WASHINGTON D.C. — Cambodia’s first all-female drum troupe, who have captured the public’s attention with their highly skilled performances of an art form traditionally reserved for men, are the subject of a forthcoming American film documentary called ‘Where the Roots Lie’.
Katy Harliss and Tori La Desma, two Los Angeles-based women who are jointly directing and producing the film, said they wanted to tell the group’s story, as their artistic performances are impressive and break new ground for women and girls in Cambodia.
“Their message and their power, and their bravery is something that we wanna share,” Harliss told VOA Khmer.
“Their purpose is to empower other women and to show that you don’t have to remain in your place to make ends meet,” added La Desma.
Wisdom to Move Forward
Called “Medha”, which means the wisdom to move forward in Khmer, the seven-member ensemble was founded in 2017 by Sang Sreypich, 28, and Men Mao, 35, after they met during a music workshop organized by Cambodian Living Arts.
The organization supports training and preservation of traditional arts and culture, which was almost wiped out during Cambodia’s civil war.
Medha first performed in 2018 at its Heritage Hub, located in Siem Reap’s Wat Bo Pagoda. They immediately caught the attention with their choreography and mastery of the large drums and other traditional instruments, such as xylophones and string instruments.
Medha’s members said they had trained hard to perform with the heavy instruments and carry out the complex choreography.
“At the beginning, all I know is how to hit the drum and my hands were swollen,” said Sang Sreypich.
‘It Is Possible If We Try’
They also have had to overcome conservative attitudes about gender roles that still prevail in Cambodian society and among musicians, who are traditionally men.
“My husband said having a female drum troupe is pointless,” Mehda member Choeung Pheak said in a trailer for the documentary.
Sang Sreypich told VOA Khmer, “I have no problem with my family, but the challenge is outsiders, especially some male artists, who say playing drums does not fit women, [and that] women won’t last long.”
Speaking of her motivation, she said, “The creation of my group, first, is for myself. Second, in the 21st century… I want to create something new for the next generation and myself.
“Third, this group was created to encourage women that whatever they think of doing, they can try to do. It is possible if we try and we will do it.”
The two American directors are working with Medha’s manager Song Seng, of the Cambodian Living Arts, and an all-Cambodian film crew. They expect to complete the filming by 2020.
Harlis said the documentary would show the group’s talent and skill, and spread its message that with determination you can overcome traditional attitudes and reach your goals.
“Even when society said that an instrument is not appropriate for women, they are proving that wrong and they are extremely talented. It is so powerful when you listen to these drums,” she said.
“You can do whatever you set your mind to, whether the two of us taking on a film in Cambodia, or Medha being female drummers who want to inspire other women and other people”, she added.