Children with distended stomachs toddle naked through air thick with flies, along narrow streets strewn with trash and pitted with muddy ruts that could swallow a shoe.
Cramped homes of plank-wood and corrugated tin line the rocky alleys in this area, a typical Phnom Penh slum.
But from one of the houses, there is an explosion of sound. Inside a one-room shack, children coax ancient songs from the same instruments Khmer people have used for centuries: Wooden instruments played like xylophones, cone-shaped drums, metal cymbals the size of dinner plates arranged in circles.
The cacophony merges into a rhythm that carries a troupe of young dancers through their careful steps, as their hands tell stories passed down through generations.
These children meet nearly every day to learn Pin Peat, a classical form of Khmer music, in a village that has come to house a thriving arts community along with some of the country’s greatest masters despite the abject poverty of many of its residents.
The low, makeshift houses, huddled around a dilapidated apartment building near the fire-ravaged Tonle Bassac Theater in the part of Tonle Bassac commune known as Dey Krahom, have become an epicenter for teaching, learning and preserving the traditional Khmer arts.
But all this will soon disappear, if a plan to relocate the villagers and raze the slum area is realized.
Many fear such a move could be a fatal blow to this tenuous renaissance of traditional Khmer arts.
Pep Mary, the 73-year-old Pin Peat master, moved to this ramshackle village because she couldn’t afford to live elsewhere. But she can remember when she was a regular performer inside the Royal Palace. In her home, she keeps a framed photo of herself with retired King Norodom Sihanouk.
Born into a farming family, Pep Mary learned Pin Peat from her uncle, a respected musician, and left her home in Kandal province to perform in the capital. But under the Khmer Rouge regime, when an estimated 90 percent of Khmer performers were killed, she was evicted from the city.
“As I went from place to place, I always tried to look for musicians and for instruments along the way,” she said. “But I could not find even one.” Now, musicians seek her out.
Pep Mary’s home is windowless, a two-room box, but enough sunlight penetrates the broad gaps between wallboards to illuminate a space half-filled with suitcases, bedrolls and piles of clothing. Seven students live here, she said. They come from throughout the city and the provinces to study with the master and attend state-run schools, at night rolling out thin, woven mats on the concrete floor, or outside under mosquito nets.
Among Pep Mary’s prized possessions is a framed movie poster featuring Arn Chorn-Pond. Wiping dust from the glass, she explained that Chorn-Pond saved her two years ago, when he helped her establish her Pin Peat classes as part of a program called Cambodian Living Arts, a project of the NGO World Education.
Chorn-Pond, a Cambodian refugee who was adopted by a US national when he was 13, has been organizing—and, most importantly, procuring funds for—such classes for the past five years.
He was a traditional musician himself, having learned the skill during his time as a boy soldier.
“I learned to play the dulcimer and the flute in the Khmer Rouge time,” he said, “playing revolutionary songs for them, while they were killing kids around me.”
Chorn-Pond left Cambodia in 1980, not to return until 1989. When he came back, he ran across his old music instructor, now a drunken street barber. The musician, Chorn-Pond said, cried and pleaded for help.
Several years later, Chorn-Pond, now a human rights and peace activistÑan Amnesty International worker, he has started programs for children in war-stricken areasÑreturned to Cambodia and began seeking out these musicians. He found them mostly in the slums: Some selling cigarettes, others collecting trash, many drunk and almost uniformly miserable.
Their few employment options—working for the Ministry of Culture, teaching at the Royal University of Fine Arts—offered low pay and often meant early retirement, leaving years of subsisting on whatever work they could find. But, Chorn-Pond says, “Art will heal people.”
Setting out with this mantra and the dream of making Cambodia a world cultural center, he launched CLA in 1998.
The organization employs 19 master musicians around the country as teachers to preserve what had been dying artistic traditions.
One of these traditions is the playing of chapei, a three-stringed instrument with a long, curving neck. Many in Cambodia aspire to play the chapei, but only three chapei players are well known.
Of them, the most famous is Kong Nai, a blind musician whose appearance is dominated by thick dark sunglasses and a toothy, face-splitting grin. He lives in a corrugated metal hut in this slum; his chapei, carved from wood and inlaid with polished bone, cost him $250 and could be worth more than his home.
Kong Nai, 60, is known for his witty improvised song and satire, for the stories that he hears, stores in his head and retells in rhyme. Once a regular at the palace, Kong Nai now teaches four students on a shaded wooden pallet outside his house. He said he moved to this home when he won a chapei competition in 1991, receiving employment with the Ministry of Culture and this small plot of land as his indirect prizes.
“Previously, this area belonged to the Ministry of Culture, so when any official worked for the Ministry, they were allowed to construct a small house on this land,” he said. “All the musicians of Khmer classical music gathered here.”
The area, once a parking lot for the theater, has been drawing performers since they began flooding back to the city after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Now, of the nearly 1,500 families living in the slum and hundreds more in the adjacent apartment building, some 100 artists are involved in the CLA program, and many other musicians, actors and dancers also congregate there.
This is partly due to the former policies of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, Kong Nai explained, adding that the ministry had to provide land to its employees, or they would never have been able to afford housing so close to the Royal Palace, where they were often called on to perform.
“They only pay about $19 per month,” he said. “It is not enough to support a family.
Culture Minister Prince Sisowath Panara Sirivuth concurred that the ministry once owned the land, but said it now belongs to the municipality. He added that he had no knowledge of any land grants by the ministry.
“We don’t deliver any authorization to squatters,” he said.
The artists’ situation is uncertain and far from ideal, but they say their alternative, being scattered apart, is much more frightening.
“When we talk about relocation,” said Khy Mom, a teacher in the community, “we don’t want to hear about this word.” The child of a famous performer of yike, or Khmer opera, Khy Mom, 70, was a star herself, known for a grace and beauty that is still evident in her face. She recalls that, when her father was a performer, there was plenty of money to be made playing at funerals, ceremonies and parties. But now, she says, money is scarce.
Khy Mom came to live in the community in 1979, when she began teaching yike at RUFA and the Ministry of Culture gave her a flat in the apartment building adjacent to the village.
She retired from teaching in 1991; she said policy dictated that employees retire at 50. But CLA did not find her until 2001. When asked what she did for that 10-year stretch, tears leaked from her eyes as she explained that she had to support herself by frying bananas on the street.
“I feel much sorrow whenever I remember about that,” she said. “I thought that I was a popular yike performer, but then I was only a food seller on the street. I never thought that I would teach yike or have a class again.”
Now her children are assistant teachers and her grandchildren study yike as well, and Khy Mom passes her knowledge down through her family, as Khmer artists have always done.
Her granddaughter, Seng Nalin, 13, has a voice that shakes walls and aspirations of following in her grandmother’s path. “Before I started yike class,” Seng Nalin said, “I never dreamed about the future at all. But afterward, I dreamed about being a famous yike player and sharing my knowledge and enthusiasm with another generation.”
But a shadow of threat hangs over these dreams as relocation efforts kick into gear. Last month, 36 community leaders thumbprinted an agreement with the construction firm 7NG to give up the villagers’ valuable real estate and to move residents to new homes in a development at least 16 km from the city.
Some villagers contend that the land was conceded to them by Prime Minister Hun Sen in 2003, and that it is their right to stay. They say they have been harassed and intimidated by village and community leaders to relocate. But community and village leaders say that more and more villagers are thumbprinting the agreement to move, and that the new homes will be a great improvement on current living conditions.
“Some people call it a slum and place where they couldn’t imagine wanting to live,” CLA’s Charley Todd said of the village. “It is a very poor community, but the streets are paved with gold, in a way: There’s so much music there…. People are very worried about our community of teaching and learning that is starting to grow, like a flower growing out of the dust. They’re worried that they might have to leave.”
The performers seem nearly unanimous in their dedication to their community. They say, if the relocation occurs, they will almost certainly be scattered, since many residents cannot afford to live at the new site outside the city. Instead, they will move to various other parts of the capital.
“We’re already predicting at least 2 to 5 percent of the residents will be back,” said Tuy Someth, of UN Habitat in Cambodia. As the villagers wait and worry, the word “fire” is on every tongue. Villagers recall with trepidation the blaze that tore through the community in 2001 in the midst of an earlier relocation effort. They say they are concerned that arson could destroy their community before any eviction is ordered.
But the artists say they are just as worried about the fate of the Khmer arts. “The relocation will destroy Khmer classical dancing and music, because so many of the Khmer musicians and dancers are gathered in this squat,” Khy Mom said.
As for her personal fate, she is no more optimistic. “I’m afraid to live apart from my students and my children if I have to move some day,” she said, adding that she could be back to frying food on the street. “I would have to start another business with my children. But I don’t want to lose the yike class.”
(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren)