Siem Reap’s much applauded Khmer art theatre Bambu Stage, supported by Experience Cambodian Living Arts, is exciting audiences with ‘Forbidden Rhythms,’ a nightly ‘ritual’ featuring Medha, Cambodia’s first female drumming troupe.
This new show, billed as “One hour of intense performance like a ceremony of exorcism of social rules,” is choreographed by Jean-Baptiste Phou and composed by Ly Vanthan.
It features original compositions and through drumming, dancing and singing, claims to present “the aspirations, experiences and relationships of young Cambodian women through ancient art forms with a modern twist”. Bambu Stage co-founder Nick Coffill says Medha gives a powerful example of collective ‘showmanship’ (although that should be perhaps be show-woman-ship).
“Rather than highlighting a particular performer or singular performance as a ‘special event’ – perhaps with a hint of condescending exceptionalism – Medha shows that creativity, showmanship and collective performance is a valid genre for women in contemporary Cambodia,” he says.
“This is Medha, take it as it is.”
He adds that the drumming troupe’s performance has been enhanced by Experience Cambodian Living Arts’ involvement.
“A highlight was getting Cambodian Living Arts onboard with Medha,” he says. “They are an august institution in Cambodia with high ethical and professional standards and a long history of supporting the arts across many platforms. Twinning with them at Bambu Stage has added breadth to the shows.”
Medha was formed in January 2017 by seven women from Chriv village in the countryside near Siem Reap, with experience in other traditional arts, who volunteered for training under Sous Sopheak, a traditional instrumentalist.
They came up with the name Medha, which roughly translates as ‘sagacity’, or the wisdom and insight to move forward.
Medha performer Chamroun Rittysokvanna emphasises the troupe’s collectivism.
“For us, Medha represents leadership, which means everyone in the group must be strong, brave and never give up,” she says. “When we are in group, we have many chances to improve as a whole, together. We are like a family now.”
Medha first made its artistic presence felt at the inaugural RepFest in Siem Reap in October 2017, when the group performed ‘Soul of Victory Drum’, featuring five different types of drums.
The troupe began daily performances at Bambu Stage in October last year, building up to the current Forbidden Rhythms performance which, as well as serving as entertainment, also serves up a gender-oriented political statement.“The political message is everywhere on stage, just by their presence, their attitude and their talent,” says Bambu spokeswoman Claire Taddei.
“The performers are playing different types of drums, like the sneng, a type of horn, the gong and a pair of skortob, a type of Angkorian military instrument, normally reserved for males.
“And, wearing a non-gender costume with hard facial expressions – almost war-like, almost like they are entering a fight, with smiles breaking out here and there – the artists aspire to change mentalities through their powerful and creative spectacle.”
Claire adds that she regards Forbidden Rhythms as a catharsis.
“There is something on stage close to the trance state,” she says. “Beside the music, the gesture of the drummers is also very powerful and charismatic, with the movement of arms, hands and drumsticks. Traditional Khmer drums are aesthetic objects with a strong presence on stage. Through their rhythms and sounds, drums are energetic instruments which capture the attention and captivate the mind.”
Meanwhile, Medha’s message of gender equality is about to get global attention this year with the planned 2020 release of a film, Where the Roots Lie, which is being promoted by the filmmakers as, “A story about the strength, resilience and power of women and their right to do what they choose despite the opposition they may face. Pair that with the belief that women simply cannot play the drums well since it requires a certain level of strength that they typically do not have.”
The film is directed by two Los Angeles-based actresses and filmmakers – Katy Harliss and Tori La Desma – who hired a crew of local Cambodian filmmakers, helmed by award-winning cinematographer Bora Sao aka Narin Saobora, who has been in the film business for more than 11 years and who has worked intensively with Academy Award-winning Cambodian director, Rithy Panh.
Former Flamenco dancer Tori La Desma travelled back and forth from LA to Cambodia to work on the film and says that with her equal passion for travelling/humanitarian work and filmmaking, “directing something that addresses the healing power of art felt like the perfect way to merge it all”.