Traditional Khmer dancing, yike opera, mohori music, and Cambodia’s ancient art of puppetry – these were only some of the captivating performances featured last December during the commemoration of the Khmer Cultural Development Institute’s 25th anniversary at Kampot province.
The rough journey of running the organisation in the past few decades has not slowed down its British founder, Catherine Louise Geach, from expending efforts to preserve and revive the Kingdom’s traditional performing arts.
In 1990, the 18-year-old Geach came to Cambodia to write a report on the Khmer Rouge’s human rights violations as a show of defiance against the regime’s atrocities.
Back then, Geach was just a student at London’s Royal Academy of Music.
“The aid and war report I wrote won a peace award, which allowed me to return in Cambodia,” says Geach.
Owing to her training as a concert violinist, Geach understood the virtue of discipline and appreciation for classical music – a love that she eventually shared with her fellow Cambodian teachers.
“The Dean of the Music Faculty at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh asked me to come back and help teach violin because so many artists had perished during the Khmer Rouge genocide,” she recalls.
Due to the harrowing events that transpired, Khmer artists, especially musicians, struggled to preserve the Kingdom’s culture.
“Around 90 per cent of artists had been killed. There were only seven music maestros and about five skilled dancers left alive at the time. Conditions for sustaining art were very difficult in Cambodia in 1990,” she recounts.
Geach was no stranger to the challenges at the time. In 1992, she experienced how it was to live in a village with no running water or electricity. It made her realise how important it was to give help, especially to the orphaned and abandoned youths.
“I felt great compassion and respect for my Cambodian colleagues. I came to love their traditional performing arts even more. At the time, these art forms were in real danger of simply becoming things of the past,” she says.
The London-born violinist also learned to play the tro sau, a Cambodian fiddle, which is used in playing mohori music, the traditional entertainment music of the courts of the Kingdom.
Geach, along with her Cambodian colleagues from the university, played the mohori to disabled soldiers at a rehabilitation centre. This, she says, was when she first witnessed music’s capacity to heal.
“I was inspired to establish the institute because of my experiences from 1990 when I taught violin at the Royal University of Fine Arts.”
The institute’s Kampot Traditional Music School for Orphaned and Disabled Children, situated about 137km southwest of the capital, opened for business in August 1994.
Building the school had been very challenging for her team because of the civil war, constant clashes and the foreign hostage crisis in 1994, as well as the general state of lawlessness in Kampot, Geach says.
“On the first day of school, I felt a great sense of joy and fulfilment. But I also felt the weight of responsibility on my shoulders,” she recounts.
Now, the Kampot Traditional Music School has four buildings, including a performance hall set in a large garden. The setting, says Geach, provides a sense of peace and security for those who reside there.
“Our school is also open to local children during the day for free art lessons. Those in need will be provided with meals, clothing and medical assistance,” she says.
The institute assists up to 20 children until they graduate from university. In addition, up to 150 others are on its outreach programme.
“We have also done outreach programmes for villages such as Chum Kriel and Tray Koh and taught over 450 schoolchildren in conjunction with the Department of Education, Youth and Sport.
“One of our greatest challenges involves empowering girls to achieve their full potential and attain higher education,” Geach says.
She notes the enormous pressure in rural areas for girls to marry early or work in factories – all of these are instilled in them as the value of attaining higher education takes the backseat.
“Another serious challenge is the westernisation of Cambodia and the loss of knowledge and understanding of the traditional cultural heritage among the younger generation,” Geach says.
In the spirit of keeping traditional arts alive, the school coordinates with the Ministry of Culture and local departments of Education and Social Affairs.
It has also forged significant partnerships with the Cambodian Disabled People’s Organisation (CDPO), Cambodian Living Arts, Epic Arts, Friends International, child protection NGO Aple, M’lop Tapang, the Royal University of Fine Arts and the National Theatre.
Geach’s school paved the way for a multitude of success stories.
Alumna Vy Lyda, who first walked the halls of the school in 1997, set up her own traditional dance and music school in Kampot after graduating.
“Her brother, who also attended our school, is now a professional musician while her older sister teaches dance,” says Geach.
Uon Sambo, who graduated in 2002, now works for the provincial Department of Culture while working part-time for the school as well.
Geach says: “We have an entirely Cambodian staff. As the founder, I have never taken a salary and both our Board of Directors and me provide our services for free.
“We have a responsibility to feed, clothe, house, provide medical care, and train the children. It is a great initiative which comes at a high cost, especially because international donors seem to have forgotten about Cambodia.
“Personally, I sometimes lose sleep as I try to think of how or where we’ll get our next funding. It’s been 25 years since we started so I do have faith that help will come at the right time.
“It’s a great deal of work but it is always worth it.”
For interested donors, all proceeds will go straight to the school’s programmes for the children.
Visit their Facebook page @KampotMusicSchool and website http://kcdi-cambodia.org/ for more details.