Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Female drummers from the Sounds of Angkor troupe © Choeun Socheata

Cambodian Living Arts’ Heritage Hub: Continuity and Accessibility

During the Khmer Rouge regime, 90 percent of Cambodia’s artists were killed; centuries of artistic traditions, passed through generations were in danger of being lost. In 1998, Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) began working in the country with a mission to revive and develop traditional arts. Today, our aims have broadened—CLA operates as a cultural agency supporting the development of the arts sector, from education, to policy, cultural exchange, and festivals. We have two centers, one in Phnom Penh, from which we operate national programs and have a strong focus on leadership and creativity. Our second center is in Siem Reap, and we position this as the Heritage Hub.

The Heritage Hub is a center for the practice, research, and development of Cambodia’s intangible cultural heritage (ICH). It works together with all our other programs to ensure there is always a dimension related to ICH. Its aim is to support the continuity of Cambodia’s artistic and cultural heritage, a theme that cuts across all of our work. The Heritage Hub is based in Siem Reap because of the area’s rich history of artistry and the depth of knowledge held by the many traditional musicians and cultural experts living in the province. Siem Reap is well-known as a city of immense tangible heritage because of Angkor Wat, but its intangible heritage is sometimes forgotten.

In the past year, the Heritage Hub has headed up national and international initiatives. July 2016 saw the inaugural Nirmita Composers Workshop, led by renowned Cambodian-American composer Chinary Ung. This brought together emerging composers and traditional musicians from Cambodian, Laos, Myanmar, and the United States. The students worked with a world-class faculty of composers and performers to transform and expand traditional musical forms, using them as the basis to create new works. This was the first workshop of its kind of which we are aware.

The Heritage Hub Program Manager, Song Seng, traveled with traditional Cambodian artists to the International Council for Traditional Music’s Study Group on the Performing Arts of Southeast Asia in August 2016. As well as presenting about the work of CLA, the artists led workshops in smot (chanting often performed at funerals) and sbaek thom (large shadow puppetry). They were able to exchange ideas and skills with other Southeast Asian countries and represented Cambodia at the group for the first time in its history.

A Night in Phonm Penh: Cambodian Living Arts, a collection of Khmer cultural dances

In November 2016, the Heritage Hub hosted a roundtable about Cambodia’s puppetry sector. Over two days, almost thirty delegates working in relevant organizations and troupes met each other, shared experiences, and discussed both concerns and ideas about improving the quality and professionalism of Cambodian puppetry arts forms. They made steps to incorporate puppet shows into more performances and festivals, to share knowledge and resources, and to publish information on the art forms in print and online.

January this year saw a masterclass for women from the traditional music troupe Sounds of Angkor. Over ten days, female musicians learned drumming skills and created a new piece called “Pro Loeung Skor Chey” (Victory Drum) which was performed to students of Pannasastra University of Cambodia, Siem Reap.

In October 2017, the Heritage Hub will stage a world music festival in Siem Reap, which will introduce a local audience to a variety of musical styles and also give artists an opportunity to take part in cross-cultural musical exchange. We will also start to offer some small grants for research into ICH. If anyone is interested in learning more about Cambodian ICH, please contact us at seng@cambodianlivingarts.org.