meg: I’m very honored. I have not been through anything like what you’ve been through, but I have been through some difficult times. I believe that the more that I can tell my story or that I can help people tell their story, that there is healing in that, and learning to trust the process like you talk about. It’s very, very powerful, and it does take a lot of courage to tell your story.

Arn Chorn Pond: Let’s say you don’t have to partialize your story because hurt is hurt, tears are tears. I have my adopted brother and sister, who are American and have suffered from my parents’ divorce. It hurts them, and so I don’t take it lightly. I got to know my adopted brother and sister very well because they think I am not making their story partial. So I mean it’s a two-way street.

The healing has to be from me and from someone that I trust in my life who says, ‘I am willing to hear your story. I am willing to be there for you,’ whoever that person will be in your life and my life. Whether the kid is from Mount Galilee, the Palestinian kid or Israeli kid, whoever is willing to stop bombing and try to get away from their own suffering and spend a little time listening to my story. I want to cry for other people’s suffering, not only mine, whether it’s partial or not partial. That’s when we become one. That’s when we become healed from any suffering we went through. My own life has proven that. I founded a few organizations in my life with the help of many supporters, including my foster father and others, because I wanted to reach and care about other people.

The telephone can connect us, but it’s not enough for the young Americans who get caught in mall buying and buying. They become numb to their own feelings of other people’s suffering around the world. There’s no way we can have peace in the world if these young people are disconnected. Technology, we can use it, but nothing beats one person-to-person meeting and sharing stories. They have to be willing to share their story, and nothing beats that, otherwise we will not have peace. I don’t know how we can get away from the isolation of the mall, the isolation of technology. You know, technology, sometimes we don’t use it well. It’s isolating us from each other, from having real conversations with each other.

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Arn Chorn-Pond. Photo: CLA

Art as Peace-Maker

Meg: Tell me about how your work got started, as far as working with young people and master musicians in Cambodia, helping to carry on the tradition.

Arn Chorn Pond: I started a youth program in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1993 to 1996 to try to use my profession as an artist to mediate the Cambodian gangs, Hispanic, Black, you know like the Cripts and the Bloods.

The Peacemaker and Youth Gang Prevention Program identified master musicians who had survived the Khmer Rouge and were living in Lowell and Providence to teach this group of boys who were gang members to play the khim, similar to the dulcimer. I didn’t know how this would work and I found out that they’re really interested, even though they don’t know much about Cambodian culture themselves. They looked Cambodian, but they are American, they were born here, they grew up here, they were street kids.

I don’t know how it worked, but the master started to talk to the students about his own life and all of that and they become closer, you see? They appreciated the relationship when they got closer. When we put them together, I didn’t expect even much more than that, than just learning music, learning a little bit more Cambodian culture and tradition. But it turned out like something bigger happened.

Eventually, I burned out and then I went to Cambodia, trying to find out about members of my family, who’s still alive, who’s not still alive. I found out that many of them were starving, or had died, and that there were two or three million Cambodian people slaughtered during the time.

I found out that 90% of all the artists were killed in Cambodia, including my whole family. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is like my whole culture is going down the tubes.’ You’re like a zombie, you know?

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After looking for months, Arn finally found singer Chek Mach. Photo: CLA

There’s a woman named Chek Mach who I heard sing on the radio in 1974, before the Khmer Rouge. I heard she was still alive, it took me almost four or five months to try to track her down. So I walked, and then I found her eventually. She was drunk and unconscious on the back streets of Cambodia. She was selling charcoal and white wine, and nobody bought it, and she just drank herself drunk. She was in really bad shape when I found her. She was disoriented from the Khmer Rouge, and when I called her Chek Mach, she was so surprised and scared when I knew her name.

And I found my cousin in Battambang, still alive. I found one of my other masters, who I had been assigned by the Khmer Rouge after they killed my first teacher. His name is Mek, Master Youen Mek. He was on the street under a make-shift roof, cutting hair for a living. Even after 25 years, we recognized each other immediately. We hugged and he cried. He was drunk and cried ‘Where have you been?’ He begged me to help him play and teach music again.

I got goose-bumps when I met these people.

I thought to myself. 'What are if our culture is taken away from us? What are we going to do about the identity of our people?'

That’s how Cambodian Living Arts started.

These masters were in really bad shape. They were about to die. When we were getting started, we paid them $100 a month and started the first sort of medical care for them. After 10 years we had grown from supporting four Master Artists to 16 Master Artists and 11 assistant teachers reaching over 200 students in eight provinces in Cambodia yearly.

Cambodian Living Arts Today

After the genocide, Cambodian Living Arts is working. Young girls are now learning how to play the instruments, they don’t need to be prostituting themselves for money. They are not only learning about music and make money, but they carry the whole tradition in their lives. More tourists are going to Cambodia. The government will win, and the business people will win. Everyone will win. We eventually will have peace.

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CLA enables young girls to earn a living and carry on ancient traditions almost lost. Photo: CLA

Srey Ni as an example. CLA matched the shy young woman from the countryside with Keut Rann, a blind Khmer Rouge survivor who is one of the few remaining Cambodians who know the ancient art of Smot, a kind of Buddhist chanting. With the support of a full scholarship, Srey Ni embraced Smot’s Buddhist stories of morality, while also learning from Keut Rann about life under the Khmer Rouge.

Through learning Smot, Srey Ni has been able to do things she never thought possible. She can make money, she can go abroad, she can go on TV, she can make people laugh–and even learn to cry for what others have been through.

Meg: Can you describe your view of the power of music?

Arn Chorn Pond: It happened to me by accident that I came to play music and it saved my life, and I’m just going back there to pay my respect to music. But there’s much more than that. When people start coming together and play music, old or young, their relationship starts to build, then they start sing, and then they start to talk, and then something else happens. You know the loneliness and isolation we talked about earlier? It’s all gone. All gone. They become happy and the community starts coming together and they start clapping and they start dancing, and the place becomes hyped up with this dancing and music. And no one cares about planning to kill anybody or demonstrate against anybody. That’s why a lot of masters were willing to die during the Khmer Rouge time if they cannot be a singer anymore or an artist any more. It was their life to die for.

Isolation Will Kill Us

The isolation will kill us all. So let us sing, let us come together and have fun and dance and sing. Cambodian music and Cambodian culture happens to be so peaceful, so graceful. They are not singing for war. They are not singing and dancing for just merely money. It’s their lives, their livelihood, their self-expression, the root of their lives. This is not just a Cambodian story, this is a universal story. It is beyond my culture, you know?

I’ll tell you a story somebody told me. Many thousands of years ago, there were two groups of human beings. The one that did not support art and the culture, eventually they killed each other off. The group that really came together and hugged each other and cried with each other and sang with each other, those are the people who drew all of the pictures on the walls of the rock that survive until today. Those are the people that gave us life. So we need to do the same thing once more for us to survive. We are about to kill each other off now by the isolation.

Music is an opening to peace, to our own feelings from the suffering, from the isolation. Our music is not music for sale. There is enough music for sale for violence and for sex. But there is a need for music that really feels, that really brightens the soul, and we need to nurture that, need to support that.

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Peter Gabriel helped Arn Chorn Pond to spread awareness of Cambodian culture.

Peter Gabriel is someone I met him through the Amnesty International World Concert Tour. I was one of the few speakers there. I was able to meet him and when he heard about what I do in Cambodia, he helped me to start a first class studio in Cambodia.

During the bad time, when I played the dulcimer, I heard the sound of music and the sound of starvation. I played with my eyes closed and in my mind, I’m in heaven somewhere. Many people starved to death and I could hear the groaning, moaning every day and the screaming of the women that their liver and spleen were taken out by the Khmer Rouge. And that was unbearable. The music was not really a soul-saving music, it was bloody revolutionary songs for the Khmer Rouge. But when I perform, I still can escape from that moment into the different world.

The music I play is usually from the old Cambodian culture. It’s like a soothing song. It’s like music for your ancestor, music of love from the parents to the children, from the wife to the husband, composed by people thousands of years ago when they think about the heart, when they think about the soul.

There is a recent initiative, not part of CLA but a close partner, the Khmer Magic Music Bus, that is reintroducing traditional music in the remote countryside to those villagers who had never experienced any kind of live music at all—or had ever heard the music of their ancestors.

cambodian culture
Khmer Magic Music Bus (c) Philip Sen

Music in Cambodian Culture and Reaching Your Soul

The Khmer Magic Bus carries master musicians and their students to the villages of rural Cambodia so they can share the experience of listening to and learning about their musical heritage.

Music in Cambodian culture, it’s in every level of life. There is music when the people are just born, a day old, and there’s music and dance when they reach puberty, and there’s music and dance when they get married, and there’s music and dance when they are about to die, music for death, music for sending the soul into heaven. So music is part of our life every step on the way. It’s not music for only starting your hormones going, for sex and violence.

Music in Cambodia is mostly about reaching your soul, really you have to really feel it. When I play it, I know more and more inner peace. I really feel it in my gut. You know you can really take your soul out of your body when you start playing. You feel something so much, you know?

We are working to bring different arts groups in the country together, to build capacity and generate a movement that will facilitate the transformation of Cambodia. More tourists are coming to Cambodia. The government will win, and the business people will win. Everyone will win. We want Cambodia to be known for its arts and culture, not just the killing fields.

Header image is courtesy of Irwin Loy, VOA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Meg Pier

Meg Pier

Publisher and editor of People Are Culture (PAC). This article was created by original reporting that sourced expert commentary from local cultural standard-bearers. Those quoted provide cultural and historical context that is unique to their role in the community and to this article.


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