Cambodian arts nearly destroyed by a genocide find new life in Chicago

February 9, 2011

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(WBEZ/Lynette Kalsnes)
Members of Chicago's Cambodian community learn to play their traditional instruments.

Cambodian-Americans in Chicago are determined to keep their art and culture alive in this new country. What makes their dedication so fierce is that a genocide nearly succeeded in wiping out all of the artists.

Several men sit on a mat in a computer lab at the Cambodian Association of Illinois. They play wooden instruments that resemble crocodiles, and a two-stringed fiddle that looks like a tin can attached to an ax handle.
 
Cambodians have been meeting like this in Chicago to learn traditional music, language and dance for nearly 20 years.
 
Soung San, a master musician who’s their teacher, said they won’t let the genocide silence their music.
 
"This is an indication that we were stronger than them, being the Pol Pot," San said. "No matter what they do, we still survive, and we will keep it like that forever. Whenever, wherever, there will be a time, there will be us. The Cambodians will survive."
 
The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, seized power in 1975. An estimated two million Cambodians died. They were killed either outright or died of disease, starvation and forced labor.
 
The genocide killed 90 percent of the artists.
 
"What we see is art literally disappears in Cambodia," said Charles Daas. "If you’re practicing art, then you risk death."
 
Daas is the former director of the Cambodian American Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial. He said  the Khmer Rouge wanted to create a communist utopia without money or schools or businesses. They brutally set out to destroy any sense of personal identity.
 
"Everyone was going to be the same," he said. "So for anyone who was wealthy, who was educated, who was an artist, who was religious, who had been involved in the government, who had been involved in the army, they were an immediate enemy of the Khmer Rouge. And they were actually the very first people to die."
 
To survive, artists hid their professions.
 
Before the Khmer Rouge took power, Sareth Kong’s mother was a main actor in the opera and her father, a master musician. She remembers singing while climbing trees as a child.
 
Then the music stopped.
 
"Our family was pretty well known that we’re artists in Battambang Province, and then when we escaped to the Moung Village, my parents changed their name, their first name, their last name, so to disguise themselves as an artist, and we would always declare that we do farming," Kong said.
 
Her parents lost their instruments as well as their identity.
 
"It's very difficult, but you know, in order to survive, that's something we have to give up," she said.

Kong was 10. The Khmer Rouge separated her and her siblings from their parents and forced them into hard labor for three years. Then Kong and her family fled.

 It was there in the refugee camps  -- the most unlikely of places – where dance and music would return and flourish.
 
"There were few master artists who were still alive and able to escape to the Thailand border and the camp," Kong said. "That’s when they start recruitment and opened classes, to build a Cambodian community, during the camp."
 
Sareth Kong says this is where she and her future husband, Sarun Kong, both learned to dance.
 
It’s also where Soung San, who’s playing this music, heard traditional Cambodian songs for the first time.
 
"I felt like I was floating on air, I had no bones whatsoever, no skeleton whatsoever in my body, I felt like I was floating like a fish, floating in air in this case," San said.
 
He says his jaw dropped.
 
"I asked my dad, please introduce me to music. I want to know more, I want to learn more, and so he did," San said.
 
Before the war, his father, Bun San, had made musical instruments as a young monk. So he cut wood from a jackfruit tree and made his son his very first instrument.
 
Through the  association’s Anneth Houy, who translated all the Cambodian conversations, Bun San said: "Before he left, he saw a lot of killings. It's hard to see that many people died. When so many people were killed in a certain country, what happened to their heritage? So it's important for the survivors to carry on to that culture."
 
That’s just what father and son did when they came to Chicago. They started teaching at the Cambodian Association along with the Kongs. They all became master musicians and dancers here in the U.S., and Bun San is recognized as a master instrument maker too.
 
They’re ensuring that Cambodian songs and dances, traditionally performed for temple rituals, weddings or before the royal court, live on.
 
Bun San started out by playing along to cassette tapes. But he wanted to get better and spread that knowledge to his son. San began traveling to other states and taking lessons from surviving masters.
 
"When I got those notes, I passed it along to my son, and he would continue learning from those notes, and now he knows more than me," San said.
 
On the second floor, over the museum, his son, Soung San, counted out the beat. Two girls stood by a row of computers, ready to jump in and sing. They belted out the song. An older girl made a face at them. Her sister socked her in the arm and kept singing.
 
In the basement, several teens learned stylized dance moves from Sareth Kong.  Even though they’re far from Cambodia, their heritage will always be part of them, and it’s important to pass it on, Kong said. But there are challenges.
 
"Younger generation now doesn’t fully understand the Cambodian language, so to communicate certain hand or feet gestures, it’s difficult for me," she said.
 
There’s a generation gap, too, between survivors, their children and grandchildren.
 
"The older generation emphasized that we learn English, that we fit in with the English-American society, so they don’t really emphasize about the Cambodian society and the Cambodian culture," said Navi Thach, 20.
 
Thach said she’s lucky. Her mother did talk about the importance of the temple and the rituals of music and dance.
 
"Other youth, they kind of gradually go on in their own way, they become more involved in the modern society," she said. "I really wish they would have this interest that I have for our culture because it really is unique, you won’t see anything else like it. There really is nothing as unique and special as the Cambodian culture."
 
Many in the Cambodian community share Thach’s belief that passing down the culture is essential. When the Cambodian Association had to delay these classes and lay off some staff due to the economy recently, the community rallied. Parents pledged funding, and master musicians and dancers volunteered to teach for free.
 
They figure if they teach 100 students, and find one or two like Navi Thach, they’ll have mentors for the next generation.
 
Lynette Kalsnes, WBEZ.

Master Soung San performs on a Roneat Ek, a Cambodian instrument that looks like a xylophone placed on top of an ornate wooden cradle. Different mallets give the instrument two very different sounds: