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Decades After Cambodian Genocide, Nonprofit Works to Revitalize Traditional Music

Musicians from the Greater Mekong region and U.S. participate in Cambodian Living Arts's 2016 Nirmita Composers Workshop, the precursor to the Music Residency Project. Courtesy of Cambodian Living Arts

Four decades after the Cambodian genocide decimated traditional art forms in the Southeast Asian country, a nonprofit organization is working with an award-winning composer to engage new musicians in hope of returning traditional Cambodian music to its former glory.

Cambodian Living Arts has launched the Music Residency Project in hopes of kick-starting new creativity in Cambodia. Cambodian-American composer Chinary Ung is working with a group of seven artists as part of the residency to train new composers.

“We are hoping to come forth with a piece of performing art. We really don’t know how it’s going to look like, sound like and so forth, but this is a great assignment for us. One thing for sure, in my mind, it has something to do with creativity,” Ung told NBC News.

Cambodian-American composer Chinary Ung teaches the 2016 Nirmita Composers Workshop, a precursor of the current program. Courtesy of Cambodian Living Arts

The program started July 6 and is expected to run for two weeks. It builds off of last year’s Nirmita Composers Workshop, which focused on emerging musicians from the Greater Mekong region and the U.S.

Ung is the first American composer to win the Grawemeyer Award for music composition, according to the University of California, San Diego, where he teaches. He has also been honored by the Kennedy Center, Asia Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Foundation, Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

“We really, really want to help promote Cambodia artists as well as our professionals,” Seng Song, manager for Cambodian Living Arts’ Heritage Hub in the city of Siem Reap, told NBC News. “Arts professionals refer to those who are working in the arts, for example, technicians.”

Cambodian Living Arts works to preserve traditional arts and inspire new generations of artists.

Song said he hopes to share with the artists that they don’t need a master’s degree or a Ph.D. to make inspiring pieces using traditional instruments, “but they can use their experience.”

“This is a good lesson for their future development as well,” he added. “We really want them to feel more confident by working with experienced musicians from Phnom Penh and Chinary Ung and his mentorship through this.”

Before the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia — ultimately killing 1.7 million people from 1975 to 1979, according to research from Yale University — the country was considered a “pearl” in Southeast Asia for its richness in arts and culture, Song said. It was not just the arts that made it powerful, but the people behind the art forms who had a strong desire and spirit for the culture.

“Especially in the city, you could see a lot of theaters, cinemas,” Song said. “But talking about the countryside, there were a lot of performances requested by general people, especially for those who celebrated their ceremonies. They never forgot the art ceremonies for the people in the villages.”

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But during the Khmer Rouge period, many emerging and rising artists were killed or disappeared, he added.

“That’s why from that period of time, the whole Cambodia changed, especially because right after Khmer Rouge, there was not enough promotion about Cambodian arts and culture,” Song said. “That’s why I think the insufficient promotion might be because not enough artists and not enough financial support from the government, and it wasn’t really the right time for the people themselves to support the arts because they really just needed something to eat. That was their priority.”

The generation after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, including Song himself, learned little about traditional Cambodian arts and culture, he said. But during the 1990s, many organizations began popping up fostering interest in the traditional arts.

“We work with artists to make sure those traditional and classical art forms will not disappear again,” Song said. “That’s why we work with the teachers and masters to pass on the knowledge. It’s time for Cambodian people, especially this generation, to move on, especially for those who have learned a lot from their masters to create new things and identity for this generation.”

That new thing could be a twist on a traditional piece or a new style with a new performance theme, Song added.

“It’s also about the audience. It’s also very important. I hope this kind of workshop can also provide new experiences to the audience, especially Cambodian audiences,” he said. “There are no projects like this.”

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