Arn grew up in Phnom Penh during the Khmer Rouge’s reign. As a child, he worked in forced labor camps and later was forced to become a soldier. As a teenager Arn was adopted by Reverend Peter Pond and moved to the US. After graduating, Arn returned to Cambodia on a mission to find the legacy of his family who were involved in the Cambodian Opera, his music teacher from the time of the Khmer Rouge and the stars of his early childhood. On this trip, local NGO Cambodian Living Arts was born. Now Arn lives outside of Phnom Penh and continues to work on various projects to develop Cambodian arts.
INTERVIEW – december 2013
What is Cambodian Living Arts to you?
CLA started very small. In the nineties, I came back to Cambodia and began to look for surviving Master Artists by walking up and down the streets of Cambodia’s villages and towns. I was able to find Master Mek, who had taught me the Khim during the Khmer Rouge, my cousin Nong Chak, who was taught Bassac Opera by my father, and Chek Mach, Cambodia’s greatest Opera singer before the genocide. All of them had been surviving in very poor conditions. When I met Yoeun Mek he was drunk. He asked me to do something, because he did not want to keep living that way, that he was afraid that he would end up by killing himself. He told me, “I am very lucky to be alive after all this. I would like to use my time left to pass on my knowledge.” When we later found great flutist Yim Sang, it was the same. We started talking and making plans to start Cambodian Living Arts.
At the time of that first trip to Cambodia, I was 32, and had been working as a social worker with the Khmer community in Massachusetts, USA. I returned to the US and stayed there for the next three years, during which time, with the help of a couple of great supporters, we founded CLA and began the work of finding other Master Artists.
Teaching, providing opportunities for artists to perform, and recording audio and video archives were the initial activities of CLA and remain important missions to me. To this day, I remain very active in the effort to record and archive Cambodia’s endangered performing art forms.
We started small, but from the first, I envisioned that CLA would be doing the work that it is involved in today. We provide scholarships to talented and motivated arts students and artists, and I am extremely proud of this. The scholarship program is a way that we can put our focus on the future, on the new generation of arts professionals.
That said, I believe that we need to find a balance in our support for both the old and the new. I will always keep caring about the older Masters and will continue to look for forgotten or undiscovered art forms. Recently, I found a Master of the Ken instrument, which was believed to be lost, in a very remote area in North Cambodia – that is so exciting!
What is your best memory with your work?
The very first moments. When I found Yoeun Mek and Chek Mach – none of us had ever thought we would be ever be reunited. After that first meeting, every time that we saw each other, we would always hug each other in joy! That was a magical moment. I could feel their excitement at the thought that their lives, their real lives surrounded by music, would finally start again. Cambodian Living Arts has been able to give them back their pride and dignity. The surviving Master Artists had never thought that they might one day receive a salary and paid health care. But the most important thing is that, all of us at CLA, the Masters, the students and the staff, have all become one big family.
Relationships are the most important thing – and I think that’s CLA’s strength, and will always continue to be an important part of what CLA stands for. All of the CLA staff works hard, sometimes we run in all directions, sometimes we are able to achieve big things, but we always keep our bonds to each other strong. I want to see students come to CLA and for a place to practice, for people to feel free to come in and ask for information, and, most importantly, for everyone involved with CLA to continue care about each other.
Arts should have no border. Arts are in the heart, it’s organic, living! I like to break the walls of formality sometimes. The other day I came with Master Hei, the Ken Master, and he just started performing in the middle of the office without any announcement or notice, and it made everyone happy! There’s no formality in villages like the one that Master Hei is from, and in my mind, I see CLA as an arts village!
What future do you envision for the organization?
I want for CLA to become a true arts center. Today CLA is surrounded by massage places! We started as a “school without walls”, but now I think that the time has come for us to have a center. I imagine it as being multifunctional; hosting cultural conventions, being a resource space for artists and students, maybe even just to provide a space of safety and peace for a moment or two. And at the center, I envision a radio and TV station that would promote culture and send a positive message to the people of Cambodia! I think that people want more than what’s now being offered to them through the media.
That may be a crazy dream, but, after this past summer’s Season of Cambodia festival in New York, anything seems possible!
PORTFOLIO – MEETING WITH THE LAST KEN MUSICIANS