Traditional Khmer performers push back against modern entertainment

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Lakhon Bassac sprouted from an opera show called Lakhon Treoung Klok first performed in the 1930s in Kampuchea Krom, located in modern day southern Vietnam. Photo supplied

Traditional art forms struggle to survive in today’s technology focused, entertainment rich modern society. But there is one form of traditional Khmer theatre that is pushing back against this trend and striving to once again captivate Cambodian audiences.

Called Lakhon Bassac, the art form sprouted from an opera show called Lakhon Treoung Klok first performed in the 1930s in Kampuchea Krom, located in modern day southern Vietnam.

The art form is believed to be influenced by China’s iconic Peking opera, and received its name because historically it was performed in the highland provinces along the Bassac River flowing through Cambodia and Vietnam.

It was among Cambodia’s most popular forms of entertainment in its heyday in the mid-20th century, especially in rural areas where villagers would hire one of the country’s many Lakhon Bassac troupes to perform during special occasions and religious festivals.

But the art form’s demise started with the unrest that would engulf the country for decades from the early 1970s, with it entirely obliterated under the Khmer Rouge regime that murdered artists and prohibited non-state sanctioned theatrical performances.

Today, only a few Lakhon Bassac troupes survive to keep this old Cambodian tradition alive, struggling to earn a living from their performances.

The most famous among them is Phnom Penh’s Ol Sam Ang collective. Their famous moonlight outdoor performances, with spot-lit quaint wooden stages built by hand, are a sight to behold.

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It is said that Lakhon Bassac drew inspiration from China’s iconic Peking opera. Photo supplied

While their reputation for being Cambodia’s finest troupe means they are in high demand – they recently split into three groups in order to meet demand across cities and rural provinces – even Ol Sam Ang struggles to find emerging young performers interested in keeping the tradition alive.

Ol Sam Ang, the 38-year-old leader of the troupe, told The Post that he finds it easy to find the performers for minor roles such as Tlok (comedians) and Yeak (giants), but finding leading actors with a beautiful voice and immaculate acting to meet the demanding criteria of Lakhon Bassac tradition is a challenge.

“The main problem is to find the right performers that have deep voice and are able to sing in the Lakhon Bassac form. The look of the performers is not very important,” he says.

This form of spoken and sung theatre also requires performers to be able to improvise its signature rhythmic dance gestures and poses.

Story lines vary from romantic comedies to mythical, religious and historical themes.

Sam Ang – who began performing Lakhon Bassac in the early 2000s and decided to establish his own theatre house in 2007 – believes that the lack of media coverage and television airtime makes it hard to build young people’s interest in the art.

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Performers in striking traditional Khmer Lakhon Bassac costumes. Photo supplied

“Foreign cultures are highly influential on TV and elsewhere in Cambodia, they get abundant airtime and broadcasting, but we don’t. The most important thing is how we promote it. I think we still need more broadcasting time on television channels – it’s very limited right now."

“But Cambodian people, both young and old, still like and support Lakhon Bassac – every time we perform, there are always big crowds of people coming to see us,” he says.

To hire Ol Sam Ang troupe, prices range from $1,000 to $2,000 for the whole troupe of 30 to 40 performers.

You can contact them to make a booking or receive more information by telephone (092661400 or 0974545440).