Thma Baing district, Koh Kong province – It sounds like the setup for a joke: What’s a kibbutz-born, musical-saw-playing Israeli doing floating down the Phipot River with 80 kg of musical instruments? The answer is almost as surreal: Tal Kravitz is on his way to play a concert in a tiny rainforest town with no electric power that can only be reached by boat, a place where almost nobody speaks English, let alone Hebrew.
A rotating group of young Israelis have been living in the Koh Kong province village of Chiphat since late December, participating in a project called the Israeli Backpacker Contribution. Designed to take advantage of the huge number of Israelis who travel the world between mandatory military service and college, IBC is funded by a combination of private donors and Israel’s Foreign Ministry, which also provides moral and logistical support. Over the past few months, the volunteers have hand-built a community center in Chiphat, stocking it with six new computers and arranging for classes to be taught there in health, English, dance and filmmaking. The center was unveiled in a village-wide ceremony on Monday night, and in honor of the occasion, the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok arranged for Mr Kravitz, a well-known interpreter of world music in Israel, to play in Chiphat.
Deputy Ambassador Idit Shamir, who is based in Bangkok but traveled to Chiphat for the day, explained that Israel has been experimenting with targeted aid in Cambodia. “We are a very small country, and we have a limited budget, so we try to do what we can even though we cannot invest millions of dollars,” she said. “There is so much that can be done here, and we wanted to find the best fit for what we have to offer. The quality we Israelis pride ourselves on is improvisation, so we’re trying out different things, seeing how we can make an impact on one community.”
This concert was one attempt to improvise a connection between the people of Chiphat and the larger world. “The idea was…to give the people here in Chiphat an opportunity to see something they have never seen before. This is the essence of what we try to do here in general—open for them a few windows and doors, so later they can choose where to look and walk,” said Gil Chen, IBC’s head of mission in Cambodia.
Mr Kravitz, who studied ethnomusicology at Bar-Ilan University and taught music on his native kibbutz before devoting himself to touring and performing full-time, is a bearded, impish man of 35. In the car on the way down from Phnom Penh to Koh Kong, he gobbled down bananas bought from a roadside vendor as he pressed his translator, William, to teach him a Khmer song. He didn’t even blink when William chose “Pram Poan Dollar,” the hit about a man who does not have enough money to buy the hand of the woman he loves. He clapped his hands to the beat as “mae tha thory thory”—mother says, back off!—blared over and over from the tinny speakers of William’s cell phone.
“I love music. Rhythm, sounds, they get me really fascinated,” Mr Kravitz said between bites and claps. “I perform world music combined with Jewish and Israeli classics. One of my main hobbies is to create an encounter between different lives, different cultures, different periods.”
He created one this week. There is no doubt that there has never been a theremin in Chiphat village before Monday, or a set of bagpipes. Probably nobody there has ever played Ave Maria on a saw. And most foreign visitors, when they arrive at the village dock, probably do not immediately make a beeline for a group of local musicians and beg to be taught the ropes of the tro, a traditional Cambodian stringed instrument. Mr Kravitz spent his free afternoon before the concert fooling around on the tro and a kazoo he had fashioned out of a straw; as children began to crowd around him, he beamingly greeted every one of them.
“He’s like the Pied Piper,” Ms Shamir said with a grin. “Kids love him, maybe because he is just like a big kid himself.”
After the ceremony on Monday night, children tumbled over each, two to a chair and ten to a mat, as they squeezed into a tent that had been set up just outside the newly inaugurated community center. Their mothers sat a few rows behind them, babies on their laps. Men stood at the back of the tent, shirtless and smoking but still engrossed. The generator providing the only light in town seemed to hum in time with the music.
After a few warm-up songs-“Hakuna Matata,” a Persian wedding chant, a Thai love song–Mr Kravitz ducked inside the community center and emerged in full Scottish regalia, be-kilted and be-bagpiped. The audience roared its approval, then convulsed in giggles as he broke into a liquid stream of yodeling and encouraged them to give it a shot. One kid experimentally tossed an empty Coke can at the stage; Mr Kravitz picked it up, shook it in front of the microphone, and turned it into a drum. Later, dozens of small percussion instruments from around the world were handed out to the kids, and Mr Kravitz and the volunteers sang the classic Hebrew song “Shalom Aleichem”—Peace be unto you—accompanied by the mad clamor of what sounded like a thousand cowbells. There were more wonders ahead—the aforementioned theremin, a waist-high harp—but this was the emotional high point of the evening.
“This is the first time I have seen anything like this,” said 9-year-old Hour. “It really looked amazing. I liked all the instruments he performed, and I even got to play one myself.” Villager Chhoun Mom concurred: “I was so happy to see the performance. I had never seen that Scottish musical instrument before. Now I’m interested in music that belongs to different countries.”
The volunteers were equally thrilled. “When the audience was introduced to a wood saw as a musical instrument during the show, you could see something clicked. Another window was opened, and if we do it with an Israeli musician, especially one as talented as Tal, it gives us, as Israelis, great pride,” said Mr Chen.
When the concert was over, a dance party DJed by the town barber commenced. Into the night, Mr Kravitz, Ms Shamir, the volunteers and the villagers shimmied around a table to the thumping, generator-powered beat of “Pram Poan Dollar.” Then they packed his bagpipes, his theremin, his amps and his harp back into their cases and lugged them down to the dock to await the long trip home.