Traditional Khmer culture kept alive at Kampot school

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KCDI, based in Kampot town, teaches traditional arts to impoverished chidren and those with disabilities. KCDI

In 2015, Eim Roth Thai began studying classical music and braille with the Khmer Cultural Development Institute (KCDI) in Kampot town. Due to the difficulty of traveling, Roth Thai, who has been blind from his birth, dropped out of braille classes and chose to pursue music.

Roth Thai, a native of Chhouk district, Kampot province, told The Post: “I started learning drums, but my love of the flute led me to switch almost as soon as I began learning.”

Roth Thai is 25 years old, while the organisation which focuses on teaching traditional Khmer art forms to orphans and children with disabilities was born in 1993.

The KCDI was founded by Catherine Louise Geach as a Cambodian NGO and ratified by the Supreme National Council to revive and preserve traditional Khmer culture.

“In 1994 I built the Kampot Traditional Music School for Orphaned and Disabled Children, in Kampot town. This too was challenging, because there was civil war and a hostage crisis, and at certain points during the building process, there was shelling between Royal Cambodian Government forces and the Khmer Rouge, whose stronghold was in Phnom Voar,” said Geach, “There was a 3pm curfew on the main road from Phnom Penh to Kampot.”

“I founded this organisation because of my experience teaching violin at the Royal University of Fine Arts RUFA). I first gave a concert there in 1990, whilst I was in Cambodia compiling a research document on the Khmer Rouge violations of human rights and the effects of the war on the civilian population,” she added.

Moved to help through music

Geach, classically trained from the age of four, attended and graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in London. She taught violin at RUFA from 1991, and also learnt to play the tro sau toch (a traditional two stringed fiddle), after joining a traditional mohori ensemble.

She said she felt that perhaps a special school dedicated to traditional Khmer music could be of help. First however, before building the school, she ran a one year scholarship project for traditional music students at RUFA, with funding from the British embassy.

Many of these students were so poor that they could not attend classes regularly, because they had to help their parents with work. Some were orphaned. Thanks to the scholarships, they were able to attend the classes.

At RUFA, she said she saw first-hand how difficult life was for musicians and other Khmer artists. It is estimated that approximately 90 per cent of Cambodian artists perished during the Khmer Rouge Genocide.

At the beginning of the 1990s, there was still civil war in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge were still supported at the UN and the shadow of the genocide on Cambodia and the devastating effect this had had on Khmer artists and traditional culture was still felt very strongly.

“The few Cambodian artists, musicians and dancers who survived, together with the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, pieced together traditional music, dance, ancient shadow puppet theatre and other art forms from their memories,” she recalled.

She said that there were perhaps only seven traditional music masters left alive. There was also great poverty in Cambodia.

Restoring a lost culture

The cultural ministry made huge efforts to restore and revive traditional Khmer culture, but during the war, everything was very difficult for Cambodia, due to the international trade and aid embargoes placed on the Kingdom.

“When they first began, Cambodia was in ruins. We owe much to these courageous men and women who worked tirelessly in the most difficult conditions imaginable, to restore Cambodia with her beautiful, splendid cultural heritage,” she told The Post.

The Khmer Cultural Development Institute was founded; inspired by these artists and with profound love and respect for Cambodia’s traditional art forms, she said.

Ros Samoeun,76, joined the KCDI project as mohori musical instructor in 1997. The former professor at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh said that it was his great pleasure to transfer his knowledge to the younger generation in the hope that they will continue to preserve the traditional arts.

Today the school teaches traditional Khmer music and performing arts to the most vulnerable of children. Some children are resident at the school and are taken care of full-time. The organisation coordinates with local authorities and the international Project ChildSafe.

There is a programme for blind students through vocational training and rehabilitation using traditional Khmer music and also scholastic education with braille.

Together the blind students have formed an orchestra and are now ready to go out into the wider world to perform as professional musicians, according to Geach.

She said that before the pandemic, the cultural ministry donated beautiful chapei dang veng instruments to assist the school and promote the use of the ancient instrument.

“The school also provides an emergency temporary shelter program and through the support of our NGO partner Friends International – and Unicef – we are able to provide emergency food packages and counselling to children in the province,” she added.

Generations of grateful students

Since its inception in 1994, through several generations, about 80 students have studied at the organisation, with some students staying from grade two or three all the way until the end of high school.

If they have difficulties, whether through poverty or disability, the organisation can provide food and accommodation. After graduating from high school or university, they return to live among their communities or are organised into musical groups to launch their careers, said Nguon Sothy, director of KCDI.

“There is no fixed time period that children stay. Some are here for a short time, and some stay years. We also have several students who commute to school each day,” he added.

He said some students formed their own performance groups, including the mahogany and blessing dance groups and an orchestra, while some had gone on to become teachers at the organisation.

“Children’s participation in the classical arts is still small. There is still a reluctance to focus on the arts,” he told The Post, adding that thhere are currently 16 children studying, with a total of 10 staff.

Many people have asked Sothy why the staff-to-student ratio is so high, and he explains that the teachers are all masters of various arts, including pin peat and mohori music, folk and classical dance, Yike musical theatre, as well as various traditional instruments. In addition to the teaching staff, there are three office workers, a nurse and a cook.

Of the 16 students, four are disabled, while the rest cannot be supported by their parents.

“We can accommodate up to 30 children because we have four large rooms, and each can sleep eight. We only accept the most vulnerable children, those who have no caregiver,” he said.

Although Roth Thai has mastered the flute, his orchestra is rarely invited to perform in public ceremonies.

“I don’t care too much about my career, as I learnt traditional instruments from my heart. I don’t think I will ever switch to modern ones,” he said.

Challenges of the modern era

In almost thirty years of operation, Geach said that one of the biggest challenges the traditional arts have faced is modern technology.

“When I first began the school in 1994, there were no smartphones and no social media in Cambodia. There was very little outside influence from Western cultures. This meant that traditional music and art held a more central place in Cambodian society,” she said.

Gradually, there have been more and more outside pressures and influences, so many young people don’t really know about their cultural heritage and are often not encouraged by their parents to pursue a career in the traditional arts, she added.

“This may be because materialistic and money values are put above art and music,” said Geach, adding that all projects are done with the permission of and in coordination with the local authorities, the children’s parents and of course the children themselves.

“I cannot express enough of my profound gratitude to my dear Cambodian colleagues at our school in Kampot. They are masters in mohori and pleng ka music, pin peat music, Yike and classical dance, some of whom survived the genocide. For their love and dedication, our school is forever indebted,” she added.

“Let us all strive to honour and cherish traditional Khmer music and those Khmer artists who perished between 1975 and 1979 because they were artists ... as well as those who survived and worked so hard to revive the Kingdom’s cultural heritage after 1979,” she continued.