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Musician keeps Cambodian tradition alive.

By Greg Mellen, Long Beach Press- Telegram ,Staff Writer
Article Launched: 07/02/2008 05:24:02 PM PDT

For years, the silence was immense, the work torturous and the hunger unremitting.

The experience of Ho Chhing Chan wasn't so different from that of millions of his countrymen. Chan was one of the lucky ones who survived the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge reign in Cambodia.

His grandfather wasn't. Chan Chug was one of the 1.7 million or more who died in the four years Pol Pot was in power.

Ho Chan survived and so did his music, that last great gift of his grandfather. Today, Chan is a master of traditional Cambodian pin peat music and keeps the ancient form alive in his new country.

"I wanted to keep the tradition alive and play like my grandfather," Chan says.

Toward that end, Chan has taught his son, Dyna Chan, 26, to play, as well as other members of the family including his nephew and brother-in-law. On occasion he even presses his wife, Narith, into playing finger cymbals.

Master Chan and his pin peat ensemble will perform their music Saturday at Koos Art Center in Long Beach as part of the concert "Threads of a Tonal Dream Tapestry."

The concert also will feature guitarist, KPFK (90.7 FM) Pacifica
Radio host and microtonal composer John Schneider, who will perform microtonal compositions of Lou Harrison from a recently released album.

The show will conclude with intercontinental music by local musician Sander Wolff's group, Ain Soph Aur and Friends.

Pin peat music, which generally consists of ensembles of six to nine pieces, uses Cambodian xylophones (roneat ek and roneat dek), drums (sampho and skor thomm), gongs (kong tauch, kong thomm and chhing) and oboes (sralai) to
Pin peat music uses a Cambodian xylophone (roneat) and oboes (sralai). (Steven Georges/Staff Photographer)
produce its unique sounds and rhythms.

The music traces its history back to the Angkor dynasty of the ninth century, and was performed in the royal palaces when Cambodia was the dominant force in Southeast Asia.

Representations of pin peat players and instruments can be found in the bas-reliefs of temples at the famed Angkor temple complex in Cambodia.

The music remains an important part of life in the country, where it is played at festivals, funerals, weddings and in Buddhist temples. It is often used to accompany Apsara dances and other traditional entertainment.

An integral part of the musical history of the country, pin peat exists primarily in the memories of masters who pass it to students. Only in recent years has the music begun to be written down for posterity.

It is partially for this reason that Wolff said he was so excited to be able to get Chan to play. Wolff said pin peat is a remarkable and fragile form of music that he fears is slowly dying away and being relegated to the world of academia.

Chan first learned the music as a 16-year-old in his village outside of Battambang city. He later studied under Master Nith Chaou, whose picture hangs in a place of honor in Chan's house, and Tan Im. In the U.S., Chan met Ngek Chum, with whom he has continued collaboration and friendship.

When the Khmer Rouge rose to power, it sought to create an agrarian utopia unburdened by tradition. As a result, many of the cultural arts were forbidden and artists and performers were regularly targeted for death and persecution. Although Chan was spared, the music that had become a part of him began to disappear.

"In four years I didn't touch an instrument," Chan says. And during that time, he says, he forgot some of the traditional music.

Chan remembers vividly, though, the first time he was able to play music after the Khmer Rouge were driven out by the Vietnamese army in 1979. Chan's old master gathered musicians from across the countryside to play in a temple.

"We were so happy," Chan recalls. "For four years there was nothing. It was like you were born again."

Greg Mellen (562) 499-1291 greg.mellen@presstelegram.com.
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