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: