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Aug 6, 2015

The revival of the art of Lakoun Sabaik Toch

Studying the art of puppet making
Studying the art of puppet making

Dear friends and supporters of Kampot Traditional Music School,

 

We are very happy to share with you our latest news. Finally after over 40 years since it's disappearance in Kampot Province, we have begun the revival of Lakoun Sabaik Toch.

 

What is Lakoun Sabaik Toch and why did it Disappear?

 

Lakoun Sabaik Toch is the ancient Cambodian art of shadow puppets. It is thought that it's origins are as old as a thousand years and that it was practised during the reign of the Kings of Angkor, in Siem Reap in North Western Cambodia.

Beautifully ornate characters are carved and cut out of specially prepared and cured cow leather. Propped on thin bamboo sticks to aid movement, they are played behind a lighted screen which creates eery shadows, to the interpretation of voices and Pin Peat music. There are two kinds of Lakoun Sabaik; the big one "Thom" and the small one "Toch", this doesn't mean the size of the puppets, but that the big one portrays only sacred and epic stories from the Hindu Ramayana (Reamker in Cambodian) and Buddhist tales and so is considered sacred and therefore in Cambodian language "Big". Cambodia was greatly influenced by Indian culture and Hindu religion, before converting to Theravada Buddhism at the time it is thought that Ashoka brought Buddhism to Southeast Asia. Today this wonderful mix of different cultural influences can still be found.

The "Small" Lakoun Sabaik puppet theatre consists of a mix of influences from the Ramayana (Reamker), the Apsara (celestial dancer found in carvings at Angkor) and comic, tragic and grotesque characters and animals depicting daily life. The "Small" shadow puppet theatre is for the people, telling stories about history, educative and moral tales and related to their lives. It is a much loved art.

First came civil war in Cambodia between 1970-75 when King Sihanouk was deposed and General Lon Nol took power and when the United States carpet bombed Cambodia to flush out Viet Cong fighters supposedly hiding on Cambodian soil. Then destabilized beyond repair, Cambodia with 1 million refugees in the capital Phnom Penh, cut off from food, supplies, the airport and roads closed, succumbed to the onslaught of the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot.

The Khmer Rouge forced the entire population out of towns and cities and created a terrible "New Society" known as the "Year Zero". It is thought that between 2 to 3 million Cambodian people perished between 1975-79, a third of the population. Intellectuals, teachers, engineers, doctors, economists, artists, educated people, former civil servants, former police, soldiers, Buddhist monks, Muslim Chham and all these people's families were executed. It is estimated that 90% of Cambodian artists, both traditional and contemporary, died. In Kampot, the art of Pin Peat music died out, Mohori music was very basic and Lakoun Sabaik (Shadow puppetry) had disappeared altogether.

Imagine therefore what it must have been like in Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge regime ended- in each Province, when there were no more teachers, doctors, artisans and artists. Yet Cambodia was not allowed to enjoy peace and reconstruction. The Khmer Rouge hid in the long range of mountains stretching all the way down the country and conducted guerilla warfare, inflicting fear and suffering on the populations living in the countryside. Ironically, the Khmer Rouge enjoyed a seat at the United Nations under the name "Democratic Kampuchea Party", as the official representative of Cambodia, in international opposition to the Vietnamese backed Cambodian government. A trade and aid embargo was imposed on Cambodia and the suffering of ordinary Cambodian people seemed endless. 

 

Reviving Lakoun Sabaik Toch in Kampot

 

Our school was built in the Southwestern Province of Kampot 21 years ago, during the civil war and indeed we faced many difficulties due to shelling, shooting and unrest. Gradually we developed from teaching traditional Pin Peat music, to Mohori and Plein Ka music, from folk dance to classical Cambodian ballet, Trott, Chhayam and then Yike theatre, music and dance. Our residential children graduated and more came in and then we expanded our program to include children from the local community, until today - when we teach 400 local Cambodian children traditional Cambodian performing arts, 10 blind children Mohori music and 20 scholarship children Pin Peat and Mohori/Plein Ka music.

All these years as we have developed, we have had the dream of creating our own traditional shadow puppet troupe - Sabaik Lakoun Toch and bring once more back to Kampot, this fantastic art form.

We finally received official sponsorship and we have just finished our puppet making course with the puppet master from Sovannah Phum on Phnom Penh. We shared our workshop with other local state schools and we have taken the first major step towards our goal. Now our students and teachers know how to cure leather, treat it, cut it, draw puppets, cut them out, ornament them and make them move. In so doing we have brought back to our children and to future generations the technique of skilled artisanship. 

In performing Lakoun Sabaik Toch, we are able to create our own story lines and portray real educative themes, such as the prevention of AIDS, the importance of education in rural areas, where children, especially girls are often pulled out of school to work and marry early, before finishing their education.

Yet without your help and support, we could never have developed as much as we have done, because before any new project is undertaken, we must first support our children and staff.

We would like to thank you all for your belief in our work, for your unstinting and generous support and for making it possible for us to continue helping so many children and conserving the precious cultural heritage of Cambodia.

Thank You! 

The puppet master giving a lesson
The puppet master giving a lesson
An ornamented puppet
An ornamented puppet
Two buffaloes, a butterfly and a monkey!
Two buffaloes, a butterfly and a monkey!
The end of the course!
The end of the course!

Links:

Jul 28, 2015

Learning the ancient art of Sabaik Lakaoun Toch

Learning how to make puppets
Learning how to make puppets

 

Looking at the Past

 

During the period of the Khmer Rouge genocide, it is estimated that perhaps 90% of Cambodian artists died.

If you look at old photographs taken of the Royal ballet and the Royal musician's troupe some years before the Khmer Rouge took power, there are hundreds of people, smiling and hopeful, completely unaware of the future that awaits them. The capital Phnom Penh in the 1960's was not only a hub of traditional music and dance, but also in nearly every Pagoda in the countryside there was a Pin Peat orchestra, the villages had their own Mohori and Plein Ka wedding ensembles and one could be sure that there would be a marvellous shadow puppet troupe in the Province, touring from village to village.

Cambodia was also the epicentre of rock and roll, with the King himself an enthusiastic musicians and composer, fusions of musical influence from abroad thrived in this beautiful country. Famous singers such as Sim Sissamouth sang popular songs. There was an acceptance and harmony between old and new.

First came the overthrow of King Sihanouk by General Lon Nol and the descent into corruption and war with the Khmer Rouge guerillas, who graduallly overtook Cambodia, then the secret bombing of Cambodia under US Presdient Nixon and Seretary of State Kissinger, causing over one million refugees to flood into the capital Phnom Penh. Then from 1975 - 1979 the Khmer Rouge took power and evacuated the capital Phnom Penh forcing the entire population of Cambodia to live in the countryside. Cambodian artists were among the first to be executed. It is said that the singer Sim Sissamouth was forced to dig his own grave. A beautiful ballet dancer who danced a duet with the son of the King was decapitated and the list is so long, that it has never been compiled or completed. Only at the end of the regime, was such a great emptiness and the few survivors began looking for each other and trying to rebuild from scratch a history which had spanned over 1000 years.

 

Sabaik Lakoun Toch (Shadow Puppetry)

Today in our school we have several tradiitonal cultural formations, including the tuition of Pin Peat music, Plein Ka and Mohori music, Traditional Cambodian ballet, folk dance, ancient Yike dance and theatre, Trott dance and Chayyam dance. These art forms are taught by skilled Cambodian teachers who come from the National Theatre and Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh. For a long time we have wanted to add to our teaching curriculum the art of Shadow puppetry.

It is thought that this art dates back at least a thousand years. Shadow puppetry still brings great pleasure and is much loved by Cambodian people, however in the Province of Kampot where our school is based, there are no surviving puppet artists at all and so no puppet troupe exists in the entire Province.

With the assistance of Cambodian Living Arts we have been running a workshop for our students and teachers, as well as local state school students and teachers on the art of making and performing Small Shadow puppets.

The puppet master comes from Sovannah Phum in Phnom Penh and he has been teaching how to cure cow leather, to paint it, cut it, draw puppet characters and ornament them, then make bamboo sticks to move each puppet. Shadow puppets are figures held up by thin sticks which propels the characters along. The performance takes place behind a lighted screen to the accompaniament of voice interpretations and Pin Peat music. Small shadow puppet theatre as opposed to Large puppet theatre (Sabak Lakoun Thom) gives artists the freedom to create themes and mix ancient characters and art forms with modern day social themes. In this way, especially for our school the process becomes highly educative.

Students not only learn handcraft skills in making the puppets, (therebye ensuring a vocational skill for the future and the continuation of this art form,) they also experience freedom of expression, have much fun and give lease to their creativity  in interpreting the voices of the characters. The creation of a theme which reflects current society, also offers teachers and students an opportunity to examine themselves and their surroundings, identifying areas which they feel need special attention, which can be AIDS prevention, the promotion of education for girls, the importance of education for all as a brighter future and so on.

On this course, our students and teachers have been enjoying themselves enormously and the puppet master has been quite suprised by their skills in learning. We can't wait to have our first puppet performance!

Although the course itself has been specifically sponsored, still we would not have been able to go ahead or even exist if  donors like yourself had not assisted us in the first place. We still have to feed, clothe, house and care for the many children at our school before any course can take place.

Therefore thank you for believing in our school and for all your generous help.

Concentrating
Concentrating
The finished result
The finished result
Buffalos, monkey and butterfly
Buffalos, monkey and butterfly

Links:

May 29, 2015

Pheap's journey

Dance practice Pheap and friends
Dance practice Pheap and friends

Dear friends of Kampot Traditional Music School,

Thank you so much for your recent support, especially those of you who give regularly each month and those who participated in our special fundraising day on May 13th!

As you all know our Outreach program has several programs, not only for our 400 disadvantaged children from Kampot town and rural areas, but also our 10 blind Mohori music students and our 20 scholarship students from very poor and vulnerable rural backgrounds.

In this month's report, we would like to especially remember one of our scholarship students, Pheap. First she came to our school on our free arts training program for children from rural areas including Chumkriel and TrayKoh. Our school coordinated with the local head monk of the Pagoda school and local primary state school director. Pheap came as a little girl around the year 2000, small and quiet, but soon she shone at Pin Peat music and revealed a great talent and determination. It then came to light that she had significant family problems with an abusive and alcoholic father and was extremely poor. It was decided by her family and our school that Pheap should come to live at our school as a scholarship student under our protection.

Not only did Pheap excel at music, she also attained top grades in her academic studies, going on to gain her high school Baccalaureate and win a place at the Angkor Khemara University of Kampot. Her difficult family status and her talent earned her a scholarship at university. She graduated in 2012. Today she is an accountant at a local school, she is married and has a baby son. Pheap often drops by our school to say hello to her former teachers, because we are a part of her family. Pheap (which is not her full name), kindly gave permission for us to write about her in this month's report.

Invitation by Ministry of Culture to perform for ASEAN Conference

Our school was invited to select one of our most talented students from our Mohori music program for blind children, to perform participate in the ASEAN Conference to be held in Thailand in July/August of this year. Our student who is now an adolescent will be accompanied by our Pin Peat teacher and a carer. Together with our Pin Peat teacher he will perform 5 Mahori songs for the conference and then participate in workshops. The ASEAN Conference "Art for All" is on the occasion of Her Royal Highness Princess Sirindihorn's 60th birthday and is being held to promote the important cultural imput by disabled artists in Southeast Asia. We all feel so excited and honoured by this invitation and the possibility to promote Cambodian traditional music abroad! We promise to post photos after the event!!

Please do keep on supporting us. Your help is truly precious and provides an important part of our needs, helping us to reach out to so many children in Kampot!

From all of us at the Kampot Traditional Music School - Thank You!

Pheap at school
Pheap at school

Links:

 
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