It was a knife-edge decision that helped to save Arn Chorn-Pond’s life. Overworked, underfed and a witness to mass slaughter, he volunteered to play a musical instrument while living in a brutal Khmer Rouge camp in Battambang province in the 1970s.
“They said: ‘We’re going to start music, who’s interested in playing?’ Sometimes, they killed you if you raised a hand in a wrong situation,” says the 50-year-old musician, explaining how he was forced to work at a temple, used as a “killing place” by the regime, alongside 700 other children aged from about seven to 13.
“I was sure it was a 50/50 gamble, but inside of me [I thought] it is fine if they kill me now. We were all sick; starvation was a really hard thing to take for us,” he remembers, reliving his memories through expressive brown eyes while sitting in his cosy Phnom Penh office, surrounded by images illustrating his life’s work.
The cadres, however, kept their word, and an elderly master was brought in to teach five young boys how to play. The musician, whose name Chorn-Pond never discovered, soon disappeared – as did so many during the Khmer Rouge’s 1975 to 1979 rule, when an estimated 1.7 million people died from disease, starvation and summary execution.
Three children who were slow to learn were next. But Chorn-Pond was quick, and he began performing revolutionary songs on the khim, a type of hammered dulcimer, at gatherings for cadres and leaders of the ultra-Maoist regime. “Sometimes you peed in your pants [if] you played the wrong song or you played the wrong tune or whatever… these were bad people,” he says.
Amid the trauma of the regime, a father figure emerged in the form of a replacement teacher, master Mek. The pair helped each other to survive, risking death as Mek taught Chorn-Pond forbidden tunes from the past, and his student stole food to supplement their meagre diets.
After the Vietnamese invaded in the dying days of 1978, that link was broken. Chorn-Pond was given a gun and forced to fight, acting as an expendable decoy for the regime. Eventually, he found himself in the jungle near the Thai border, where he was discovered – blistered, unconscious and close to death – and brought to a nearby refugee camp.
A more brutal childhood experience is difficult to imagine, yet it has shaped both Chorn-Pond’s life and work: the musician has dedicated much of his existence to the revival of traditional Khmer arts after an estimated 90% of artists perished under Pol Pot, decimating the Kingdom’s rich cultural knowledge base.
His efforts have roots in both Cambodia and the US – where he was taken by his adoptive father, Lutheran minister Peter Pond, and enrolled in a US high school. Filled with students with no knowledge of his past, Chorn-Pond found it tough. He recalls being unable to control himself – “like a tiger” – and experiencing suicidal thoughts.
Over time he revisited music, taking up the flute – which he plays to this day – in the late 1980s. After being asked by his father, he also began speaking about his experiences and sharing his story. Later, when working with troubled youths in Lowell, Massachusetts, where a large community of Cambodian-Americans have settled, he again harnessed the power of song by asking a surviving Cambodian master of the fiddle to interact with the young people, a move that helped boost their self-esteem.
Despite his time in the US, Chorn-Pond was drawn back to his homeland, where his family had owned a popular opera company. It was back in Battambang – after finding out that close to 35 members of his family had died – that he stumbled across master Mek, working as a hairdresser, and drinking.
“He turns around, he looks, and he was smiling – but also had tears coming out. He called my name, and I went and we hugged each other,” Chorn-Pond recalls, before recounting how he went on to find other masters, often living in difficult circumstances, and in 1998 created the Cambodian Masters Performers Programme.
The ‘school without walls’ encouraged youngsters in Phnom Penh to take up music and learn from these salaried experts. And, with the help of key supporters, it evolved into the organisation known as Cambodian Living Arts (CLA).
Today, the non-profit fosters a new generation of artists, students and teachers through a range of educational, development and market-building programmes. Driven and dedicated, Chorn-Pond is also continuing his work by exposing rural populations to music via the Khmer Magic Music Bus, which works in partnership with CLA to transport artists across the country to perform.
“Playing music helps me smile now, and helps me even cry now,” he says. “Being on the bus, seeing the laughter and the relationships, those young masters and the old masters talking to each other about: ‘How did you meet your wife?’ – the same questions that the gang members in Lowell asked. I drive the bus, and my tears come out.
But for all his achievements and experiences in the Kingdom, Chorn-Pond has a wider vision. In 2013, the CLA-initiated Season of Cambodia exposed New York to Cambodia’s cultural heritage through a range of performances featuring some of the nation’s best artists. Chorn-Pond reveals that he even invited politician Henry Kissinger, the former US secretary of state widely blamed for the large-scale bombing of Cambodia by the US in the early 1970s, to attend.
Today, Chorn-Pond’s dream is for every child on the planet to own an instrument, echoing his passionate belief in music and the arts as forces for peace. The flute is now his ‘weapon’, rather than the guns he was forced to carry as a youngster.
“I’m telling the Khmer Rouge: ‘How powerful is this?’” he says, softly. “Just a little bamboo flute, and I play and I make everyone cry, and give money, and fall deep into their heart. How powerful is that compared to just taking people’s lives, you know, which I have also done.”
This article was first published in the 2017 edition of Discover magazine