After 15 years, Cambodian Living Arts Plans for the Future

Arn Chorn-Pond made his call for help in 1999.

He had trained as a child soldier during the Pol Pot regime and then fled to the U.S. as a refugee in the early 1980s.

In the 1990s, he returned to Cambodia and began tracking down traditional music and theater masters who had been famous prior to the bloodshed and chaos of the 1970s.

Many of these artists, household names before the war years, were living in tragic circumstances. These included the once well-known singer Chek Mach, who was reduced to selling cigarettes on the streets of Phnom Penh.

Mr. Chorn-Pond’s own family had been performers trained in the Bassac style of opera for four generations in Battambang province.

And so John Burt, a New York theater producer, and Mr. Chorn-Pond launched Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) 15 years ago, providing a small group of master musicians and performers the means to hold free classes of traditional music in poor neighborhoods so they could survive and pass on their knowledge.

Today, nearly 600 students in nine provinces are enrolled in CLA classes given by about 30 master artists.

The organization’s goal has been to give a new life to Cambodian music forms by having them taught as well as recorded, building music archives and producing CD recordings for the general public—nine of them, so far.

But as the organization celebrates its 15th anniversary, marking the event Tuesday with a photo exhibition, CLA is about to transform.

“Organizations can be slow to change their narrative because they’re not actually paying attention” to changes in a country or the world in general, Mr. Burt said. “They get caught, they rest on the old story because the old story worked.” The challenge is to adapt without forfeiting an organization’s core purpose, he said.

At CLA, this will lead to a new approach borne out by the reality of today’s Cambodia: That while the government may support the arts and culture, government funding is minimal, and for contemporary arts it is virtually non-existent. So artists must learn to support themselves.

CLA is calling its new approach “Generation 21.”

“We went from safeguard, the urgent situation of having to preserve culture with the masters…and of supporting the re-emergence of the arts with a first generation of artists, to now planting the seed for the next generation to emerge,” said Phloeun Prim, CLA’s executive director.

One of first masters to join CLA had been Yoeun Mak, who met Mr. Chorn-Pond in a Khmer Rouge work camp in 1977 in Battambang province.

“The Khmer Rouge had found out that I was a wedding music artist and selected me to be a member of one of their propaganda music groups,” Mr. Mak said, adding that he soon took under his wing Mr. Chorn-Pond, who, barely a teenager at the time, had been picked to play in the camp’s children’s band.

When the Pol Pot regime was ousted from power in 1979, Mr. Mak remained in Battambang province and later worked for the provincial Department of Culture and Fine Arts. In 1994, he retired and became a barber to earn a living.

Then in the late 1990s, Mr. Chorn-Pond returned to Cambodia with music instruments so that Mr. Mak could start teaching again.

“I taught 11 students at first,” Mr. Mak recalled. “Those students were very talented and committed…. I taught them not just wedding music but also music for ayai, yike, bassac and mohori,” traditional theater forms, he said. Those students, who were all around 18 years old at the time, have since become professional musicians and music teachers.

Masters in CLA programs have also included Kong Nay, a performer who plays chapei, a long-necked, two-stringed guitar, while telling Buddhist legends and folktales or satirical improvised monologues.

Over the years, CLA consulted with the Ministry of Culture to identify endangered musical forms to focus on.

One of those forms has been smot, a singing genre reserved for funerals but which, according to smot singer Phoeun Srey Pov, need not be limited to those ceremonies.

Ms. Srey Pov also studied in CLA classes. “Our teachers were very motivating, encouraging…. They also were very strict but friendly,” said Ms. Srey Pov, who has since performed smot in the U.S., Europe and Asia.

Helping young artists earn a living off their talent and skills is a major part of CLA’s new strategy, Mr. Prim said. One of its components is the Creative Industry Program, whose purpose is to teach young artists business and marketing skills, he said.

“Today, we are working with Cambodia’s first generation post-genocide, post-war, post-tragedy,” Mr. Prim said. “It’s the Paris Peace Agreement generation, those who were born after the 1991 agreement…. They are in their 20s.”

One project set up with sustainability in mind has been the Khmer classical and folk dance performances at the National Museum in Phnom Penh. Aimed at the tourist market, the shows are staged by a group of CLA students who took the name “Children of the Bassac.” The project has involved building a stage at the museum.

Launched on a shoestring, the performance program is now in its third season. It includes artists from the Royal University of Fine Arts and is starting to make a profit that will be invested into improving the quality of the shows, Mr. Prim said.

One of the artists featuring in the weekly program is Hou Cheychanrith, who has studied in CLA master classes, has performed internationally and, in addition to teaching, is studying at RUFA to become a stage director.

“One of CLA’s biggest contributions to the country and to the arts is to make traditional art forms living ones,” he said.

CLA’s “Generation 21” strategy also involves progressively turning over its classes to local communities and pagodas, and help them attract paying students while offering scholarships to students without funds.

This new approach concerns Mr. Cheychanrith, because traditional music and dance forms are still rarely staged for a paying public, he said. Cambodian television programs and mainstream entertainment planners tend to only feature traditional dance and music on special occasions such as New Year, he added.

This is one reason why CLA has long had a marketing plan in store to help promote traditional arts, Mr. Burt said.

“In 2000…we built a 20-year plan [whose goal was] that by the Year 2020, Cambodia’s signature would be its arts and culture and not the Killing Fields,” he said.

Throughout the world, the country has been synonymous with war and Khmer Rouge atrocities, and CLA has been determined to shift the focus to its arts and artists, Mr. Burt said.

This led CLA to organize a major arts festival in New York last year. Held in April and May 2013, “Season of Cambodia” involved more than 120 artists and was a resounding success.

This event contributed to putting Cambodia on the international art stage, Mr. Prim said. “It had to be done at that particular time…. Now people believe in Cambodia.” There is now talk of a Cambodian arts festival in Sydney in two years, he added.

As for Cambodia’s arts and culture becoming the country’s signature, this is a perfectly achievable goal, said Charley Todd, a fundraising expert who has worked with CLA since 2000.

This country…has a passionate belief in itself and the arts but also lacks confidence,” he said. “I think it’s the burden of Angkor, the burden of once having been great. But to me, it still is:  In the field of arts, Cambodia can be the jewel of the crown of Southeast Asia.

“This country has the potential to be known to itself and to the world for the richness and beauty of its arts. That’s the vision,” Mr. Todd said.

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