The World Through Music and Culture

Musicians Who Survived the Khmer Rouge

Kong Nay turning his chapel dong veng. Photo by Maria Bakkalapulo

Words by Maria Bakkalapulo

from the archive – first published in 2007.

Sitting on a veranda overlooking the Mekong River, Arn Chorn-Pond need only close his eyes and he’s back playing his bamboo flute on the bloodstained floor of a labor camp he shared with 700 other children. With his eyes clenched shut, his brow wrinkles with anguish as he blows with all his emotion into the instrument and rewinds the clock to Year Zero. He says his music was the only way to drown out the screams of the victims as they were tortured or killed in the Wat Aik, a Buddhist temple converted into a concentration camp by the Khmer Rouge when they took power in 1975. “I could hear their screams for miles. It’s always in my dreams now.”

In 3 years, 8 months and 20 days, an estimated 1.7 million died under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, an amazing diabolical feat for any regime. In their short time in power, the Khmer Rouge killed without mercy, and set out to abolish Cambodia’s national heritage. Ninety percent of musicians, dancers and artists were wiped out of existence. More than three decades on, Cambodia’s wounds are raw once again as the U.N.- backed tribunal began questioning three top regime leaders in late November.

Bizarrely, it was in the labor camp that Chorn-Pond survived through music. “In the midst of it all, the Khmer Rouge wanted to teach us to play revolutionary songs. So, I raised my hand with five other kids. Only the two best survived. The other three ended up in the mangroves.” In 1978, as the Khmer Rouge’s grip began to weaken, Arn Chorn-Pond fled to a refugee camp in Thailand where Peter Pond, an America Unitarian – Universalist minister and aid worker, befriended and eventually adopted him. In 1989 Chorn-Pond returned to the killing fields to find surviving family. “Instead I found one of my music teachers, Yoeun Mek, cutting hair along the side of the road. He started crying when he saw me.” Sitting together on a park bench in central Phnom Penh, Mek pats Chorn-Pond’s shoulder and calls him ‘his son.’ “Mek taught me music and I risked my life to steal him sugar and rice. We are alive today because we protected each other.” Yoeun Mek, is considered one of the country’s best players of the tro sao – a two-stringed upright fiddle popular in traditional wedding songs. “Mek begged me to find him some way to use his art again. I didn’t want Mek and others to die thinking their music had been lost.”

In 1998, Chorn-Pond and two American friends, John Burt and Alan Morgan, started up the Boston-based non-profit organization, Cambodian Living Arts (CLA). They currently support several active ‘masters’ who have returned to the performing arts and are teaching the new generation their skills. Known locally as the Mekong River Social Club, each master was a professional musician who managed to stay alive through the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime. “In the 1990’s, it was a triage effort to find and support the elder musicians and their oral traditions,” explains the former President and now Senior Advisor for CLA, Charley Todd. It was this mission to find the masters that would pull Chorn-Pond back from the brink of suicide as he began to face the atrocities in his past. Arn Chorn-Pond’s music teacher, Yoeun Mek, became the first CLA master in 1998. These master’s programs are now set up in 15 provinces teaching wedding music, ancient funeral chanting, shadow puppet theater and other traditional Khmer styles to thousands. The key role for CLA is to promote the arts, including the annual Cambodian Youth Arts Festival.

After the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the government made their own attempt to encourage the arts by repopulating the Dey Krahom squatter area of central Phnom Penh with musicians, opera singers and instrument makers. At the epicenter was the Tonle Bassac Theater, a veteran of Cambodia’s Golden Era of the 1960s. In 1994, the theater suffered severe damage from an accidental fire and was recently completely demolished. Since land was re-privatized in the 1990s, development surged and so did the land disputes. The residents lost out and were evicted against their will in 2009. Now a prime commercial development area, the artist community has scattered to various locations around the city.

Before the forced eviction in Dey Krahom, I went in search of one of the master musicians. Past the plastic and scrap metal recycling area and just before the instrument maker’s house I could hear 63 year old Kong Nay’s chapei dong veng – a traditional two stringed guitar – vibrating the thin corrugated tin walls of his bedroom. Inside lay the frail, blind musician with his long-necked banjo-like chapei stretched out alongside.

Kong Nay’s dark Ray-Ban style sunglasses distract from his pockmarked face and hide eyes that were ravaged by small pox leaving him blind at the age of four. His charismatic big smile has earned him the nickname the “Ray Charles of Cambodia.” Kong Nay’s lyrical commentary is his life story. One of his most scathing songs is about the suffering under the Khmer Rouge. “We always saw fresh blood everywhere. The sound of killing all around us,” Nay sings forcefully with his legs wrapped to the side to hold the chapei in place. “They pretend to be good, but in the end, they destroyed our country,” he exclaims with the chapei punctuating each line. Kong Nay insists the Khmer Rouge felt threatened because “they didn’t want musicians like us to be alive. We would be too powerful a tool to speak against the killing machine.”

Beside Kong Nay sits his wife, Tat Chen, who has been his eyes for more nearly five decades. They married in 1963, living through the genocide together. “Sometimes she gets angry, “Nay says as Tat Chen walks up and joins him on the deck “sometimes she is sad so I play her music to help her feel better.” His chapei is the way he communicates his thoughts and emotions to the world. “My life is an open book. I am a little embarrassed about all of the attention, but I’m having a good time.”

Arn Chorn-Pond of the CLA located Kong Nay in 2003 and encouraged him to begin teaching his art to younger students. Nay agreed to take on a class of only four because of his blindness. He has since retired from teaching, but performs regularly around the world.

Nay’s story became a part of the 2003 Emmy-nominated film The Flute Player. Describing Chorn-Pond’s return to Cambodia to save his country’s traditional music, the film also caught the attention of Peter Gabriel. He donated equipment for the recording of Mekong Delta Blues released in 2007 featuring Kong Nay and one of longtime pupils, Ouch Savy. The album of folk songs has sold in the thousands with other recordings released by CLA since.

The members of CLA realize that time is not on their side, as many of the master musicians are passing away. I met with one of them, Yim Saing, at his home outside Phnom Penh three years ago. Amongst the greatest and most versatile woodwind players in Cambodia, he was then senile, which had forced him to retire from teaching. Saing drifted in his own world as he swung in his hammock singing beautiful poetic songs, or telling us stories about his boxing days as he struck his fiercest poses. He had a red-velvet lined case filled with bamboo flutes, a rare jews harp and a buffalo horn propped up next to him on a stool like his old trusty friend. Fortunately Yim Saing’s daughter, Yim Chanthy, knows how to play them all. “I learned everything from my father,” she confided. “She is as good as her father too.” her mother insisted. Following in her father’s footsteps, she continues the family’s musical tradition and teaches the younger generation.

CLA is taking a pragmatic approach to keep Cambodia’s music flourishing. “We are moving on to help the middle aged and other touring artists who have the talent to be future masters,” says Charley Todd, Senior Advisor of CLA. “We also want our elder masters to be able to retire with dignity and to be able to have health care and continue to teach, if they wish.”

Cambodian Living Arts has come a long way from its early struggle to simply keep the arts from disappearing for good. It has become a passion for many. CLA is collaborating with some of Cambodia’s most popular touring groups, including Dengue Fever and The Cambodian Space Project. They will be embarking on a project from mid-April through mid-May of 2013 where nearly 200 Khmer performance and visual artists will take the stage at various venues and museums throughout New York City, such as the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The four week event, called the Season of Cambodia, will celebrate the living traditions CLA has worked so hard to preserve, where the arts have been passed down from master to student. The event will also premier a special composition, Cambodia’s long-awaited requiem in memory of the lives lost in Khmer Rouge years. As the leaders of the Khmer Rouge finally face justice, the event in New York will be a milestone in Cambodia’s healing process, showing the nation’s cultural return from a literal decimation.


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