from The Cambodian Daily, May 17, 2000

Musicians Proving Their Will To Survive Is Well-Tuned

by Jody McPhillips

Sous Somaly was so hungry for music after the Khmer Rouge were driven from power that she made herself ill, straining to make up for lost time.

Three times, she burst blood vessels in her throat as she struggled to master the breath control needed to play traditional Khmer woodwinds.

But she wouldn't quit "I said I don't care if I die, playing music I love," she says. "I had lost so many members of my family that I figured, what does it matter?"

One scholar wrote that the slaughter between 1975-79 reduced Cambodia's population of 380,000 artists and intellectuals to about 3,000.

Among those survivors were Sous Somaly, Chhorn Samart and Ruos Visna, who will present a free concert of Khmer traditional music tonight at 6 at the Reyum Gallery, on Street 178 across from the National Museum.

The musicians say it will be a rare opportunity for audiences to learn about Khmer instruments and the history of traditional music. Commentary will be in Khmer and English.

The musicians, who are in their 40s and 50s, were all aspiring artists before the Khmer Rouge came to power. They soon learned they needed to hide their abilities in order to survive.

"I lied, and said I was just a farmer," singer Ruos Visna said. But, she said, "I used to sneak off sometimes, and sing for myself."

In 1979, the musicians gravitated to the Department of Performing Arts at the Ministry of Culture. From an initial group of about 10, the department now numbers more than 300.

Chhorn Samart, who both sings and plays a variety of instruments, had begun training as a classical dancer before the war.

"We just tried to stay alive, and not show what we knew," he said. With the population of artists decimated, many took up additional instruments or disciplines.

In addition to tonight’s concert, the gallery will also host an evening of Khmer dance and music Saturday at 7:30 PM, including excerpts from the Lakhaoun Khaol classic drama and the Small Shadow Puppet Theater.

Both performances win be free, but the audience is encouraged to make donations. The performers earn less than $20 per month and supplement their incomes with such private events.