There’s real magic in the mountainous Cambodian province of Mondulkiri. I get an overwhelming sense of this as soon as I arrive here in the district capital Senmonorom. There’s something in the air alright, I mean after 7hrs in a jam-packed minibus from Phnom Penh, the first thing you feel immediately on arrival is a big gulp of crisp, mountain-fresh air! But there’s more than this, for me it’s a place where I really feel a sense of the spirit of the mountains, feel compelled to listen and learn about the place and I’m especially drawn to a little village where I’ve kept returning to over this last decade. This is Bou’Sraa village and I’m back again, doing my sixth or seventh trip, to seek out the music and the musicians of the arts & culture troupe led by heroic indigenous Bunong woman named Sorng Brou aka Somboro.
For the ethnic Bunong and many of the hill tribes of South East Asia, the national borders here in the mountains have always been porous. Sorng Brou was born on the Vietnamese side in 1966, witnessed and survived the “American War” and eventually moved with family members to Bou’Sraa, a traditional homeland of the Bunong on the Cambodian side of the mountains of Mondulkiri. Sorng Brou is indigenous Bunong – a cultural custodian, a community leader, an activist and an artist, and is my first point of contact when reaching out to the artists and musicians of the mountains. Over the years we have worked together to bring, on several occasions, her community’s arts & culture troupe to Phnom Penh and also to Kampot (KRWF), where Sorng Brou told me that none of her 6-member troupe (aged between 11 and 93) had never seen the sea! But, many of our audience at these events had never set eyes upon or indeed heard, the voices and music of the Bunong and each time we’ve worked together, something magic does happen!
I’m told that in the Bunong language there are no words for ‘time’ or ‘space’… no means to measure time or distance, everything is a continuum and when I get a chance to speak with my friends from the mountains, I get a deeper understanding and respect for this thinking, a way of life that has largely stayed the same for as long as a memory… but things are changing for the Bunong… Their way of life and the natural environment where they’ve lived is under threat (as is the case for indigenous people virtually everywhere) but one thing that remains strong and is a vital link to both the future and ancient past, is the music and poetic storytelling traditions of the Bunong. I’m returning this time, firstly, because I’ve can’t reach my friends on the phone (their numbers keep changing) and secondly to again, invite the arts troupe to perform at our annual festivals but another question is on my mind, would my friends in Bou’Sraa be open to working together on a film – perhaps a better way to show and indeed preserve their cultural heritage – and would it be okay if this film, already titled Echoes Across The Mountains, could pose at least one question in regards to music, culture and fast-changing times – can folk music save the world?
Up early again…ahh the fresh air up in these here mountains is wonderful – la weh! in Bunong language. It’s also great to be working with Sam Dara (my co-producer for Cambodian Women of Song) who is also a 4th arts student at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh and is a vital part of our work, especially through translating conversation and ideas.
Dara’s also a great singer and we’re writing and recording new music together as well as producing other emerging artists for our ongoing work to produce and present Cambodian Women of Song. Part of the visit here to seek out the tribal Bunong musicians of Bou’Sraa, is to invite indigenous women singers to become part of the CWoS project too, they’re a vital part of Cambodian culture – Khmer Leur – and represent the ethnic diversity found across the Kingdom. Hopefully, we’ll soon be presenting, recording and sharing all this further afield, but right now, the sun’s up and it’s time to get to work.
Recording Bunong songs means listening to oral history, songs, language and poetry passed down from generation to generation. Until recent years, many Bunong, and many of the hill tribespeople of the region (the highlands of Southeast Asia, covering 2.5 million square kilometers and home to between 80 million and 100 million people), lived in the forest and followed their own political system by choice, not as necessity. In oral cultures, the songs, stories, and poetry are the histories, the age-old links to culture, spirit & place, they explain social facts that may be puzzling or represent a problem for the society. The Bunong generally explain such facts by linking them to events that are said to have happened in the immemorial past, at a time when gods, heroes, and humans were still one big community. In traditional terms of reasoning, these philosophical stories of causation explained everything from the origins of the temples of Angkor Wat to why elephants, given their great size and strength, deferred to the Bunong – famous as the elephant keepers and masters of the forests in eastern Cambodia.
I’ve been reading up a lot lately on the story of folklorist Alan Lomax and drawing inspiration from ideas like this great quote:
“The essence of America lies not in the headlined heroes … but in the everyday folds who live and die unknown, yet leave their dreams as legacies.”– Alan Lomax
Reading through biographic notes on Lomax, I’m also thinking about his numerous work and drive, especially in writing to institutions such as Smithsonian and other cultural organizations, seeking funding only to be knocked back on more occasions than not – it’s something that resonates with me, it’s damn hard work and a big commitment to keep a focus on putting in time and reaching out for funding support to make this kind of work happen – it’s the kind of thing that’s not always seen of immediate value but is immensely significant over time… I’m not making any personal comparison to Lomax – my motivations and work ethic are probably a bit more ‘rock’n’roll’ – whatever that means? I’m not as driven or committed as I’d like to be but I do put in a lot of time working on things that will probably never see the light of day because there’s simply not the opportunity to make this happen as effectively as I’d like.
So yeah, I can relate to this part of the Lomax story, and while it can be disheartening at times, it’s also the inspiration to keep going! Alan Lomax made it clear that merely presenting work “divorced from the social conditions that had spawned it”, or simply talent-spotting for recording stars, was not his objective – it’s not mine either. In fact, I moved to Cambodia to move away as far as possible from the mainstream recording industry. But this also means, that again, I’m reaching out to kindred spirits, friends, and supporters of our work here in Cambodia, while just getting on with things, hoping each time, to find the means to make it possible! yet again, reaching out to keep the wheels in motion.
A vanishing world and a matter of global urgency.
Through the visits and interviews and song recordings that I’ve made over the past tens years while visiting Bou’Sraa, my thoughts and feelings – from listening to those I meet sing of land, life, spirit & place – often leads to thoughts turning to how the rich and powerful are buying up the mountains, forests, waterways, land and all its wealth from under the feet of the poor. In amongst this scramble for valuable resources, it’s the plight of Cambodia’s indigenous minorities, not least the Bunong, that illustrates a problem of global significance.
On this most recent trip, I really went with the mission to seek permission from my friends in Bou’Sraa and to ask if they would support and allow me to begin putting some of my thoughts and findings into a film – a film about their own lives and experience told through music and made for the purpose of not only recording history and heritage but for the urgent need to share this experience with the world.
I wanted to ask Sorng Brou about her recent trip to Paris – the last time I’d met with her she’d been waiting on her first passport and told me that she would join a group of 9 tribal representatives to attend a high court in France to fight for land being claimed by French giant Socfin KCD – I later read that this was a fight against landgrab that had been going on for many years and the Bunong had failed to make progress through the Cambodian court system so, with the help of international lawyers, were now pinning hope on taking the matter to court in France.
I listened to Sorng Brou sing a new song she’d recently written and this was in response to the loss of indigenous land and her people’s trip to France. At first, their visas were denied by the French Embassy in Phnom Penh – this was a familiar story to me, after all, CSP’s first trip abroad was to France and when Channthy’s visa application was rejected she also came away from that experience and put it into song – Have Visa No Have Rice! I explained this to Sorng Brou who let out her infectious laugh and fondly remembers Channthy and my first visit to Mondulkiri.
Sorng Brou, hadn’t heard that Channthy had passed away until this recent visit. It was ten years ago, that I first came to Mondulkiri and at the time, the trip was really inspired by the first song that Channthy had written and recorded for the Cambodian Space Project, a song called Mondulkiri where she’s calling to a mountain spirit to wish for good luck. I reminded Sorng Brou of this visit and explained the reason we’d first arrived in the mountains, we talked about spirit and of our friends and family who have passed away since that time, especially the musicians and storytellers – from her own community, elder Lok Ta, blind singer-songwriter Nyel Che, Nyel Che’s brother who is pictured carrying the bunch of wooden instruments in the poster for Echoes Across the Mountain. In fact, I was showing this picture while we spoke and only learned that this young man was also gone.
For these reasons, I explained that I felt like I should work now – to assemble a film and to share our music and stories – as life is short and if we don’t do this now it will be too late. If we can put our music and our stories into film or at least stories that can be shared then this will be around for generations to come and, I suggested, sometimes music might event be a louder and more effective voice than lawyers… perhaps a folk song can help save the world (or at least influence it). My friend Sorng Brou (we share birth year 1966) readily agreed.
So, as we enter 2020 I’ll be working with Sorng Brou and our musicians and artists to make the film Echoes Across the Mountains – perhaps even a kind of “Mondulkiri Space Project!” I know this is something Channthy would have loved to see too, so, friends, let’s see if we can make this happen!
Voix du mondulkiri historique (“Traditional Voices of Mondulkiri”)
As a footnote, I must add that back in 2016 when I worked for the second occasion to present the Culture Troupe of Bou’Sra in Phnom Penh and as a highlight of The Kampot Readers & Writers Festival, I did as much research as I could, and this led me to the extraordinary life and work of French linguist Dr. Sylvain Vogel.
Dr. Vogel spent many years studying and writing about the Bunong and their language, oral stories and songs and his work spans four books on the Bunong including tour de force Voix du mondulkiri historique (“Traditional Voices of Mondulkiri”). In conversation on the vanished language (and identity) of the Bunong, Sylvain remarked that the disappearance of a culture, however it happens, is a loss for humanity. Vogel points out that this is not a new phenomenon; whether it is the Sioux in the American plains, the Aborigines in Tasmania, “ethnic minority cultures have been losing ground to the great powers for centuries.”
“I offer no solutions. No wishful thinking, no politically correct language, or bleeding hearts can change a thing. I was only a witness who watched, with great sadness and a feeling of helplessness, the disappearance of a culture.”Dr Sylvain Vogel, quoted by writer Peter Magquire in The Diplomat “Sylvain Vogel’s World of Extreme Linguistics”
But back to a more Lomax way of approaching things, I’m certainly no scholar, anthropologist, linguist or even ethnomusicologist but I do share the view that music, especially folk songs, does reach across generations and in the case of vanishing cultures, such as the Bunong, there’s much hope for cultural preservation which can be achieved by wider communication using music and art that is more easily accessible and easier understood than dense scholarly that are often texts locked away in museums and libraries. So, I hope that through our work in creating Echoes Across the Mountains – can and will contribute to saving something remarkable – the unique language and music of the Bunong – and inspire future generations.
To conclude, and perhaps further illustrate the matter of recording and preserving folk song, I’m thinking of the haunting recording, made in my own homeland, Tasmania – A voice reaching across time, recorded by Dr Horace Watson in 1899. This is the voice Fanny Cochrane Smith (1834–1905) who is considered to be the last fluent speaker of a Tasmanian language, and her wax cylinder recordings of songs are the only audio recordings of any of Tasmania’s indigenous languages.