In the 1960s, Chek Mach used to zip around Phnom Penh in her Mercedes, jewels flashing. She was Cambodia’s most famous singer, the queen of Bassac theater.
Then came the wars.
When Arn Chorn-Pond found her in 1998, she was selling charcoal and cigarettes in a dusty shack in Tuol Kok, poor, ill and all but forgotten.
Arn Chorn-Pond tracked down Chek Mach to enlist her in the Cambodian Master Performers Program; his effort to find Cambodia’s forgotten artists and record their skills before it is too late.
The sudden return to the spotlight was almost more than 80-year-old Chek Mach could handle. For the first recording session, she barked orders like a diva: “I want durian! Beer! And a sandwich!”
She devoured it all, made it through two songs, and passed out cold. Sitting in a fan’s feeble breeze on the front porch of her wooden stilt home, she laughs at the memory.
“I am very happy that they are recording my work, even if there’s no money in it.” She slides a roguish eye at Arn Chorn-Pond, knowing full well he will slip some cash in her pocket before he leaves.
Although the elderly performers certainly need the money, the master performers program is about much more.
“We want to find them and get them teaching, recording and performing,” says Alan Morgan, a computer expert who volunteers his time to work with Arn Chorn-Pond. “We’re not trying to preserve the music or to fossilize it, but to bring it back and give it a chance.”
Cambodia, cut off from outside influences during the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese regimes, is now devouring foreign popular culture, while its traditional musicians are not widely heard.
And as it struggles to refashion its own cultural identity in the modern world, “traditional music is not going to be a part of the mix if nothing is done,” Morgan said. “If this music is not written down, not recorded, not videotaped, it will be gone.”
Arn Chorn-Pond, born into a musical family, developed his own talent under nightmarish circumstances. As a child during the Khmer Rouge years, he was taken from his family and sent to a special training camp for 500 children in Battambang province.
The camp, located at Wat Ek, a half-hour’s drive south of Battambang town, was a brutal place. By the time it was disbanded in 1979, only 50 of the children were still alive.
But at the camp was Yoeun Mek, another master performer; Arn Chorn was one of a handful of inmates ordered to study under Yoeun Mek, to provide music for Khmer Rouge propaganda productions. They lost touch during the chaos of the Vietnamese invasion; Arn Chorn eventually made it to a refugee camp on the Thai border.
He was suffering from cerebral meningitis and weighed only about 23 kg when he met The Reverend Peter Pond, a US humanitarian working in the camps. Pond eventually adopted Arn Chorn and 13 others, settling in the US region of New England.
Arn Chorn-Pond returned to Cambodia in 1994 as part of the Can-Do program, which encouraged expatriate Cambodians to return to their birth country to do humanitarian work.
In the US, he founded his own organization, Children of War, to help young victims from all over the world recover from their trauma. In Cambodia, he founded Volunteers for Community Development, dedicated to improving conditions for Cambodians.
In the mid-1990s, while helping to film a documentary on children of war, he discovered Yoeun Mek living in poverty in Battambang, and the Cambodian Master Performers Program was born.
Since then, he has visited Cambodia twice a year, in April and November. The rest of the time he raises money for his Cambodian projects—and he is no slouch as a fund-raiser.
“A lot of rich New Yorkers like his causes,” said Morgan. High-profile backers include rock–and-roll musicians Peter Gabriel, Sting, Bruce Springsteen and Michael Stipe.
Until recently, he spent the rest of his time working in Lowell in the US state of Massachusetts, as a counselor to Cambodian-American youth.gang members.
The CMPP is recording works by seven master performers and is making arrangements to record five more. The program has recorded about 200 songs so far; the goal is to put them up on the World Wide Web at www.cambodiamasters.org.
Arn Chorn-Pond seems to be healing some of his own wounds through his efforts to save the performers from oblivion. “It hurts me a lot to see our legends fall through the cracks,” he said.
Over the years, a number of people and institutions have worked to revive Cambodia’s shattered musical traditions. The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts employs about 250 performers, while others teach at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts.
But like back-alley blues artists in the US, some performers have all the talent in the world, yet still fall by the wayside.
Take Yim Saing, a 78-year-old flautist who has instructed virtually every performer of note in the country. He was a hard-drinking, itinerant barber when the masters program tracked him down.
“He didn’t even have a shop,” said Arn Chorn-Pond. “He would set up a chair along the street and go to work.”
At first, Yim Saing brushed off the invitation to come record for posterity.
“But then his wife heard us say ‘$10 a song’ and she practically pushed him into the car,” he said.
Yim Saing fell on hard times not because he lost his talent, but because his hearing was damaged during the Khmer Rouge years, when his job was to fish for long periods.
He said he spent hours every day in waist-deep water, bending over with his head submerged as he searched for fish to scoop into his basket. The long exposure to water caused permanent injury.
Today he is deaf in his left ear, and can hear only a little on his right. At his flood-prone home near Tra Bek Lake in southern Phnom Penh, chickens scratch in the dust and dogs laze in the shade of trellises supporting a crop of squash.
When he picks up a flute, it’s as if it becomes an extension of his arm. His fingers fly over the holes faster than thought; his wrinkled cheeks fill with air like the sails of a sloop.
And when he plays, even the chickens fall silent.