I began my journey as a student of Khmer classical music in 1996 when I visited Cambodian American Heritage, an organization based in Arlington, Virginia. I was impressed with the large gathering of teachers and students who were earnestly rehearsing Khmer music and dance. I was also struck by the enchanting sounds of the xylophone that simultaneously floated about the room and created a palpable energy as it met periodically with the complex pulsation of the hand drum.
I was even more astounded when I realized that this symphonic feast was the work of just two artists: master musician Ngek Chum and his son, Sovann. I wanted to learn how to play.
Since that time, in a typical year, I would slowly improve my skills by learning and rehearsing music for Khmer New Year celebrations every April. Occasionally, we had other performances to prepare for as well. I’ve twice learned music for original dramatic works created by the Cambodian Buddhist Society Culture Group in Silver Spring, Maryland (Story of the Pot-Eared Demon and Agangamasor and His Magic Power). But it wasn’t until 2017 that I was involved enough in the planning to witness how it all comes together.
That year, the Smithsonian presented an opportunity to create a performance for the Sackler Gallery’s Encountering the Buddha exhibition at the National Museum of Asian Art. My administrative role in the project offered me a chance to witness how the remarkable artists I have studied with all these years reconstructed a dramatic retelling of the Buddha’s enlightenment that had not been performed for fifty years.
A New Production for a New Audience
Buddha Overcomes All Obstacles retells the story of the Buddha’s search for enlightenment. It follows the historical Buddha as he encounters the world outside his family’s palace, renounces secular luxuries, and resists temptations from an army of demons. According to Ngek Chum, this narrative was frequently produced in Cambodia through the 1960s. Performed in the Khmer classical dance style, it is accompanied by live Khmer classical music known as pin peat, consisting of wooden xylophones, gong circles, drums, and oboes.
When I brought the Smithsonian’s request to Master Chum and shared with him information about the Encountering the Buddha exhibition, he lit up and suggested we propose a revival of the production. He contacted local dance masters to inquire about their interest. After several emails, phone calls, and meetings, we put together a proposal that was eventually approved thanks not only to the Freer|Sackler’s interest in the project, but also to the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (which took an interest in documenting the process of creating the production) and the National Museum of American History (via their Religion in America initiative).
Premiering in November 2018, the Smithsonian performance was similar to the Cambodian performances from the 1960s and earlier, telling the story in six scenes:
- Prince Siddartha and his wife enjoy a life of luxury in the palace garden.
- Prince Siddhartha temporarily leaves the palace and witnesses old age, sickness, death, and an ascetic devoted to understanding human suffering.
- He permanently leaves his palace after a banquet celebrating the birth of his son.
- Prince Siddhartha renounces his earthly possessions, assumes a new identity as the ascetic, Gotama, and meditates under the Bodhi tree.
- While Gotama meditates, Mara, the Evil One, earnestly attempts to prevent his enlightenment through tricks, distractions, threats, and temptations.
- The Goddess of the Earth bears witness to Gotama’s enlightenment, and Mara’s army marvels at the miracle.
To make the Smithsonian production more enjoyable for a contemporary audience and to enhance its artistic quality, the artists made two major changes from earlier performances:
- Our production featured storytelling through sung poetry, relayed by singers with melodies embedded within the instrumental musical arrangement. In Cambodia, the actors typically delivered their lines through speaking between instrumental pieces.
- Our production included a grand finale, creating a celebratory mood upon the enlightenment of the Buddha and bringing the whole cast onto the stage—including Prince Siddhartha—who was, at that point, on the stage at the same time as the Buddha. In Cambodia, the story concludes at the moment of Buddha’s enlightenment.
An Enduring Tradition
Khmer classical dance and music were nearly destroyed by the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia during the 1970s. The Khmer Rouge systematically murdered anyone with connections to the royal government—including those who practiced court arts. Thankfully, a number of artists survived against incredible odds or were spared because they had been abroad. Consequently, the traditions have been revived during the post-war years, not only in Cambodia, but globally, wherever Cambodians resettled and created new communities.
The tradition has transformed over the decades from one meant solely for royalty and the elite, to an expression of identity and community across the Cambodian diaspora. When teachers, students, and community members gather for lessons, rehearsals, and performances, they bond like a family and share Cambodian history, customs, values, etiquette, and mythology.
Many artists today feel it is their duty and destiny to carry on the tradition. In a 2002 interview, master dancer Devi Yim explained, “We have to teach our students, so they will be able to carry on the tradition. This is not the kind of thing that you learn and then just forget about.”
Similarly, Sophy Hoeung, who learned to sing from her father, never intended to become a musician, but she continues to perform. In an interview in 2002, she told me, “It brings me great joy to know that my father lives through me in my voice. I want to contribute to the community in whatever way I can. What do I have my voice for?”
An Eminently Talented & Creative Community
The Washington, D.C., area is a goldmine of Khmer classical dance and music knowledge. It is home to two major dance groups, Cambodian American Heritage Dance Troupe and Cambodian Buddhist Society Culture Group. Master Chum, the master dancers, and crown maker involved in these groups have been critical to sustaining and passing on Khmer classical music and dance in the region since the early 1980s.
All of them—and others from across the United States—were instrumental in creating Buddha Overcomes All Obstacles. Numerous dancers, musicians, and community members participated in and supported the production. The final creative team comprised of residents of Maryland, Virginia, D.C., Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Washington state.
Many of the artists are multitalented. A team of master dancers (Chan Moly Sam, Sam-Ouen Tes, Devi Yim, and Masady Mani) and musicians (Ngek Chum and Sinath Phul) crafted the story, poetry, and selected the narrative melodies . Master Chum directed the music, while Chan Moly Sam, Sam Ouen Tes, Devi Yim, and Masady Mani choreographed the dance.
Master Chum, Chan Moly Sam, and Sam-Ouen Tes were all leaders of their crafts in Cambodia and have been recognized as National Heritage Fellows by the National Endowment for the Arts. Master Chum is one of the few living Khmer music masters worldwide who possesses a vast repertoire and command of multiple instruments across various genres. Chan Moly Sam and Sam-Ouen Tes studied Khmer classical dance with Cambodia’s most revered dancers. Masady Mani and Devi Yim were the lead dancers of dance troupe of the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA) in Phnom Penh in the 1980s and 1990s. And Sinath Phul was a singer with RUFA in earlier years.
Many other dancers, musicians, and community members were instrumental to the success of the production. Kimhan Meas, who played drums for the production, is a master dance teacher with Angkor Dance Troupe in Lowell, Massachusetts, and was classically trained at RUFA. Soboun Nol, master of Khmer wind instruments, is a RUFA graduate. Sophy Heoung and Sovann Chum refined their skills under the guidance of their fathers. Leakhana Chea and Bora Keo are RUFA-trained dancers.
A group of advanced dancers who have been with Cambodian American Heritage for decades, and are professionals in their own right, were also crucial to the production. The group includes Sadira Benge, Bonavy Chhim, Tevy Chao Paula Chea, Teravy Mol Cisneros, Visal Duong, Angela Ea, Suteera Nagavajara, Grace Rafferty, Chhomnimol Murielle Sokhon, and Linda Webb. Several other community members were also critical to the success of the production, including Soun Chhayrath, Amrong Chey, Arun Meth, Octavio Cisneros, Samoeuk Man, Sagnoun Nay, Sok Nou, Matthew Regan, and Vichheka Touch.
Through their incredible synergy, these artists—who possess invaluable experience, skills, and enthusiasm for sharing their treasures with the public—demonstrated how Khmer dance and music provides them with an incomparable means of overcoming even the most challenging of obstacles.
Joanna Pecore is the director of the Asian Arts & Culture Center at Towson University. She has studied music under Ngek Chum since 1996 and wrote her dissertation about Cambodian performing arts in the Washington, D.C., area.