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Mekong musical heritage on show this weekend in Siem Reap

Vietnamese group Dong King Co Nhac, who will perform tonight and Saturday at REPfest.
Vietnamese group Dong King Co Nhac, who will perform tonight and Saturday at REPfest. Photo supplied

Mekong musical heritage on show this weekend in Siem Reap

For many, an airport is considered a place of hassles, delays and general annoyances. But for Song Seng, the director of Cambodian Living Arts’ Heritage Hub, it’s where cultures converge. Hence the name REPfest – after the acronym for the Siem Reap International Airport – a three-day music festival beginning today that has brought traditional musicians from around the region to Temple Town.

The festival features three days of public performances and workshops at three venues in Siem Reap, including CLA’s Heritage Hub inside of Wat Bo, Sala Thoam Chas and Krousar Thmey. Performing will be a shadow theatre troupe from Laos, Japanese flutist Kohei Nishikawa, the group Law Ka Nat from the Anyar region of Myanmar and Vietnamese ensemble Đông Kinh Cổ Nhạc, among other artists. There will also be two newly-formed groups playing from Cambodia – all-female drumming collective Medha and the group Yaksao.

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Medha, a Cambodian all-female drumming group formed earlier this year. Photo supplied

According to Phan Chamroeun, the leader of the seven-piece Yaksao, the group formed just five months ago, and this will be its second time performing. They have backgrounds in traditional music but, fitting with the theme of the festival, they experiment with new forms and compositions. Both Yaksao and Medha emerged from workshops organised earlier this year by CLA .  

“Especially these few years, we can see that young people and young artists want to move on with their own identity, but with the resources they gain from their ancestors, their masters,” CLA’s Seng said.  

Especially confident in their own identity is Medha, which means “resourceful woman” in Khmer. Drumming in Cambodia has typically been a male domain, but Sang Sreypich, 26, and her team are challenging that notion.

“Before we never knew if women could play the drum instrument,“ she said. “My teachers said women can’t play the drums because when they hit them it is very painful on the hand, and women don’t have enough energy.”

During an artist residency, the group practised with one instructor to learn the basics of drumming. CLA then commissioned them later on to create more work from what they had learned.

“The quality is just ‘wow’,” Seng said.

So far the group has put together three compositions, which include some singing and chanting. Their performance this weekend, Sreypich said, is to convey the message “there is no division between man and woman”.

“We want to encourage and break through the challenges.”

Public workshops and performances in Siem Reap begin today and will be held through Sunday. For more information about REPfest and a full schedule of events, visit https://www.cambodianlivingarts.org/repfest/  

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