Discover Cambodia - - CONTENTS - By El­lie Dyer Pho­tog­ra­phy by Sam Jam

Arn Chorn-Pond on keep­ing clas­si­cal art forms alive


IT was a knife-edge de­ci­sion that helped to save Arn Chorn-Pond’s life. Over­worked, un­der­fed and a wit­ness to mass slaughter, he vol­un­teered to play a mu­si­cal in­stru­ment while liv­ing in a bru­tal Kh­mer Rouge camp in Bat­tam­bang prov­ince in the 1970s.

“They said: ‘We’re go­ing to start mu­sic, who’s in­ter­ested in play­ing?’ Some­times, they killed you if you raised a hand in a wrong sit­u­a­tion,” says the 50-year-old mu­si­cian, ex­plain­ing how he was forced to work at a tem­ple, used as a “killing place” by the regime, along­side 700 other chil­dren aged from about seven to 13.

“I was sure it was a 50/50 gam­ble, but in­side of me [I thought] it is fine if they kill me now. We were all sick; star­va­tion was a re­ally hard thing to take for us,” he re­mem­bers, re­liv­ing his mem­o­ries through ex­pres­sive brown eyes while sit­ting in his cosy Ph­nom Penh of­fice, sur­rounded by images il­lus­trat­ing his life’s work.

The cadres, how­ever, kept their word, and an el­derly mas­ter was brought in to teach five young boys how to play. The mu­si­cian, whose name Chorn-Pond never dis­cov­ered, soon dis­ap­peared – as did so many dur­ing the Kh­mer Rouge’s 1975 to 1979 rule, when an es­ti­mated 1.7 mil­lion peo­ple died from dis­ease, star­va­tion and sum­mary ex­e­cu­tion.

Three chil­dren who were slow to learn were next. But Chorn-Pond was quick, and he be­gan per­form­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary songs on the khim, a type of ham­mered dul­cimer, at gath­er­ings for cadres and lead­ers of the ul­tra-Maoist regime. “Some­times you peed in your pants [if] you played the wrong song or you played the wrong tune or what­ever… th­ese were bad peo­ple,” he says.

Amid the trauma of the regime, a fa­ther fig­ure emerged in the form of a re­place­ment teacher, mas­ter Mek. The pair helped each other to sur­vive, risk­ing death as

Mek taught Chorn-Pond for­bid­den tunes from the past, and his stu­dent stole food to sup­ple­ment their mea­gre di­ets.

After the Viet­namese in­vaded in the dying days of 1978, that link was bro­ken. Chorn-Pond was given a gun and forced to fight, act­ing as an ex­pend­able de­coy for the regime. Even­tu­ally, he found him­self in the jun­gle near the Thai bor­der, where he was dis­cov­ered – blis­tered, un­con­scious and close to death – and brought to a nearby refugee camp.

A more bru­tal child­hood ex­pe­ri­ence is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine, yet it has shaped both Chorn-Pond’s life and work: the mu­si­cian has ded­i­cated much of his ex­is­tence to the re­vival of tra­di­tional Kh­mer arts after an es­ti­mated 90% of artists per­ished un­der Pol Pot, dec­i­mat­ing the King­dom’s rich cul­tural knowl­edge base.

His ef­forts have roots in both Cam­bo­dia and the US – where he was taken by his adop­tive fa­ther, Lutheran min­is­ter Peter Pond, and en­rolled in a US high school. Filled with stu­dents with no knowl­edge of his past, ChornPond found it tough. He re­calls be­ing un­able to con­trol him­self – “like a tiger” – and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing sui­ci­dal thoughts.

Over time he re­vis­ited mu­sic, tak­ing up the flute – which he plays to this day – in the late 1980s. After be­ing asked by his fa­ther, he also be­gan speak­ing about his ex­pe­ri­ences and shar­ing his story. Later, when work­ing with trou­bled youths in Low­ell, Mas­sachusetts, where a large com­mu­nity of Cam­bo­dian-Amer­i­cans have set­tled, he again har­nessed the power of song by ask­ing a sur­viv­ing Cam­bo­dian mas­ter of the fid­dle to in­ter­act with the young peo­ple, a move that helped boost their self-es­teem.

De­spite his time in the US, Chorn-Pond was drawn back to his home­land, where his fam­ily had owned a pop­u­lar opera com­pany. It was back in Bat­tam­bang – after find­ing out that close to 35 mem­bers of his fam­ily had died – that he stum­bled across mas­ter Mek, work­ing as a hair­dresser, and drink­ing.

“He turns around, he looks, and he was smil­ing – but also had tears com­ing out. He called my name, and I went and we hugged each other,” Chorn-Pond re­calls, be­fore re­count­ing how he went on to find other mas­ters, of­ten liv­ing in dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances, and in 1998 cre­ated the Cam­bo­dian Mas­ters Per­form­ers Pro­gramme.

The ‘school with­out walls’ en­cour­aged young­sters in Ph­nom Penh to take up mu­sic and learn from th­ese salaried ex­perts. And, with the help of key sup­port­ers, it evolved into the or­gan­i­sa­tion known as Cam­bo­dian Liv­ing Arts (CLA).

To­day, the non-profit fos­ters a new generation of artists, stu­dents and teach­ers through a range of ed­u­ca­tional, de­vel­op­ment and mar­ket-build­ing pro­grammes. Driven and ded­i­cated, Chorn-Pond is also con­tin­u­ing his work by ex­pos­ing ru­ral pop­u­la­tions to mu­sic via the Kh­mer Magic Mu­sic Bus, which works in part­ner­ship with CLA to trans­port artists across the coun­try to per­form.

“Play­ing mu­sic helps me smile now, and helps me even cry now,” he says. “Be­ing on the bus, see­ing the laugh­ter and the re­la­tion­ships, those young mas­ters and the old mas­ters talk­ing to each other about: ‘How did you meet your wife?’ – the same ques­tions that the gang mem­bers in Low­ell asked. I drive the bus, and my tears come out.”

But for all his achieve­ments and ex­pe­ri­ences in the King­dom, Chorn-Pond has a wider vi­sion. In 2013, the CLA-ini­ti­ated Sea­son of Cam­bo­dia ex­posed New York to Cam­bo­dia’s cul­tural her­itage through a range of per­for­mances fea­tur­ing some of the na­tion’s best artists. Chorn-Pond re­veals that he even invited politi­cian Henry Kissinger, the for­mer US sec­re­tary of state widely blamed for the large-scale bomb­ing of Cam­bo­dia by the US in the early 1970s, to at­tend.

To­day, Chorn-Pond’s dream is for ev­ery child on the planet to own an in­stru­ment, echo­ing his pas­sion­ate be­lief in mu­sic and the arts as forces for peace. The flute is now his ‘weapon’, rather than the guns he was forced to carry as a young­ster.

“I’m telling the Kh­mer Rouge: ‘How pow­er­ful is this?’” he says, softly. “Just a lit­tle bam­boo flute, and I play and I make ev­ery­one cry, and give money, and fall deep into their heart. How pow­er­ful is that com­pared to just tak­ing peo­ple’s lives, you know, which I have also done.”

Long and wind­ing road: Arn Chorn-Pond out­side Ph­nom Penh's Na­tional Mu­seum

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