It is near impossible to understand present-day Cambodia or its arts without learning about Arn Chorn Pond and his flute. His endeavors and collaborations are everywhere and they share unpretentious forgiveness, optimism, authenticity, and joy through the Cambodian Living Arts.
When it comes to genocide, silence is not an option. Shame is not an option. Putting behind the past is not an option. Instead, one must tell the stories of genocide and survivors must find the courage to release their voices. Nations have no legal obligation to do so, and since nations are players in the atrocities, they create false narratives or remain reluctant to crack the silence until a time and their citizenry demand more.
Cambodia was silenced by terror and oppression, and in many regards still is. The survivors of the war and genocide did not have a vocabulary to articulate the harms that had transpired. To this day, the genocide is not widely taught or discussed in Cambodia. The population is reluctant to speak and the officials want simply to bury it, along with their guilt. Cambodia’s youth has been left out of its history, unable to comprehend the anger, fear, shame, mental illness and abuse that surrounds them.
It is language and its twin – the arts – that build voices that can both speak and hear, acknowledge and respond, and ultimately connect. A culture that emerges from a violent past must both account for the past and create a future. How can this be done without trust and engagement? Without political will? Who will take on this ethical responsibility?
Arn Chorn Pond found the courage to take this on and discovered his ethical responsibility. As a child survivor of unimaginable horrors, he claimed his ability to speak, and with it the power to make things happen.
His life has been made into books and movies, including award-winning Patricia McCormick’s Never Fall Down, which was translated into Khmer in 2014, and Jocelyn Glatzer’s documentary The Flute Player.
Born in Battambang, Cambodia in 1966, his legendary family ran an opera company that performed throughout the country. He was age nine when the Khmer Rouge came to power. They took him from his family and sent him to Wat Aik, which was a Buddhist temple converted into a death camp for children. Children were starved as they were forced to work in the rice fields from 5 am until midnight. They were executed for being sick or ‘too lazy’. He watched his friends being murdered daily. He survived it solely because he learned to play propaganda music on the flute and the khim (a Cambodian hammered dulcimer) from an elder master.
When Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978 the Khmer Rouge exchanged his flute for a gun. The children were forced to fight on the front lines against the enemy or they would be shot by the Khmer Rouge. For several months he fought and grew numb as he watched his friends die all around him. He managed to escape into the jungle where he endured deep loneliness, surviving by following the monkeys and eating what they did. He wandered in circles and finally collapsed from starvation. He was discovered by women searching for firewood and taken to a Thai refugee camp where he met the Reverend Peter Pond, an American unsung and misunderstood hero possessing the singular power of love. Peter Pond adopted him in 1980 and took him to America.
Arn Chorn said of Pond, “What he does is from his heart. It is pure help. This guy is so simple we don’t understand. It is so simple we make it complicated. Maybe we are so modern we can no understand pure love.”
America was overwhelming for a teen-aged genocide survivor immersed into a high school environment that was callous, mocking and indifferent to him. His classmates knew nothing about Cambodia or America’s illegal and brutal bombing of it. With the urging of his foster parents and English teacher, he found the strength to share the worse things about himself and begin the healing process. Arn’s first public speech was in front of thousands of people at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York City. He told his story to the community, to his classmates and now, through TEDx Talks, international symposiums, and music and art events – to the world.
Arn Chorn tells his story the way he plays his flute. Words are notes that move in the air with his heart. His words and actions reveal truths as they struggle to come forth, compel, connect and provide a vision. Listen to his TEDx Talk to hear the simple and powerful words he found to propel his adult life into action in his homeland.
Upon finding his voice, Arn Chorn immediately put it to use. By the time he was 20 years old, he was widely sharing his story and developing his visions for the organizations that he would found to retrieve Cambodian music and use the arts to help Cambodia’s youth.
In 1985 he found an organization called Children of War, dedicated to helping young people overcome suffering from war and other traumas such as child abuse, poverty, racism, and divorce. Children of War trained a leadership group of 120 young adults who represented 21 countries. More than 100,000 US students from 480 schools benefited this program.
CHILDREN OF WAR BEGIN PEACE TOUR
Arn Chorn yesterday described his experience as a child in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. He told how, as a 9-year-old, he had been forced to carry a gun and fight in Cambodia’s civil war, forced to ”watch thousands of people be killed.”
Mr. Chorn, now 20 years old and a freshman at Brown University, spoke in the packed auditorium of Norman Thomas High School. It was the first of several speeches given by some of the 62 young people from the United States and 17 foreign countries, including Afghanistan, Northern Ireland and South Africa, gathered on the stage of the school at 33d Street and Park Avenue in Manhattan to start the Children of War 1986 national tour.
The two-week tour will bring the youths to 27 cities, where they will speak to young Americans of the violence, terrorism and poverty that they had suffered and witnessed, aiming, the tour’s organizers said, to give hope to their American peers and encourage them to work for world peace.
The organizers described the tour yesterday as ”the catalyst for the building of an international peace movement.” A Plea to Stop Shooting
Distilling the message that the tour hopes to bring to young Americans, the Rev. Jesse Jackson described the 600 students in the audience as ”children of fortune,” and implored them not to waste their opportunities.
”Choose education over entertainment,” he said, adding, ”What is the use of having the doors of opportunity opened for you if you can’t even stagger through them?”
Mr. Jackson tempered his message with a caution that the United States also has its ”children of war.” He said these included victims of racial discrimination and ”a generation of young Americans” that he said had died in the civil rights movement ”so that this generation might live.” ‘We Need Your Help’
Jody Dye, one of 18 young Americans on the tour, told how her family’s 500-acre farm in Nebraska had to be sold, a casualty in the financial crisis afflicting farms in the Middle West.
Citing increased military expenditures, which she said could be used to rehabilitate the farm economy, she told the New York students: ”The Middle West is the breadbasket of the country. We feed you people, and we need your help.”
Maxwell, also 17, a resident of the riot-torn city of Soweto in South Africa, requested anonymity before telling the audience: ”My appeal to the American people is to remember in your everyday lives that all over the world people are dying by the thousands, being killed, freezing in the cold and starving.” When he described the children participating in the tour as ”the silver lining in the clouds of war,” the audience rose to applaud him. Religious Task Force Project
The Children of War tour is being organized by the Brooklyn-based Religious Task Force, a national interfaith network of religious organizations and peace groups comprising 60 denominations. The organization’s director, the Rev. Paul Mayer, said that a smaller tour involving 36 youths had been conducted in 1984, and that this tour had been organized ”by popular demand.”
Money for the tour was raised by a number of cooperating organizations, including the United Jewish Appeal, the South African Council of Churches, the Episcopal Church (U.S.A.) and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, according to Judith Thompson, national coordinator of the Religious Task Force.
The morning presentation ended with the singing of a song composed for the occasion with the assistance of the singer Harry Belafonte and sung by the school’s gospel choir.
Asked how she felt about the message of the tour, one student, Erika Conner, said: ”It would affect anyone with a heart. It made me realize how fortunate we are.”
Another student, Shareen Arroyo, said the tales of suffering ”made me cry,” adding, ”I hope the effect on students here won’t just be temporary, but there is so much war and crime in the world that it will be hard to change.”
In 1992, Arn received a college degree in political science from Providence College. While in college, Arn devoted his summers from 1986 through 1988 to teaching and assisting those still displaced by war. He started the Southeast Asian Big Brother/Big Sister Association and founded Peace Makers, a US-based gang intervention program for Southeast Asian youths in Providence who shared his reality of feeling lost, angry and bereft of knowing how to claim their identity with dignity.
Returning to his homeland, he searched for the surviving masters of music and was devastated by the conditions he found them in. He found his former teacher and began to rebuild the artistic legacy of his nation. In 1998, along with a group of dedicated people from the US, he created the Cambodian Masters Performers Program, which grew into Cambodian Living Arts. The efforts of these individuals led to the recordings, performances, and preservation of the remaining brilliant musicians in the kingdom. The recording An Unfinished Story: A rediscovery of Cambodian Music by Arn Chorn Pond in 2015 can be heard free here.
- Yoeun Mek has played the tror so since he was fifteen when he built his first instrument. While a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge, he met Arn Chorn-Pond and taught him the kind of traditional songs that were then forbidden by the government. After the Khmer Rouge fell from power, he worked in the state department of art and culture. He died in 2014.
- Yim Saing‘s first instrument was made for him when he was sixteen by his grandfather, who was also a musician. He plays five different woodwinds and prefers to play ajai, a kind of ancient ‘rap’ music in which two speakers improvise a discussion from the structure of the music. Although mistreatment by the Khmer Rouge left him partially deaf, he continues to perform and teach. His daughter Chanthy is also an accomplished flute player.
- Nong Chok began performing as an actor and singer when he was a young boy. He frequently performed with the touring opera company run by his uncle, Arn Chorn-Pond’s father. During the Khmer Rouge’s reign, he was allowed to perform only revolutionary songs. After the Khmer Rouge fell from power, he founded a new opera company devoted to telling traditional stories and fables, but he couldn’t keep the company open.
- Kong Nai plays the chapei dang veng, a two-string long-necked guitar. He also practices the Khmer tradition of improvisational singing while he plays. Improvised lyrics were traditionally satirical or humorous, but this was forbidden by the Khmer Rouge, and he was forced to sing songs of praise for the government. He now performs less controversial songs, mostly stories, and fables. He is lovingly referred to as the Ray Charles of Cambodia.
- Chek Mach began her vocal training at the age of ten, studying Bassac opera in Phnom Penh. Before the Khmer Rouge came to power, she toured all over Cambodia, performing traditional songs as well as works in Chinese, French, Vietnamese, and Laotian. She joined the Cambodian Master Performers Program in 1999, and for three years she taught students near her home. Chek Mach died in 2003 at the age of seventy.
Villages gather for a performance by the Khmer Magic Music Bus. CLA describes The Bus: Our twenty-five passenger bus carries master musicians and their students to the villages of rural Cambodia so they can share the experience of listening to and learning about their musical heritage. The project directly pays Khmer artists, music/video technicians, and the bus driver as well as covering all management, planning and travel expenses for the Khmer team. All expenses during the time the bus travels in the countryside are covered by the project. The US-based team serves in a purely voluntary capacity, neither receiving nor expecting any compensation other than the pleasure taken in the joy created by The Bus in its travels.
Today the Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) is a vital force behind most of Cambodia’s contemporary arts and culture. It offers a dizzying array of programs, festivals, performances, training, knowledge sharing, grants, awards, scholarships, and commissions. Moving seamlessly from large urban environments to tiny rural villages the artists and the staff are covering Cambodia with music and the arts. Laughter and awe are healing wounds and deep connections are being forged. Their mission is to be a catalyst in a vibrant art sector, inspiring new generations. Their work is nothing short of astounding.
Arn Chorn is still telling his story and still healing the deep scars through his flute.