Last weekend saw the spectacle of the World Music Festival organised by Cambodian Living Arts take place in Siem Reap.
“World” music may be something of a misnomer at this point in its evolution, since all the countries concerned – Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and Japan – fell within a modest radius of the host country, Cambodia.
However, this is not to its detriment. Instead of what is sometimes a patchwork hotchpotch of global music, here we had some unifying themes of comparison and contrast in the musical forms and the instruments used, not to mention the lifestyles of the musicians themselves.
The Vietnamese group, Dong Kinh Co Nhac (Ancient Music Group of Tonkin) consisting of three women singers and six musicians, is a professional outfit performing operatic and folk music across a spectrum of traditional genres.
It was like court music, elegant and sedate, but sometimes exploding into an extraordinary virtuoso display of acrobatic dance performed by the women. Law Ka Nat, from the central Anyar region of Myanmar, is a group of skilled traditional musicians, all of them leaders of their own bands, who come together to perform creative reinterpretations of ancient
Conversely, the Champassak Shadow Theatre group is a band of inspired music makers from all walks of life, who just passionately enjoy playing together.
Among them, a motorbike mechanic who also cuts hair, a keeper of goats and a duck seller, all of them brought together by a Frenchman’s boundless enthusiasm.
From Japan, one sole musician, Kohei Nishikawa, a flautist who has mastered both Western classical and traditional Japanese flute music. He played shinobue, the simple flute used since ancient times for festivals; ryuteki, used for Gagaku (ancient court music); and nohkan, a high-pitched dramatic instrument used in Noh theatre.
Finally, Cambodia presented Medha, an all-female drumming group from Siem Reap, and Yaksao, a septet led by Phan Chamroeun, who play original music based on tradition; and last but not least, the trio known as “Khmer Magic Music Bus”, led by Arn Chorn Pond, the founder of Cambodian Living Arts, which travels all over the country bringing music and dance to villages everywhere.
The programme, which lasted three days, was organised to include musicians’ workshops in the mornings, where they could informally interact and compare concepts and techniques; public workshops in the afternoons, open to everybody; and performances in the evenings for entertainment only.
These events took place in three different venues, two at the CLA Heritage Hub in Wat Bo and the other at Krousar Thmey near the Meridien Angkor Hotel.
A theme which continually came up for discussion at the workshops was how to embrace new ideas, new influences and technology while preserving the roots of the traditions.
There was a lot of cross-cultural experiment going on in music traditions worldwide, and some of it is interesting, but a lot of it is not. Kohei Nishikawa compared it with putting mayonnaise on your sushi… that is certainly a matter of taste of course, and many Japanese would shudder, but it is becoming ‘accepted’ because, well… it doesn’t taste bad.
Perhaps mixing Coke with your single malt whisky better expresses the concept for westerners. Dropping the ubiquitous electric guitar in the stew is one obvious danger (and I have nothing against electric guitars in their right place), but a more insidious hazard, as ethnomusicologist Patrick Kersale observed, is the changing of traditional tuning from pentatonic (Asian) to diatonic (Western) or chromatic scales, thus desecrating the ‘soul’ of the music.
Another point was how musicianship could be sustainable. After all, music is an important element of life and culture, and shouldn’t we be offering a livelihood to those who provide it?
The Burmese musicians seem to do quite well playing in temples for various rituals and ceremonies, and the Lao, while still retaining their ‘day jobs’, do four performances a week alternating between shadow puppet theatre and film accompaniment.
There were many highlights: the dynamic drumming of Medha’s women, incorporating dance and martial arts; the absolutely stunning transformation of one of the Vietnamese women into a wild fox (it was a story about a fox which acquired magical powers over the course of a thousand years and was able to change into a beautiful woman by means of a magic amulet, only to be betrayed by her human lover who stole it, thus condemning her to eternal foxdom); and the Lao musical accompaniment to the 1926 film Chang (Elephant) by the makers of the first King Kong, Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack.
For me personally, two small incidents were memorable. One was at the end of Nishikawa’s workshop, when he produced a small bamboo flute from Malaysia, and then proceeded to play it with his nose.
He asked the native people why they used the nose to blow instead of the mouth. Their response was, “Why do you blow with the mouth? The mouth is for eating and drinking, and uttering words, among which many are lies and deceits. The nose is only for breathing, and breathing is the spiritual path to the gods.”
The other was in conversation with the Lao musicians. I play harmonica, which is, whether the Germans know it or not, a descendant of the Lao khene, a gourd with bamboo pipes something like an organ. I explained this to them, and showed them the instrument.
“Ah”, they said, “khene falang!” So now I know that my ‘blues harp’ is actually a French khene in Lao language. Cambodian Living Arts did a fine job of auditioning, choosing and arranging accommodation and transportation for all the musicians, and the event was undoubtedly a success. Student volunteers, 14 of them from Pannasastra University in Siem Reap, worked hard to facilitate stage management and production.
Where do they go from here? One proposal was a Magic Music Bus trip up to Laos. Champassak is just over the border. An international tour!
After all, it has to be said that it was the Lao group that really got people dancing. And I’m booking my ticket for the Magic Bus.