We would like to tell you the true story of our ballet teacher Mrs An*, who kindly gave her permission for her history to be told, in hommage to the many artists who never made it back in 1979. So that everyone who reads this report, can understand what the Cambodian people went through in order to revive their traditional arts and what it means for our school, the Kampot Traditional Music School for Orphaned and Disabled Children/KCDI to do the activities that we do.
In the Royal Palace The Golden Age
An - as a little girl of 7 gained entrance to the Royal Ballet troupe within the Royal Palace, during the governance of Prince Sihanouk. She was selected to become a dancer by Prince Sihanouk's mother, HRH Queen Kossamak, responsible for the extraordinary flowering of traditional music and ballet in Cambodia during that period.
Studying with the greatest ballet mistresses of her era, An studied with Yeay Pong, Yeay Kan, Yeay Puon and her own mother the famous Yeay Teay**.
The peaceful and joyful life within the palace walls, soon became darker and menacing when General Lon Nol overthrew Prince Sihanouk in a coup and forced the Royal family into exile. The young An by now aged around 14 continued with her studies and performances within the palace, but with a sense of impending doom as Cambodia slipped into civil war and battles between Khmer Rouge and government forces raged outside the capital city Phnom Penh.
The Fall of Phnom Penh and the Begining of Darkness
In April 1975 Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge and An by now married and pregnant with her third child, joined the rest of the population in the forced mass exodus into the countryside. With her young family and 8 months pregnant An was forced to walk by foot, hundreds of kilometres to the North of the country to Battambang Province. She gave birth during the way.
Once in Battambang, the Khmer Rouge ordered everyone into mass concentration camps. At first An was given "easier" tasks in the communal vegetable garden, as she had recently given birth. Her 2nd child, a little girl of 3 years stayed with An and her new born baby. The Khmer Rouge systematically starved the population, making everyone eat one meal a day (watery rice gruel) and prohibiting individuals from collecting food for themselves or their families. When An's little girl by now starving, plucked some corn from the communal garden, the Khmer Rouge chief was furious and threatened An and her daughter with execution. An therefore had to forbid her little daughter from picking things to eat and soon after, her beloved little girl died of starvation.
Not long afterwards, the Khmer Rouge led away the entire male population of that commune, accusing them of being former "government soldiers." An saw her husband (a former construction worker) being led away with the other men, his hands tied behind his back. The men never came back and were executed in a mass grave. Only 5 men remained in that commune, they were very elderly and ill and the Khmer Rouge could not accuse them of being "soldiers". To this day, An does not know the exact place her husband died and cannot make a proper grave for his remains.
When the Khmer Rouge regime under Pol Pot ended in 1979, An together with her 2 remaining children, made her slow and painful way back to Phnom Penh together with her mother Yeay Kan.
Phnom Penh was in empty ruins, the buildings and roads full of trees and overgrown plants, furniture and abandoned goods in the middle of the roads, just as they had been left when the great exodus of Phnom Penh occured in 1975. The national bank lay in ruins, the main bridges blown up. There was nothing to eat, no money, no medicines and all the houses were empty from the deaths of so many.
The doors of the Royal Palace were open and An and her mother went in. Of the hundreds of classical Cambodian dancers and musicians, only a handful were left alive. Nine of the great ballet teachers were still alive and five of the great music masters. An describes the feeling of overwhelming love that those who survived had for one another.
She and the younger dancers set about with extraordinary determination to relive and re-learn the ancient teachings of the past from the last of the great teachers. Learning each dance, female and male roles, as well as the "Yik" (ogre) role, An slowly pieced together the shattered remains of her heritage.
In those days the Ministry of Culture, itself shattered and struggling for survival, paid the artists with rice.
No one can forget the immense solidarity and courage these artists and all Cambodians had, to piece their country together again, after a third of the population had died.
During the 1980's and early 1990's when Cambodian began official performance tours, many younger dancers fled the misery of their country and became exiles in the UK and the USA. However other dancers like An, struggled on with the belief of re-establishing their art before it disappeared forever.
The Kampot Traditional Music School for Orphaned and Disabled Children/Khmer Cultural Development Institute
Was built in 1994 after being ratified as a Cambodian NGO in 1993 with the blessing and permission of the Ministry of Culture and the Royal University of Fine Arts. Dedicated to the restoration of traditional music and later also traditional classical ballet and Yike theatre as well as other ancient Cambodian art forms, we have worked continuously to keep these art forms alive for the next generation of Cambodians and for our world heritage. At the same time as caring for vulnerable children, so that the tuition of culture goes hand in hand with meeting the essential and practical needs of our children.
We express our deepest honour and thanks to Mrs An and to all our teachers, some sadly now passed away and to those who are with us today. We thank them for coming all the way from the National Theatre and Royal Ballet, from the Royal University of Fine Arts to share with us their extraordinary skills, their courage and loving kindness. For passing on their precious knowledge to the next generation of young Cambodians.
Thank you all who have donated to this project, for enabling us to continue on. Our project has been such a success and is attended with such enthusiasm by over 400 local children,many of them girls, as well as benefiting our resident children, that we are continuing into 2015 and beyond.
**This report was given without using the full names or in some cases the real name of the people mentioned, in order to protect their privacy. The photographs were taken with full permission from participants.
Our History 20 Years Ago
Our school, the Kampot Traditional Music School for Orphaned and Disabled Children (Khmer Cultural Development Institute/KCDI) was built in 1994 after being ratified in 1993 as a Cambodian NGO. We are celebrating 20 years of activity since the opening of our school all those years ago! To celebrate we will be tracing the lives of some of our earlier students until the present day.
Looking back, those of us present in 1994, remember the extreme difficulty in building our school under siege during the Cambodian civil war and the early afternoon curfew at 3pm imposed on all traffic from the capital Phnom Penh to Kampot, 137km Southwest. We remember the Khmer Rouge who had their stronghold in the neighbouring mountain of Phnom Vor and the terror and damage they inflicted on the local population. Many of our children resident at that time were orphaned because of Khmer Rouge attacks and so many of them, including our staff suffered from traumatic stress. How difficult it was then too, to go into isolated villages with representatives from the Department of Social Affairs to interview children requesting assistance at our school. Everyone was terrified of being caught in a Khmer Rouge ambush!
We remember too, how difficult it was to convince donors of the importance of traditional Cambodian culture and how traditional music was seen by international donors as an unnecessary ornament. Later on of course, UNESCO was to declare traditional Cambodian culture as “World Intangible Cultural Heritage,” and it then became the “fashion” to have art schools. None the less we were the first serious cultural school to be built outside the Royal University of Fine Arts and with the blessing of the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and with the participation of great Cambodian masters from the Royal Palace and National Theatre. The founder of KCDI herself was a teacher at the Royal University of Fine Arts having graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in London as a violinist. This connection between artists greatly helped further respect and understanding between Cambodian musicians and the founder’s dream of restoring and preserving traditional Cambodian music and culture.
Although the civil war is over, yet so many Cambodians suffer the after-effects of the genocide and the prolonged war of attrition. Children today are often orphaned and abandoned because of AIDS and because of psychological traumas suffered by their parents.
Sombat came from Takeo Province and from a difficult family situation, He came as a little boy in 1994, joining our very first group of children at the Kampot Traditional Music School. He was both good at academic studies but also very good at music and learned Pin Peat music (sacred ensemble) specializing in the Roneat Ek instrument. He learned firstly from the great Master Toch* who died in around the year 2000 and who was one of the last great Masters left alive after the Khmer Rouge genocide. After his retirement, Sombat learned with another great Master, Meas* from the National Theatre and Royal Orchestra.
Sombat graduated from the Kampot Traditional Music School in 2002, having gained his lyceum Baccalaureate II certificate. He went on to study at the University of Phnom Penh in agricultural studies, but he was soon to be appreciated by the Ministry of Culture and after his graduation at the University he was employed by the Ministry of Culture.
Sombat was one of few traditional musicians able to notate and document traditional music, a skill he inherited from his Master Meas. He was employed by the Ministry in their documentation program of rare music. He went on to work at the Royal University of Fine Arts, as a Pin Peat teacher and also as one of the Royal Musicians at the Royal Palace.
In around 2009, Master Meas retired from the Kampot Traditional Music School and returned to Phnom Penh, nominating Sombat as his successor, a great honour, considering the high standard and exactingness this Master had for the tuition of Pin Peat music.
Sombat has been teaching at the Kampot Traditional Music School KCDI since 2009. He married his high-school sweetheart and they now have two young children aged 4 and 2 years.
*For the protection of privacy, the names of individuals have been changed. Those photographed have given their permission for their photograph to be used in this report.
What We've Been Doing Recently
As you all know the Kampot Traditional Music School for Orphaned and Disabled Children (KCDI) is helping over 400 local primary and lower-secondary school children with free training in the arts.
Because of your precious help over the last 12 months, we have been able to reach out and assist children from the following schools:-
- Samdach Ta Primary School
- Tray Koh Primary School
- Di Pok Mohasamaki Lower Secondary School
We of course teach Pin Peat and Mahori music, classical Ballet and Folk Dance, but we also teach ancient Yike theatre.
What is Yike?
The Yike (pronounced Yeekay) is an ancient art form with Khmer, Chham and possibly Malay influences. In a part of what is now modern day Cambodia, there lay the Kingdom of Champa, with a population (the Chham) who were of Muslim religion. Around eight hundred years ago, the Khmer Empire fought with the Kingdom of Champa and this small Kingdom became part of the Khmer empire. Today Chham people and Khmer live together in peace and harmony.
In the Province of Kampot, there are many Chham people who are part of an ethnic minority in Cambodia. Although today the Yike is mostly performed by Khmer artists of Buddhist religion. It is an art form that incorporates singing, music, dance and theatre, yet it is unlike any other traditional Cambodian music or dance, because the singing is different, the dance moves are different and special drums are used similar to those used in the music of the Chham people today. The Yike evolved as an art form for people from the countryside and it expresses historical events, moral and religious tales and sometimes humourous representations. Yet this extraordinary art form after the Khmer Rouge genocide and the decline in traditional culture, risks extinction. That it is why it is so important that young children have access to proper, expert training so that they can continue their cultural heritage on into the future.
One of the most famous Yike troupes is based in Chhouk District in Kampot, they have won many national awards and accolades. It is the leaders of this troupe, a husband and wife team, who teach the Yike at our school. We are so honoured to have them. You can see in our photographs with this report, how many children are enthusiastic to learn Yike. From such a large number, certainly there will be those who will form a profession as Yike artists.
Our residential children (see www.globalgiving.org/residential-care-for-vulnerable-children-cambodia) recently won another trophy, also pictured with this report. This time they won third prize in a National Competition held at the National Chaktomouk Theatre. The competition was larger than the last regional one. Their dance was specially coreographed for them by a folk dance teacher from the Kampot department of Culture and our school was invited by the Ministry of Culture to perform in the competition.
Thank you for your wonderful help in helping keeping alive these unique traditions at our school. Please tell all your friends and please encourage everyone to give generously. We need special help to support our teachers to train so many children. Please help support our residential program too!
Thank you from our hearts!