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A true ethnic conglomeration

The first time I heard Cambodian musician Bun Loeung he was performing in a restaurant in 1981. Loeung had just moved to Minnesota, it was the middle of July and his group of Cambodian musicians were playing "Jingle Bells." It was one of many pieces in their play list but apparently had no cultural context for them. I was so astounded by the rendition I sat there unable to eat. A few years later (1986) my longtime friends and fellow classical musicians, Dick Hensold and BarbWeiss, joined with Loeung to form The New International Trio. Loeung taught them traditional Cambodian pieces, which they played on western instruments, and they taught Loeung pieces by Glenn Miller, Thelonious Monk, George Gershwin as well as traditional Irish, Elizabethan, etc which he played on Cambodian instruments.

I was one of their biggest fans and in 1989 I finally begged Dick to introduce me to Loeung, and ever since I 've been showing up at his house weekly to pick up more and more of the characteristic style of Cambodian music on the tro-u. Loeung almost immediately started bringing me along to play gigs. - Jane LanctotJane with Son Ek in Phnom Penh

 

Loeung's dream is to preserve the art of traditional Cambodian ceremony music, quickly disappearing because Cambodia's traditional musicians and dancers were systematically singled out for extermination by the Khmer Rouge.

Boon Soon

still lifeMany Cambodians are animists, with a belief in spirit entities. In the Boon Soon ceremony the group plays music to help a Shaman become possessed by spirits in order to dispense advice. The playing begins slowly but gradually gains intensity until the spirit possesses the Shaman's body. When this happens, the musicians can take a break and go downstairs to watch TV for a while. Eventually one of the Shaman's followers will come down to tell them it's time to play for the spirit to leave the Shaman. The group quietly sneaks back upstairs to play until the spirit departs.

All the boon-soon ceremonies we've played have been in a low-income project over near the East Side of St Paul by a graveyard. The tiny apartment has one bedroom set apart as a shrine room. We cram in there with all our pin-peat instruments. The woman who gets possessed has a bunch of followers who also shoe-horn in. We play like mad (or until our arms drop off) until the spirit enters the woman. Then we go on break while the spirit gives advice to people. When it's time for the spirit to leave, we play like mad until it's gone. Then the woman lights up a Marlboro.

We're on break when the spirit is giving advice. We go downstairs and watch TV while all the little kids jump up and down on the furniture and run around. When the whole thing is over, the mats are laid on the floor and food is set in front of us, usually fried chicken and/or bar-b-q duck with dipping sauce, a soup that had been simmering on the stove all day long and a dessert made out of coconut milk and rice noodles.

One time at a boon-soon a guy crawled up to the spirit on his belly and asked for numbers for the lottery. The spirit gave him a haughty look and said if he didn't have much money, he shouldn't throw it away on the lottery. If he had plenty of money he could go ahead and throw it away anyway he felt like.

One time at a boon-soon a woman asked the spirit when a particular woman was going to have her baby. "When the thunder starts to roll!" A while later we were called back in to help the spirit leave, playing as loudly and as fast as we could. Someone's cell-phone rang and it was the announcement that the baby had arrived. By "thunder" the spirit had meant the drums and percussion instruments of the group.


A Cambodian wedding ceremony

A Cambodian WeddingThe members of Light From Heaven (Rak-smey Khemera in Cambodian) have played dozens of Cambodian weddings. The traditional ceremony takes place in the home. The first thing the musicians see when they arrive is often living room furniture out in the yard. They have to make room for the ceremony inside the house! It's not unusual to see a few wedding guests and relatives sitting on the couch and easy chairs out on the lawn under a shade tree. At one ceremony the couch was left inside, but upended vertically and pushed into a corner.
Mats are laid down on the floor inside and this is where the musicians and guests sit. The musicians sit in a circle to play around a musician's altar, which consists of a bowl of uncooked rice, fresh fruit, tobacco leaves, money, a bottle of cognac, a bottle of Pepsi, a bottle of orange soda, snacks like cookies, crackers, sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves, and candles and incense. The whole wedding ceremony is started unobtrusively without any big announcement to the guests or relatives by the Ajar (minister) who lights the candles and incense, and prays while the musicians play Hom Roung. This invites the spirits of the relatives to be present at the wedding. After playing a few more traditional wedding songs for about 20 minutes, the musicians can avail themselves of the goodies on the altar. Since they will be sitting there for many hours, it's good to have a handy little feeding trough.wedding procession

Traditionally, the musicians lead a parade consisting of the groom and his attendants, followed by guests bearing gifts such as brightly-wrapped baskets of fruit and silk cloth from the groom's village to the home of the bride. In the US, we just go down the street or around the block. When the parade arrives, a representative of the bride comes to the door and acts like he's not going to let anybody in. Wedding? What wedding?

Unlike many traditions where the bride must bring a substantial dowry to her wedding, here the groom shows up with all his friends bearing many gifts and once they are finally admitted to the bride's house, a big stack of hundred doller bills are counted out.

The traditional wedding ceremony used to last several days. In the United States, Cambodians have the ultra-shortened version which is about 12 hours; usually from 6 to midnight on a Friday night, and then 6 to noon the next morning. Sleeping arrangements for the musicians are often left to chance. Sometimes a kind neighbor will let them sleep on their couch or shag carpeting. Or the musicians just carefully stack their instruments out of the way and stretch out in place. This is fine if there are no animated poker games going long into the night. One time there was an old car seat out in the garage. Who will get there first? When there are so many people packed into a house it puts a strain on the plumbing and the musicians have to get their washing up done in 10 minutes.musicians eating

When the music is finished for the day, it's time for a family-style meal. The instruments are set aside and the food is placed in the middle. The grandmothers and aunties typically prepare the food, and it is not unusual to see the chefs cleaning shrimp or pounding food on the floor. As time has passed and many Cambodian families have gained wealth, it has become a sign of affluence to have the ceremonies catered. The food is much better tasting when it's made by the relatives!

The food is not the only sign of Cambodian acclimation into American culture. At first, the community was like an authentic village, as time went on, it started to get more Americanized. For example, when Rak-smey Khemera first began performing ceremonies English was never spoken. For the American musicians it was like sitting in a sea of Cambodian. However, nowadays, even the bride and groom may not know Cambodian well enough to say their ceremonial words and need to be helped along.

Often the families of the bride and groom will have Buddhist monks stop by for about an hour to lead chanting and praying for the guests. During this time the musicians get to take a break. For the first few years we played together this would be an opportunity to stand around outside and smoke. Now that everyone has quit smoking it's an opportunity to stand around with our hands in our pockets.

During one of these breaks one of the other musicians told me the story of his own marriage under the Khmer Rouge. He said the men and women lived in separate areas in the camp. He said he was determined to get married because unmarried young men were forced to become Khmer Rouge soldiers. He decided to see if his sister could set him up with someone. She told her female camp leader, who said "Have him walk by the fence at a certain time and I'll have a look at him."

He did an imitation for me of the nonchalant walk he used at the appointed time. Later his sister got back to him "It's a go!". He had two weeks to build a house for his bride. He and some friends grabbed machetes and started cutting down trees in a building frenzy. Luckily the "house" he had to build was about the size of an American garden shed.

The wedding "ceremony" was nothing like the traditional one. Basically they went into a hut and someone said "OK, you're married". Done. This couple is still together and now helping raise their grandchildren.

 

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