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Cambodian Group Preserves Musical, Cultural DNA

"What I know must be recorded so that this work will not disappear after my death," Mann Men said. "These students can continue it."

Mann Men composes and performs traditional Cambodian wedding music, a genre he calls older than Buddha. One of its few remaining masters, he says the sound is at risk of disappearing as fellow musicians age and die.

Because this particular form of indigenous Cambodian sound exists only in two provinces, it is vital, he says, to pass his skillset on to the next generation.

"What I know must be recorded so that this work will not disappear after my death," he says. "These students can continue it."

With a grant from the U.S. Ambassador’s Fund, Mann Men (pronounced mahn mine) and other Khmer music masters are working with the cultural preservation group Cambodian Living Arts to record and promote their sound.

Founded in 1998 by a Cambodian-American activist whose family of artists was murdered by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, the group teaches traditional dance and music to younger generations, often on scholarships, as part of an effort to revive what was nearly lost forever.

"Art is like the DNA of a culture," says the group's program manager Song Seng, explaining that Khmer Rouge extremists killed off 90 percent of the country’s artists, nearly wiping out entire art forms in their pursuit of a communist utopia. "So it is important for CLA to support it, because, without DNA, Khmer culture will disappear."

"There really just aren't many masters left in Cambodia or the world, so we want to work with Cambodia to preserve what is left so that it can be here for future generations," says Michelle Bennett, spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh.

But for students like fourteen-year-old Lay Roza (pronounced lie roe-zah), who is learning to play the “small kong” (gong), it's not only about history and preservation.

"I saw others playing it beautifully, so I wanted to play it too," he says.

Although Cambodian Living Arts hosts an annual Youth Arts Festival, they're planning to take their program on the road in 2013, with a scheduled stop in New York City. Called the “Season of Cambodia,” the traveling program hopes to find new audiences for traditional arts by introducing Americans to Cambodian music, dance, theater, visual arts, and film.