This week, we continue our interview with Bosba Panh, the 19-year-old singer and composer who first captured the nation’s heart as a pint-sized singer with a powerful voice. Panh delves into discussions about her time on stage, what the traditional arts scene is missing and her feelings on returning home after all these years abroad. [This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
You are what I would call a seasoned performer. You’ve been on stage probably hundreds of times since the age of eight and I have to think there’s a benefit to that, would you agree?
Yes. I think one of the benefits of performing in front of an audience — whether you’re doing it as a group like in a choir, which I’m involved in at school, or as a solo performer — is that it allows you to remain grounded. If you really think about it, composers just kind of sit in a room alone with their pianos or instruments and just compose. You kind of forget what the point of your music is and the point of your music is to be performed in front of other people and to touch those people. If you forget how that feels you can get very detached from reality, which is very easy as a composer because you’re in your own world out there.
I think performing is an essential part of being a musician. Some artists are more into advocating arts, so they might not perform as much, but you still see them doing public speaking — which in my opinion is also a form of art because it’s really hard and you want people to believe what you’re saying. As a performer and composer it’s very important to, one, communicate your music in a way that people accept it and love it, and next, to also be able to explain the music to the audience in a way that relates to them. With traditional Cambodian music, it’s easier because people listen to that in Cambodia, it’s part of our culture. But if you’re bringing classical music like I did with the Nirmita Composers Workshop, you can’t just throw it like that at them. It’s not part of our culture and there might be some misunderstandings or some reactions that could distract performers. It’s very easy to talk to Cambodian people, we’re nice people, we don’t bite! The way I like to educate people about Western classical music is first to tell them the story behind it and then tell them what to look for in the music. So, for example, if you tell them ‘I wrote this music because I remember seeing a bird and this bird sang this melody, it goes like this.’ So you sing the melody and then you tell them, ‘Well in this piece this little motif comes back many times, so make sure you listen very closely to the music so you can identify this bird call. By doing that, you actually make people interested in your music rather than having them be puzzled by it.
Touching on traditional Cambodian music, do you feel as if there is a disconnect now between youth in Cambodia and the country’s traditional arts culture?
You know, I’ve been thinking about this because my mom asked me the same question. I don’t think we’re necessarily disconnected — there’s a lot of music in religion, we hear it at weddings, we hear it at funerals. So there isn’t really a disconnect, but I think it’s much more the extent of the younger generation’s knowledge. To me, disconnect means you really do not care and you just don’t listen, its like a conscious decision, which I don’t think is the case in Cambodia. If you ask young people, ‘Do you know what this instrument is?’ Most of them can tell you the name of the instrument. But if you ask ‘Do you know what kind of music that is?’ Usually they can’t tell you. Traditional music is a part of our culture but I don’t think it’s showcased.
You don’t have a lot of public concerts showcasing traditional music, because it’s part of what Dr. Chinary Ung said ahead of the Nirmita Composers Workshop — it’s always the same music. There was a point in the country where people stopped composing so you just keep hearing the same stuff and it’s really sad. There’s no new music being created so because of that, the music keeps repeating itself and it just becomes monotone.
So then what’s the antidote? How do you fix it?
Creating new music and making it in a way that’s interesting and that talks to people. I just donated to an arts association based in Phnom Penh named Sovanna Phum. They do the sbek thom or shadow puppet shows. I’ve known this place since I was five. I grew up going there because it was close to where we lived. These shows are really great because the way it works in the puppet world is that you create stories and the music follows along with that. So it’s always new and it’s always very fresh. They have to create new puppets to tell new stories, whereas when you have, let’s say the Apsara dance, it’s always the same thing — get my point?
When I went to Sovanna Phum they would create all these new shows and people would always come. People were interested and you actually still saw Cambodians in the audience. It brought three of the arts together: the art of the shadow puppet, music and singing as one and the art of storytelling as well. So because it was new but it was still within the culture, people were interested and people came — up until Sovanna Phum had problems with the landlord and had to move to a location much further away from the city center.
I think to generate more demand in the traditional arts you need to bring more awareness, you have to show the people why it’s important. I think having concerts or public shows on live TV would be extremely beneficial. I’ve never seen the puppet shows on live TV and it’s such a big part of our culture, but the arts aren’t engrained in our education system.
We don’t have an arts education system whereas in the US people have marching band and music classes. Most of the children would be aware of traditional music from going to weddings but you’re not sitting in a class with a Cambodian teacher telling you, ‘Today we’re going to learn about traditional music.’ There’s nothing written historically about Cambodian music. Where are the records? There are books that will say for example in this ensemble you have these instruments but how did it come to that? Where’s the story behind it? That’s not something they teach you at school. We have very little record of Cambodian musical history.
But, even with what we know now, I think it would be very easy to implement that, in schools in Phnom Penh, and then see how it affects children’s skills and cognitive abilities. But, would the Ministry of Education be willing to do that? You can only change how much people are aware of their own culture through education and outreach programs. That’s the only way.
By doing that, then you create demand. Then kids will say, ‘We learned about puppets today at school, can we go to a puppet show?’ Then more people are going to pay for a ticket. I think that’s how it works with music also. You make them curious and then they want to see it with their own eyes.
By implementing arts education into the system you create demand for performances which creates jobs for artists. When you have more artists then you need to create performing arts schools or outreach programs, which in turn means that more people are going to join the arts from a young age —the more young people see these performances, the more people that will want to become artists. That’s what I see as the way to improve arts education in Cambodia.
This visit was your first time back on home soil in four years. How did you feel stepping off the plane in Phnom Penh?
Well it was very different because everything was really modern, especially in the capital. There was a lot of traffic and all these new buildings. I was very shocked. I didn’t even know we had more than one mall! My friends still looked the same even though they grew up. I think I matured a lot in the four years that I was away and I guess when I came back I was looking at my own country through different eyes. My first year at university was really stressful and you can kind of forget about where you come from and the people that really knew you. It was really nice to feel grounded and come back to my roots after such a long time abroad.
Panh poses with US Ambassador to Cambodia, William A. Heidt, and attendees after performing a concert at the US embassy last month. Supplied