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Cambodia’s Joan Sutherland

In Search of Cambodia’s Joan Sutherland

by Graham Earnshaw

This Cambodian story begins, believe it or not, with the American guitarist Pat Metheny, one of the world’s best jazz musicians. When he performed in Hong Kong in August 1992, I had an opportunity to talk to him about his new album, Secret Story, which includes as its first track a piece based on music credited to the Cambodian Royal Palace Female Choir. The Khmer singing on the track is hauntingly beautiful with a feel and inflection that by coincidence is quite bluesy. Thanks to Metheny’s re-working of this melody, the glory of Khmer classical music, slightly re-packaged, were given wider exposure than ever before.

I asked Metheny about the Cambodian music, and he said he had heard it at some point and decided to use it, but had no idea of its origin or meaning. Having an opportunity to visit Cambodia, and being a serious Metheny fan, I decided to try to fill in the gaps.

My excuse for this trip was the formal opening of the Phnom Penh bureau of the news agency I worked for in a comfortable, roomy villa at the splendid address 59B, Lenin Boulevard.

Phnom Penh had changed enormously in the six months since I was last there – busier, more congested. But the charming French-built aspect of the city was still there too in the tree-lined boulevards, the dilapidated old villas, and the excellent French bread. The city was a mess of course. But at least it was crowded again – it was hard to believe it had been a ghost town just 13 years ago under the Khmer Rouge. Everyone had a heart-tearing tale to tell about how their families were pulled apart or killed during the Pol Pot years. The best story was how the Khmer Rouge, to indicate their contempt for capitalism, blew up the state bank soon after their victory in 1975 and the sky rained banknotes for days.

The United Nations was now the most powerful organisation in Phnom Penh, and with the influx of thousands of U.N. personnel, each with 160 dollars a day per diem to spend, it was also the mainstay of the burgeoning Cambodian economy. The streets were filled with U.N. four-wheel drives. It was a real cowboy town. Troops from Ghana rubbed shoulders with Cambodian cyclo drivers, Japanese military police and Bulgarian police inspectors. There was no real law except for the U.N. On the road into town from the airport, our taxi was scraped badly on the side by a local police truck, the driver of which was clearly at fault. The Cambodian policemen laughed, our taxi-driver kept moving.

I had a copy of Metheny’s song with me and hoped to track down the choir, although there was no telling what had happened to them, especially given the barbarity of the Pol Pot regime in the late 1970s during which thousands of intellectuals and artists were summarily executed.

First stop was Phnom Penh’s University of Fine Arts, a collection of run-down buildings surrounded by mud. I played the Metheny tape for a young staff member in the dean’s office, who recognised it immediately as a piece of religious music. He said he thought it had been recorded about 1960. I asked if any of the singers were still alive, and he promised to arrange for three of them to come the following morning at 8am to hear the tape.

Back at the bureau, there was some excitement – a key road bridge about 70 km north of Phnom Penh had been blown up, and it was assumed that it was the Khmer Rouge thumbing their noses at the U.N. It seemed like a fitting moment to go and visit the “Killing Fields”, the mass graves of some of the Khmer Rouge’s victims about 20 km outside the city.

Pol Pot’s people killed and buried around 20 000 people here during their four-year reign of terror in the late 1970s. A commemorative stupa dominating the fields contains 8,000 skulls, divided up in gender and age groups. Most have either long gashes on the side, caused by an axe blow, or a hole from the jab of a steel spike. The barbarity of it is sickening. As you walk round the excavated grave pits, you can kick loose teeth and buttons lying in the dust. There are leg bones sticking up out of the ground, and bits of clothing working their way to the surface. To one side is a tree and a pit in which was found the remains of more than 100 children. The guide said the smaller children were picked up by the ankles and smashed against the tree, then dumped into the pit. History teaches nothing.

But the guide said the peasants who tend the rice and the cattle nearby have no hesitation about spending the night there when necessary. “There are no ghosts here,” he said, almost in surprise. “They sleep very peacefully.”

Incredibly, the people who did this were still out there, a part of the Cambodian political game. But then, there are no absolute goodies in the Cambodian political mess, it’s all just a matter of degree.

The local experts said there’s no way of knowing what’s going to happen in Cambodia, and the smart businessmen were doing deals which involved quick return on investment. But between the Thai trading companies, the bordello bosses from Vietnam, and the Chinese businessmen from everywhere, there was a lot of money rattling around in Cambodia. You could grab a slice of it if you were willing to bear the risk.

A Swiss chef from Bangkok had moved his entire operation including Thai waiters and waitresses to Phnom Penh, and had opened a large restaurant downtown close to the dome-shaped central market. The food was excellent (particularly the chocolate fudge cake), and business was booming. There were also a growing number of foreigner-run clubs and bars, with names like Cafe No Problem, the Minefield and the Gekko Club.

And in spite of the political uncertainties, the corruption, the traffic jams and the air pollution, Cambodians seemed to have a growing sense of hope in the future, something they had lacked for a long time.

After one dinner, we went with Serge, a flamboyant Corsican photographer with an award-winning handlebar moustache, to his favorite nightspot, a wooden hut on a back street which served as a bar/restaurant/whorehouse. The roof leaked copiously when it rained, the walls were adorned with pictures of white weddings, and in the centre of the room was a Christmas tree. The girls, the mamasan and the old cook were all from Vietnam, as were the guys who ran them and collected half the cash they earned. We ate melon seeds, and had a few drinks, and there was a power cut. Serge stretched out on his canvas chair in the flickering shadows next to the Christmas tree. “Ah,” he sighed, “this is the real Phnom Penh.”

The next morning, I went back to the Fine Arts University with Serge and an interpreter from the foreign ministry, and we inquired again about the singers. There appeared to be no knowledge of our previous visit, but an official took us to a room where a dozen young girls were in the middle of their rigorous training in traditional Cambodian dance, which like Thai and Balinese dancing is based on delicate hand and body movements requiring years to master and a suppleness of body that western ballet dancers can only dream of.

Two old ladies there to instruct the girls had been members of the Cambodian Royal Palace Dance Troupe since they were six or seven years old. They listened with interest to the Metheny song, and recognised the Cambodian singing instantly. Perhaps recorded around 1950, they said.

But they said they had not been the singers – they were dancers. I asked if they knew who the singers were, and they said the lead singer was a lady named Em Theay, known for her distinctive high-pitched voice. She is still alive, they said. Where is she? We were directed to a theatre on the other side of town.

At the theatre, we were told the lady had been around earlier in the day, but had gone home, and may or may not return later in the day. We asked that a message be relayed to her and said we would return after lunch.

With a few hours on our hands, Serge and I went round to the Royal Palace in central Phnom Penh, where Prince Norodom Sihanouk was due to meet with 300 handicapped people, and distribute to them goods donated by Japanese companies.

Getting into the Royal Palace compound took a bit of fast talking at the gate, but a Hong Kong ID card, a friend’s borrowed U.N. pass, and a camera did the trick. The palace was magnificent, a vast lawned enclosure dominated by several golden pointed-roofed pagodas. It could have been the set for The King And I.

Sihanouk lived here during the golden years of the 1950s and 1960s, then fled to Peking and the jungles after the Lon Nol coup in 1971, returning with the Khmer Rouge in 1975. For the next four years, the palace was his prison, while outside the Khmer Rouge bludgeoned the country back into the Stone Age, killing perhaps a million people in the process. When the Khmer Rouge were driven out of Phnom Penh by the Vietnamese invasion in late 1978, Sihanouk escaped to Peking, and miraculously managed to navigate his way through the treacherous minefields of Cambodian politics during 13 years of exile, returning to the Royal Palace as the titular head of Cambodia once more in early 1992.

Like so much about Cambodia, there was a farcical aspect to the ceremony that day. Sihanouk arrived at the Shadow of the Moon pavilion with his North Korean guards, and shook hands with everyone in sight. A Japanese shoe company had brought in 300 pairs of shoes to donate to handicapped people, about half of whom had only one leg (Cambodia is littered with mines planted during decades of war). The shoes included pairs of cream leather slip-ons, purple sneakers and bright red ladies’ shoes. Almost totally useless to Cambodian peasant farmers, of course, even if they had TWO legs.

Sihanouk, who was no fool, spotted the irony. “If you can’t use these beautiful shoes, then you can sell them to get some money to help your families,” he told the crowd.

At 3pm, we returned to the theatre, and we were in luck. Madame Em was there waiting for us. She was a smiling lady who looked like everyone’s favorite grandmother. She was also, at 61, her country’s greatest living classical singer, the Joan Sutherland of Cambodia.

We asked her where we could go to play her the song, and she said that she had a tape recorder at home. The photographer leaped at this idea, and after some discussion Madame Em agreed to take us to her home. We arrived just as an afternoon rainstorm broke. The single room, owned by her son, was on the second floor of a concrete block above a bar sporting a large sign saying Guinness Is Good For You. Her daughter and niece were sewing sequins onto cloth strips by the window.

We extracted a small boombox hifi unit from under a cloth, plugged it in, and placed it next to where Madame Em was sitting on the floor. As the rain poured outside, I put on the tape, and she listened to the song, her hand tapping her knee slowly in time, and singing the melody quietly to herself, stopping to listen to Metheny’s embellishments. Serge snapped away in the corner.

I asked her who it was that was singing.

“That is me singing,” she replied. “There were three of us altogether. We went to America and sung the song there in 1971. Perhaps it was recorded then. I’m not sure. We recorded this piece many times.”

The original music, she said, was a prayer song performed in honour of the gods and spirits to ensure the well-being of the king and the people. Metheny has taken one of the four verses as the basis of his tune, the first verse, which she said states simply that once upon a time there were seven dancers for the entertainment of the gods. The other verses go on to describe the different forms in which the dancers are manifested.

And her assessment of Metheny’s effort to achieve a harmonious twinning of this religious chant with his jazz-inflected guitar and synthesisers?

“The way he has done it is good, but I wish the recording could have been done after he had met me, so that he could have got the combination right,” she said.

“It would have been better if he had waited until the end of each stage of my singing before starting the western music. He has cut off the end of some sections.”

“But please send him a message that I appreciate his work,” she added.

As the Cambodian singing gave way to Metheny’s guitar, she continued to sing the melody as it had existed for generations before Metheny re-cut it.

Madame Em was unsure who wrote the original melody or when.

“But it has existed for at least five or six generations. My great grandmother sang it, my children sing it, and my grand-daughter is learning the art.”

Her life reflects fully the tragedy of modern Cambodia. She first visited the Royal Palace with her mother, who was also a member of the palace choir, and started to sing at the age of six. She remained a full-time member of the choir until the Khmer Rouge take-over in 1975. Then she was driven out of the city into the countryside along with the rest of Phnom Penh’s population, and forced to do manual labour, planting rice.

“Some people asked me to sing for them, and I did just for fun. When the Khmer Rouge found out I was a member of the Royal Choir, they wanted to xecute me, but I managed to escape by saying I had been thrown out of the choir during the Lon Nol time and had taken up selling vegetables.” She laughed. “It wasn’t true, but I had to lie to survive.”

The other two singers with her on the tape were not so lucky. “One was my teacher, the other my pupil. They were both executed during the Pol Pot regime,” she said.

The standard of classical singing in Cambodia is not what it was, she said, which is hardly surprising given the disruptions and bloodletting of the past two decades.

“But the standard is still fairy good. I am a teacher now,” she said.

Asked how her best student compared with herself in her prime, she replied proudly: “My best student can’t compete with me even now.”

Uncharacteristically immodest, but no doubt true.

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