(c) Eric Walter 2017
The apsara hovers in opaline mist
As distant thunder rattles dim stars
She raises her hand to pursed lips
Blowing frangipani petals into viscid air
Where they hover momentarily
Where they decide to stay forever
For the milky ocean of sky.
This video was a labor of love. As expressed in previous posts, I was deeply moved by our experiences in Cambodia - inspired by the creativity of its people, by the mystery of its landscapes, by the dynamism of its history and cultural heritage. This montage of still photos, video, and music is my homage to Cambodia; an expression of my affection and admiration for this beautiful land and the kind Khmer people.
The original music here is not based on any traditional Khmer musical forms or instrumentation; it is my own musical tribute, impressionistic and subjective, to this vibrant musical geography. The primary instruments are mandolin, wood flute, ukulele, and percussion. I recorded the music in a span of approximately ten days in April 2014, almost immediately upon our return. The track titles are as follows;
2) By the Wat
3) Cicada Daze
4) The Lemongrass Devata Stomp
5) Night Fires
6) Apsara Dream (To The Sacred Dancers of Angkor)
The video also features the wonderful Musicans of Neak Pean, one of several bands we saw playing traditional Khmer music in the temples. The music heard in the closing video clip is performed by the Musicians of Banteay Srey.
I was enchanted by Cambodia and hope to return there someday, to teach, to explore, to learn. Until such time there are the many fine memories and impressions which I share with you here.
My thanks to all those who helped to make our experience in Cambodia memorable and deeply rewarding: to Nathalie, Chan, Chan Tra and everyone at Maison Polanka; to Shila and all the staff and students at the Music for Everyone School; to Longdy, our kind and intrepid tuk-tuk driver; to Len, our wise and humorous guide; to the amazing Sacred Dancers of Angkor; to Hong and Den at Quad Adventure Cambodia; to all the Khmer musicians of Angkor.
Kiss of the Mango Rain
A Lyric for Cambodia
Here the midnight stars glow red
And roosters crow long before sunup.
With first light comes the chant of drums
And voices from the temple
Faint whisper of night’s leftover breeze
Rustling leaves of bamboo and mango trees
The strange sweet smoke of slash fires
Like incense inflames the senses
Invades the tangled mind of memories.
No dream is as dream-like
As this life we are born to visit.
By day it is ancient ruins
Stone mysteries lurking
In a landscape steeped in torporific heat
The hypnotic riffs and melodic hysteria
Of myriad jungle birds
Cicada hoards that roar unseen
Then grow tomb-silent.
Giant faces gaze from a lost age
With sly enigmatic smiles mostly
Though some appear ghostly
To be mourning a faded glory
An irretrievable esteem
They are kings, they are bodhisattvas
They are legend and they are dust
But their monuments still breathe
Life and pride into a people
Who share many burdens
Who bear many scars.
This land is heavy with memories of death
Scenes of carnage, depravity and torture
When sacred trees withered and died,
Their roots drowned in Khmer blood.
It is not possible to ignore the ghosts
Nor is it wise to play with them.
In this land flows venom and dark water.
In this land the White Bones Village screams
For retribution a million times over.
The seven-headed cobra has many eyes
And just as many fangs.
Only the enlightened being apprehends
The balance between justice and forgiveness.
But there is music grown here
Music whose blossoms heal
Nourished by the living
Victims of landmines
Crippled, maimed, and blind
Who keep Khmer music alive
In the shadows of Angkor’s shrines,
The wild strings and strains coursing
Through the laterite veins,
A blood-tuned ancestral modality
Chime of heart, gong of bone
High holy fidelity to the
Resilient melody of somehow living
This cursed and blessed life.
See the monks in bright orange robes
Shuffling over terraces carved with
Epic scenes of long ago
Men with bows, clubs, and spears
Horses and great elephants in battle
But these disciples have no interest
In the mythic war they survey
One is talking on a cell phone
As another lights a cigarette --
Buddha is in the details
And the statue of a smiling leper king
Lords silently over all.
Out in the sweltering countryside
Water buffalo plod through sun-baked paddies
As egrets huddle in ragged whispers.
Naked children play carefully by the road,
Their mothers and fathers
Aunts uncles brothers sisters
Work the dikes and dusty fields,
Cherish the shade of their stilt-raised houses.
Music from a nearby wedding
Dances in the red dirt road as
A man rides by on a motorbike with
Two dead pigs strapped to the rack,
Proud bearer of the nuptial feast.
There are many guests assembled
And the celebration will last several days.
At dusk on the spring equinox
Finally the sweet kiss of the mango rain
The pre-monsoon shower heaven-sent
To soothe the earth that aches
The bodies that thirst
After wilting months of dry.
Palm fronds tremble in the cool spatter
Frogs light out fresh on evening meanders
Geckos make with their noisy chatter
And the mangos
In the midnight wind
Begin to ripen.
(c) Eric Walter 2014
All rights reserved.
We encountered these young people in Angkor Wat. They were apparently waiting to perform but, unfortunately, the performance did not take place while we were there. I think I would have liked it.
It was not uncommon to see young children playing and congregating around ruin sites. We came across these little ones during our visit to Ta Som.
We met this wonderful artist at the temple of Ta Som. His name is Mong and he was one of several artists selling work there. We were drawn to him because of his beautiful paintings and his friendly smile.
This is Koeun. He fashions beautiful hand-painted t-shirts in the remote, little-visited temple of Ta Nei. Koeun explained to us that there is a pecking order for artists and craftsmen that sell in the temples of Angkor. Those with connections to police or other authorities are able to present in the larger, more-visited sites. Those without such connections, like Koeun, are relegated to the more remote sites like Ta Nei. At any rate, Ta Nei is a great site and Koeun is a nice young man who does lovely work. We bought two of his shirts.
This woman is the Buddhist caretaker at Chau Say Tevoda. During our visit to this small but beautiful temple, she gently beckoned us into her chamber. We placed a few dollars in the tray and she spoke a blessing while tying red bracelets to our wrists. We bowed three times to the image of the Buddha and lit three sticks of incense each. There was a lovely, quiet peace within the chamber. Outside, there was birdsong, and there were cicadas, children laughing, and tuk-tuks puttering. Before we left, our host permitted me to take this photograph. It is one of my favorites from the whole trip.
A glimpse into the countryside that surrounds Angkor in Siem Reap Province.
These are the beautiful young members of the dance troupe, Sacred Dancers of Angkor, welcoming our group to their conservatory in the village of Banteay Srey. We were there for a private performance arranged through our hosts at Maison Polanka. This is an amazing troupe dedicated to keeping alive traditional Khmer dance forms. Many of the dancers are from poor families of farmers but their devotion to their art is heartwarming and awe-inspiring. Their training includes daily meditation and prayer and their repertoire reflects a deep spiritual connection to their cultural heritage. The program they performed for us featured approximately fifteen dancers and eight musicians. It included a Cambodian creation myth called Preah Thong Neang Neak, a piece based on a story from the Hindu epic, The Ramayana (called Reamker in Khmer), and a powerful folk tale of love and faithfulness called Lakhorn Mahori.
The movements in Khmer dance are formally spare, elegantly precise. Yet within that formalism and precision there is powerfully realized emotion. The faces of all the dancers were so expressive, so emotionally in tune with the action of the dance. Two women served in lead roles throughout, dancing both female and male characters. They were marvelous - stunning beauty of features, graceful and enigmatic - whether expressing tragic grief or bestowing sly smiles like the ones on the faces in the temples of Angkor, they commanded attention and raised the level of the performance to that of high art.
The final dance on the program was a lovely Apsara dance, Robam Teap Apsor. Apsaras are the celestial nymphs born of the foam of the Churning of the Ocean Milk in Hindu mythology. These delightful figures are found everywhere in the carvings of Angkor and the dance itself was inspired by these images.
The whole performance was exquisite, enthralling, and inspiring. At the conclusion, I was invited up to play some of the instruments. I hammered out a feeble melody on the roneat (Khmer xylophone), embarrassing really, but the dancers and musicians applauded all the same. As we left, the dancers lined up (just as they had in greeting us) to bid us farewell. It was dark as we made our way to the van but we could hear the students, so formal throughout, now being dismissed and erupting into giggles and excited conversation. Out on the road, family members pulled up on motorcycles to take the kids home. Many of the dancers, we were told, rode their bicycles between home and the conservatory, some as far as ten kilometers each way.
Fires burned in the Cambodian night and a few raindrops spattered the dust on the windshield as we bumped along on the road back to Siem Reap. The images and sounds of a beautiful, spiritual evening lingered in my mind. They linger still.
It is part of the mission of our family band, Indalo Wind, to promote music as an instrument of goodwill, a tool for building bridges. In this spirit, we were determined to find a way to share our music while visiting Cambodia. Some months prior to the trip, Jacob and I figured out how we could travel with our instruments and Nikki took to the internet searching out possible venues. With help from the excellent folks at the fabulous, community-involved Maison Polanka (our lodgings in Cambodia), we were able to arrange a concert at a music school in Siem Reap. Music for Everyone School has been in operation not yet two years, but the energy and enthusiasm for music that flows from the place is palpable. The school was founded in June 2012 by Mr. Ponlok Shila, Cambodian, and Mr. Young Ly Soup, Korean. The school is non-profit and free to Cambodian students. It relies heavily on donations but is home to many instruments and provides basic lessons on guitar, ukulele, bass, piano, and drums. It has a sound system and ample space for rehearsal and performance. It currently provides instruction to about seventy students from Siem Reap and the surrounding area. MES also has a school in Laos.
Our involvement with the school while in Siem Reap was two-fold. In addition to playing a concert, we were requested to teach a ukulele class one morning while school was in session. (Ukulele is a great instrument for teaching music to children. Many in my generation learned music on the recorder, which I loved, but the thing you can't do while playing a recorder is SING.) We were not told the age or level of ability of the students beforehand so we just played it on the fly. As it happened, our students ranged between ages 8 and 14 and had varying degrees of ability, all in the beginner realm. The class began with them sharing two songs that they had learned, a Cambodian folk song in the Khmer language and "You Are My Sunshine" in English. They were terrific, boldly enthusiastic and genuinely happy to be playing music. Shila asked us if we could teach them a popular American song. We decided on one of my all-time favorites, a jovial two-chorder, "Jamabalaya" by the great Hank Williams. I explained (with Shila translating) a little bit about about how the swamps of Louisiana are not totally unlike the jungles of Cambodia and how the funny words in the song are from a dialect rooted in French, a language known to many Cambodians. I sang the song for them, Jacob taught them the strum and away we went. The room was sweltering, but apparently only for us, as the students seemed oblivious to the heat. (Daytime temperatures while we were there hovered around 36-38 degrees Celsius, that's high 90s to 100 degrees Fahrenheit and extremely humid.) Though Jacob and I were wilting, the students' energy kept us going and the hour passed very happily and much too quickly. We said "leah haey" ("goodbye"), knowing that we would return in two days for the concert.
We arrived at the school at 3:30 on a Sunday afternoon, removed our shoes, and went up to the main hall for sound-check. The room was very hot and there were fans whirring at full speed. There was major construction work happening right outside, flood control along the banks of the Siem Reap River, the sound of big machines moving many rocks. It was a bit chaotic but we managed the sound-check and waited for the room to fill. In addition to the MES staff & students, many of the staff from Maison Polanka were in attendance as were our brave traveling companions and esteemed supporters, Peter, Donna, & Emmaline. There were parents of students as well as interested passers-by eventually spilling out the hall and down the stairs. Shila introduced Indalo Wind and we played for a little over half an hour. Limited by instrumentation, we played but a very small part of our repertoire. In addition to the usual duets, I played some solo flute and Jacob amazed with his unique, ever-developing style on solo ukulele. The audience was beautifully attentive and responsive. Many were recording us on phones or tablets.
After our set, we were treated to music prepared by the students. A rock ensemble of teen students shared two of their songs, one sung in Khmer and one in English, both featuring nice instrumentation and some good harmony singing. We also heard from the younger ukulele ensemble and from some of the more advanced musicians including a former student guitarist/singer who is now volunteer staff. As much as the students might have enjoyed the odd music of some visiting Americans, their true delight was in seeing their friends and family-members up on the stage doing their own thing. There was much laughter, hand-clapping and toe-tapping, many smiles; it was truly a joyful event. When the concert ended, we took pictures and said our goodbyes. We made a donation to the school and also left a bag of Indalo Wind guitar picks with Shila to hand out to the students as souvenirs of our happy exchange. Some students were still plugged in and jamming as we made our way out into the bustle and noise of Siem Reap.
As to building bridges...I believe that was accomplished, amidst a joyous sharing of music among people from very different worlds. I am proud to have been part of that. And Indalo Wind is thrilled and delighted to now have friends and fans on the other side of the globe! Peace through music.
Many thanks to Ponlok Shila, Nikki Walter, Peter Charvat, Donna Van Winkle, Nathalie Saphon, Vong Chan In, and the staff and students at MES.
Here's a video featuring footage from the Music for Everyone School and Maison Polanka:
Though it is not a big city, Siem Reap, Cambodia offers some rather challenging traffic. A tuk-tuk is a great way to get around. It puts one closer to the action, affords a maneuverability denied to cars, and provides greater comfort and safety than a motorbike, or moto. That being said, not all tuk-tuk drivers have the same regard for safety...and accidents do happen.
While in Siem Reap, we were lucky to acquire the tuk-tuk driving services of one Longdy Ouk. Longdy guided us expertly and safely through the streets of Siem Reap, along the roads to the temples, and out into the Cambodian countryside.
Longdy was always courteous and reliable. He explained a great deal to us about the temples and Cambodian culture. He shared stories of his life, his achievements, and his goals for the future. Twenty-seven years old, he is named Longdy after the French lundi, because he was born on a Monday. He is studying to become a licensed temple guide and then plans to marry his girlfriend of three years. A good man with a quiet humor and a gentle soul, Longdy came to be our friend.
The following video compiles clips of various journeys taken during our stay. It is rough but it provides a glimpse of the adventures we had riding with Longdy.
While in Cambodia we were fortunate to encounter some mesmerizing and inspiring music. Some of the temples of Angkor have “resident” bands that play traditional Khmer music. Many of the musicians are victims of the violence of landmines, having been crippled, maimed, or blinded. Young children also participate in the music-making. The bands use donations and proceeds from CD sales to support themselves and others who have been victimized by the weapons of war.
We were deeply moved by their playing and by their dedication to using music as an instrument of healing. We purchased CDs from all four different bands we came upon. The music is a treasure.