In 1990, Catherine Geach, an 18-year-old violin student at the Royal Academy of Music in London, came to Cambodia for the first time.
Her aim was to compile a report on the violation of human rights by the Khmer Rouge, but because of her passion for music and the arts, she took a teaching position in Cambodia’s University of Fine Arts.
Over the years, she has learned to play Cambodian instruments and become a major supporter of Cambodian arts. She founded the Khmer Cultural Development Institute, in Kampot.
Geach, who is now 42 and lives in Italy, told VOA Khmer recently that this had taught her greater compassion for humanity.
“I saw Khmer drama and traditional music were so poor,” she said. “There was no teacher, and students could not come to school because they were very poor. I requested funds from the British Embassy to give support to Khmer traditional music students, enabling them to attend lessons because they were very poor, and they had to help their parents to support the family. I was afraid that traditional music would disappear because at that time, many teachers died. There was nothing, nothing at all. Sometimes, teachers received no salary, but rice.”
Geach chose Kampot to build an institute because it was once considered an important cultural center and because of its great natural beauty: mountains, river and sea. Yet in the early 1990s, the Khmer Rouge controlled Phnom Vor mountain and surrounding areas and waged war on the local population, killing and stealing.
As a result, the rural population was very poor. Children often couldn’t go to school. There was no electricity, clean water or health care, and there were a lot of mines and shootings. At that time, there were also extremely few international NGOs, and many children were orphaned and also disabled because of polio and mines.
“In the 1990s, there were a lot of Khmer Rouges at Phnom Vor mountain in Kampot, and they afflicted suffering Khmer people, so there were very few international organizations,” Geach said. “No one cared about people in Kampot.”
It took her two years to convince donors to fund her project because she was very young and they were afraid she might make mistakes or lose money.
Her music school, which was funded by the British, Canadians and Japanese, started to accept children in 1994. The school selects children in coordination with the government’s department of social affairs and culture. The school teaches traditional dance, Pin Peat music, and Mahori music, and Yike, taught by skillful professors from the Royal University of Fine Arts.
Geach said that to maintain Khmer arts, we must teach skills to future generations and be responsible for poor and vulnerable children.
“Our Khmer people were extremely poor and in the early morning before I went to teach at the Royal University of Fine Arts, ill children came to me because my place had first aid kits and medicine,” she said. “I think that to keep Khmer culture, we must be responsible for poor children or orphans.”
Music contributes to mental health, especially for disabled soldiers affected by the war, she said.
“We went to Kean Khlaing, a place to help disable soldiers, because they suffered from mines, and they were angry, and some wanted to commit suicide,” she recalled. “When we taught them Khmer traditional music, they were very happy.”
Her life experience taught her how to love humans more, she said, and made her fully understand people’s hardships, especially after members of her own family died. She used money inherited from her grandparents to purchase materials and food for the school before finding funding.
“Between 1991 and 1992, my grandmother died, my mom committed suicide, my grandfather died, then my father died, and my aunt died,” she said. “Their deaths helped me understand people’s hardship. When we are so used to living an easy life, we do not pity people. When we are used to living in a hardship, we could at least understand the situation, and we pity people.”
Over 500 children have now graduated from the school. Many have gone on to become teachers, professional musicians and artists, or officials in the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. Some work in other sectors, such as accounting or economics, and some have their own families.
After over 10 years as a volunteer director at her school, Geach was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the spine and had to have expert care in Italy. She has since returned to her own career as a concert violinist. She still visits her school in Cambodia regularly to monitor the progress of the school.