The photo above is Savong’s father, and when I took this photo in April 2009 he was leading a New Year’s ceremony out of the SOC in Bakong. The day was scorching hot as they are in April in Cambodia, with temperatures hitting the late 30s or possibly 40°. I was not the only volunteer there, but us Westerners were dying in the heat.
New year is one of the big two celebrations in the Cambodian calendar, and the countryside was filled with the sound of loudspeakers, music and chanting as well as the sound of children gleefully playing. Bakong is a village with maybe 600 families, and I think everybody that day was celebrating the beginning of the brand new year.
At the SOC, apart from us volunteers, were the children who lived at the orphanage as well as the staff, who included Savong’s older brother’s Savet, monks from the local Bakong monastery as well is two senior friends of Savong’s father. One was a man who spoke French, and another was a woman who had become a nun dressed in white, and with lips bright red from betel chewing. I learned later that this woman and Savong’s father had together collected the bones and skulls from the killing fields of Siem Reap: the remains of family and friends. What a deeply tragic and moving task this must have been. If on the way to Angkor Wat you stop off at a monastery called Wat Thmei, then you will see the stupa in which these bones are held. The land for that monastery was donated by Savong’s father.
So the ceremony began. The monks chanted, and accepted offerings from the children: gift baskets that included food, cans of Coca-Cola and (somewhat incongruously,) packets with toothpaste and toothbrushes.
I was asked to take part in the ceremony, and my role was to lightly splash holy water on the assembled guests. I felt somewhat awkward because this was a Buddhist ceremony and I had no idea what I should be doing. My holy actions were accompanied by polite laughter.
At this point the microphone was handed over to the elderly woman: the nun. What followed was the most remarkable vocal performance I have ever heard in my life. I love the power of song, and I love the strength that comes from a lone voice without accompaniment. If I ever go to heaven then I long to meet vocalists such as Dinah Washington who could add so much soul and depth into any song she sang. Dinah Washington would walk into the studio during her heyday and announce to all and sundry, “never fear, the Queen is here!”
But I’m afraid that Dinah Washington would have to step aside for this elderly Cambodian woman. The singing began as a low murmur. I was kneeling right next to her, and while I could not understand the Khmer language, I was right there to hear the deep almost guttural emanations of her voice. She did not sing from her mouth or from her throat; this woman sang from her heart. It was an incredibly emotional song, and as I looked around the monks and the assembled guests to the ceremony I saw absolutely everybody deep in tears. Standing to one side, my friend Savong was sobbing. Savong’s own father, a man who was seen the deepest tragedies in life, was weeping uncontrollably. I too was sniffing and tearful, yet I had no certain idea what this woman was singing about: her music transcended culture, and crossed barriers of language.
Somehow, I had the feeling that this woman was singing of motherhood, and of loss. After the ceremony I sidled up to Savong and asked: “Brother, what was the song she was singing?”
Savong was still upset, his eyes were red from the crying, and he said to me: “brother, that was a sad song about what it feels to be a mother who gives birth to children only to watch them die in times of war.”
It was a remarkable experience, and I owe that woman the deepest appreciation for sharing from the depths of her own life experience. It was a moment in which I felt connected not just to Cambodia, but to the tragedy that lingers near the surface for older people who remember, no doubt in stark clarity, the horrors of the Pol Pot era.
For me, and more especially for Savong, the daily marks another element of tragedy as well. I mentioned that Savong’s older brother Savet was working there, and this was the first occasion I had ever met him. He was older than Savong, and a very reserved character who kept largely to self. I learned later on that Savet had left home at age 7 to fend for itself during the worst years of poverty faced by the family. At times he was reduced to eating bark from trees. Later in 2009 Savet died of cancer, and I cannot help but think that he, too, was a victim of Cambodia’s recent past. His death affected Savong greatly, and I often feel that the memory of Savet is never too far away from Savong’s consciousness.
This is what Cambodia does to you. You begin a day full of cheer and celebration, and here it is five years later and I am still ruminating on the experience of hearing the woman sing from her soul.