he difference in cultures was obvious when three gregarious French musicians came bounding up the stairs toward a small group of Khmer musicians, showering them with bear hugs and kisses on both cheeks.
But the cultural and language barriers disappeared 15 minutes later when the musicians sat down for a jam session at the French Cultural Center. It was the first rehearsal for tonight’s Jazz Angkor concert at Chaktomuk Theatre on Sisowath Quay Boulevard.
It will be the third concert for the four Frenchmen and eight Cambodians. Last year they recorded a CD, now for sale.
The French Cultural Center initiated the idea. It contacted Jean-Marc Padovani, a French saxophonist who has in the past mixed his contemporary style with traditional Hispanic and Mediterranean sounds.
But Padovani wasn’t quite prepared for traditional Khmer music. “When we had the first meeting I understood nothing about Cambodian music,” Padovani said during rehearsal Monday. “The rhythm is very different.”
Ramon Lopez, the group’s French drummer, broke down the rhythms for him, and eventually Padovani composed several pieces combining Western jazz and Khmer music.
The group played its first concert at the Royal Palace on Easter Sunday 1997, hours after grenades ripped through a nearby demonstration killing at least 17 people and wounding more than 150. They also gave a public performance in May 1997.
The Khmer musicians come from the Royal University of Fine Arts. They say the joint concerts have helped them improve their music. “I’m traditional Khmer and I didn’t know about European music,” said Keo Dorivan, who plays the kloy, or flute. “The experience is very good for me.”
Padovani said the most difficult part of combining the two types of music is overcoming the language barrier. An interpreter works with the group, but some of the musical terms don’t translate.
The group rehearsed tentatively, the Khmer musicians watching Padovani for musical cues. They do not read music, so they memorize it all. Soon the Frenchmen and the Cambodians were tapping their feet, bobbing their heads and swaying with the rhythm. The music sounded like a cacophony of tropical birds, with a very catchy beat. “What you see now is the result of a huge amount of work,” Padovani said.