Sounding the Spirit of Cambodia: The Living Tradition of Khmer Music and Dance-drama in a Washington, DC Community

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Pecore, Joanna Theresa
Robertson, Carol E.
McCarthy, Marie F.
Smith-Hefner, Nancy J.
Pacholczyk, Jozef M.
Since the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia in 1975, the desire to preserve, reconstruct, and document Khmer performing arts has motivated many important projects that aim to strengthen these traditions worldwide. These projects typically focus on dance and promote the notion that authenticity is linked with ethnicity and the geographical designation, Cambodia. This presentation stands in stark contrast to the reality of the devoted activities of living artists who keep these traditions alive across the globe. Additionally, Khmer music usually exists as an audible yet forgotten soundtrack to these projects. When it is recognized, listings of instruments, descriptions of musical structure, names of ensemble types, and pages of notation (that many Khmer musicians themselves cannot read) frequently overshadow its human dimensions. Major chasms divide current scholarship from musical practice. To help bridge these gaps, this dissertation takes readers on a visit to a community that lives and breathes Khmer music and dance-drama today in the Washington, DC area. It explores the experience of more than forty individuals who participate in the activities of Cambodian American Heritage in Virginia and the Cambodian Buddhist Society in Maryland. Ethnographic "sound-spheres"constructed from interviews, conversations, and observationsjoin their stories. A bifocal lensincluding the experience of the author as a music student and that of her teacher, master musician, Ngek Chumorganizes the "sound-spheres." They are arranged according to "four concentric worlds of musical meaning" (musical experience, local community, the United States, and the world) that illuminate the dual reality of historical, geographical, political, economic, social, and cultural change and the enduring timeless, placeless essences of the tradition. This collective story illustrates the fundamental role that music (especially pin peat) plays in linking contemporary residents of the Washington, DC area to the spirit of an ancient, distant Cambodia. It demonstrates how Khmer music: 1) unifies sound, movement, story, and social interaction, 2) embodies cultural ideals that resonate across Buddhism, transmission processes, and performance, 3) retains lessons about the continuity of life and exceptional conduct, and 4) balances personal with group needs.