by Krystel Chamberlain
After visiting the solemn and heart-breaking sites of the Killing Fields and S-21 prison while in Phnom Penh, we spent our last day there meeting a most charismatic and inspirational survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime. We went to Cambodian Living Arts which is a non-profit organization promoting the traditional arts of Cambodia. Arn Chorn Pond, who describes his complex past as a child soldier turned killer turned politician turned musician and spokesperson, shared with us how music saved his life. Arn was separated from his family at the age of eleven and forced into labor by the Khmer Rouge. One day he raised his hand when asked if anyone could play an instrument. Most musicians, intellectuals, doctors, and teachers were killed when admitting to their skills. Arn was lucky. He survived execution and starvation only by pleasing Khmer Rouge officers by playing propaganda music. He was the quickest learner. The slower children were killed. He learned techniques from a master musician before the old man was killed. Music saved his life. He played propaganda music until he was forced to be a child soldier and eventually escaped to Thailand at the end of the war. He was adopted by an American family and was sent to the United States where he attended school. The book “Never Fall Down” tells his story during the war. Please see my blog post from April 2014 for more detail on this, and Megan’s previous post about the Killing Fields.
In 1998, Arn returned to Cambodia in search of any surviving master musicians who could teach the traditional music and performing arts to the younger generation. It was not easy. Out of the two million people the Khmer Rouge exterminated, 90% were educated artists, musicians, doctors, etc. Arn founded Cambodian Living Arts to provide an avenue for traditional Khmer arts to live on. Old Masters are supported and earn a living by teaching their art forms to impoverished students who then can earn a living by performing rather than turning to the streets. Students are even given a scholarship to attend college in whatever they would like to study such as computers, medicine, or education. Either way, the arts will be an important force in their lives.
Cambodian Living Arts also creates an opportunity for the world to witness these art forms. They put on performances and festivals and allow the public to tour their studio and observe a class in action. That’s what we did. We were welcomed into the studio by Taro (promoter, and also a guitar player in his free time) and met a class made up of one female teacher, two female students, one male student, and two male musicians. Taro translated for us and explained that they were practicing Yike Opera which is a traditional Khmer performance with dance, singing, Khmer violin, and drum. It is not known exactly when and where Yike originated but is guessed to be influenced by the many different people who occupied Cambodia over the ages. Arn soon joined us in the classroom. It was clear he had a lot of pride about his students. The actors shared with us their usual practice which involved flexibility stretches, dancing, and singing while musicians played the drum and Khmer violin. In Yike Opera, all actors must be able to sing, dance, and act. They performed a short song from the Opera they were practicing and it was so beautiful! My heart swelled and I could not stop smiling. I had hoped to see a performance while on this trip and here it was! Such delicate and graceful movements! These students were very talented. They demonstrated several of the intricate hand gestures and we gasped at how their fingers could curl backward. That explains all the stretching! There are over 2,500 different gestures, each one with a unique meaning. We witnessed hand gestures that symbolized “to plant”, “grow”, “flower”, “fruit”, and “ripen” to name a few. More involved gestures stood for “shy”, “angry”, and “to love someone”.
Just when I thought this couldn’t get any more interesting, we were invited to try some! The Master teacher and her students tried to help us force our joints into directions they just wouldn’t go! Amidst laughter and groans we gained even more respect for what these performers could do. We were then invited to learn some dance moves (which came easier or harder to some of us compared to the stretching)!
Afterwards, we all sat down for a snack and to talk with Arn. We asked him why he started the Cambodian Living Arts Center. He shared how music saved his life over and over again when playing the flute allowed him to cope with memories and flashbacks from his traumatic past. He said that witnessing the beautiful music played by his students and the Masters he has found has brought him to tears. Tears that had so desperately needed to be shed, but could not as a child because to cry would mean death. As art therapy students, we could understand how powerful and therapeutic it is to show emotion through art, music, dance, etc.
Arn reminded us that we are all connected, even when we return to the United States. “We are all the same. We laugh the same. We cry the same”. We affect each other. The U.S. affected Cambodia when they dropped bombs there in the 1960’s. As an American and Cambodian, Arn feels deeply conflicted about this. Artists must be a strong voice in the world to communicate human emotion. Then maybe we can all remember this connection. Then maybe we can help to stop bombings, killings, and mass genocides.
I want to thank Arn Chorn Pond and his class at Cambodian Living Arts for sharing such a special afternoon with us. It was truly a hi-light of the trip for me and I will forever remember this example of resiliency and devotion to the arts and human expression.