Arts are the DNA of a Culture

One of the relatively few Cambodian great masters to have survived the Khmer Rouge era, Kong Nay. Image courtesy

One of the relatively few Cambodian great masters to have survived the Khmer Rouge era, Kong Nay. Image courtesy

“If every child in the world learnt to play music, there would be no guns. We all learn to love through music” says Arn Chorn-Pond the founder of Cambodian Living Arts (CLA), genocide survivor and internationally acclaimed spokesperson for human rights.

In the 1960’s Cambodia was home to some of the most diverse and abundant arts and culture in South East Asia.  Art flourished in the villages, musicians played on street corners and the arts were said to be in the Cambodian psyche.  Between 1975 and 1979, the time of Pol Pot, it is thought that 90% of Cambodia’s artists were murdered.

“Often children today have no idea of how rich our culture is.  There is nothing remaining in their living memory when born just before or after the 1970’s” Arn shakes his head.  “If you have no culture, your life is empty.

“When I was young my grandparents ran a small local opera company which performed in temples, opera houses and mayor’s compounds. I took music for granted, it was in my blood. My father and mother were the stars of the show on stage every Saturday.  Then my father died in a motorcycle accident and my mother had to go to Phnom Penh to sing and make money to support us.  My brother and four sisters and I lived with my aunt.  She loved us like her own.

“When Khmer soldiers arrived in 1975 we were forced to leave our village and march for days into the countryside through the forests. The march was hard and some people died while walking, others died with a bullet when they were too weak to continue. 

“It was the end of our life as I knew it at the age of 10 years.  We were not told where we were going.  We walked for days.  The Khmer Rouge soldiers told us we would go home in three days, it was always three days whenever we asked.  But we never went home.   Finally, we made camp.  Thousands of frightened, exhausted people camped in a field.  Days of work for us were from dawn into the night.  People started to disappear, often taken away at night.  We knew what happened to them.  Then they split up the family groups sending us to different farms.  I was sent away from my sisters, auntie and brother.

“Every day the Khmer Rouge told us we have to forget the past, all past knowledge is illegal.  And so life got harder, work was longer and there was less food. 

“Camp leaders wanted to start a band for the entertainment of Khmer hierarchy visiting the camp.  I was chosen to learn the khim (a wooden instrument with many strings).  I had only three weeks to learn.  The khim saved my life.

“They wanted us to play propaganda songs.   My teacher, also a prisoner in the camp, was a Cambodian Master Artist.  He taught me all he could knowing that he would be killed after imparting his knowledge.  Later, another Master Artist was brought in and I told them I did not know enough, so they should kill me instead of him. I did not want him to die.   We often had to play to cover the sound of the killing in the mango forests beyond our camp.  Later when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia I was given a gun and forced to be a soldier” says Arn his eyes clouding over with memories. 

At the end of civil war Arn escaped into the jungle where he wandered alone for months.  He watched the forest monkeys and survived by eating whatever they ate.  This was a terrifying and frightening journey – food was scarce and the forests were still full of Khmer Rouge soldiers. 

He eventually found his way, on foot, to the Thai border and the refugee camps full of severely traumatised survivors.  At age 14 in the camp, desperately ill with cerebral malaria and suffering from malnutrition, Arn was adopted by a visiting American, Rev. Peter Pond, and taken to his new home in America. 

Arn found he was angry with the world and unable to cope with American life after what he had witnessed.   His adoptive father took him to church meetings and encouraged him to tell his story.  Eventually Arn realised by talking to people about the genocide in Cambodia he could help others left behind in the camps by creating further awareness.  Telling his story also helped him cope with what he had witnessed and had to do.  In America he attended school, then university for 2 years, but felt the pull to return to Cambodia.

In 1984, Arn co-founded ‘Children of War’ an organisation to help end the suffering of children held hostage by war and violence and to help them rebuild their lives.  He returned to the border camps through 1986 through to 1988 to teach and assist those still displaced by war. 

During this time he searched for his Master Artist wondering if his music teacher from the camp had survived.  In 1988 he found him selling charcoal on the street and so Arn’s search for other surviving Cambodian Master Artists began.

He travelled throughout Cambodia to see who had survived.  He had a clear aim to revive the traditional culture of Cambodia before all the Master Artists were lost forever because of their age.  At first he found only 3 artists, they were collecting rubbish to survive.  He was shocked as these performers had been household names in Cambodia before the war.  His next task was to find a market for their music.  

“War destroys quickly” Arn says “but to start again is a huge thing.  In the 14 years since we started Cambodian Living Arts we have just scratched the surface.   We are working to create an environment where Cambodian arts empower and transform individuals and communities. We believe through creativity we can expand our potential as human beings. 

‘In communities we are bringing children to our classes to work and learn from the Master Artists and teachers.  We record all the traditional music as the Masters are getting older.  Cambodia’s ancient forms are oral traditions that have been passed down from teacher to student over hundreds or thousands of years.  No comprehensive written manuals exist.” 

Today CLA’s Community Arts Education program consists of 28 classes held in 8 provinces with a total of around 500 students and 40 teachers of 12 art forms.   For the low-income youth Cambodian Living Arts deem this an essential part of their training.

Art forms include shadow puppetry, classical and modern wedding music, funeral music, classical and folk dancing, poetry chanting, Yike and Bassac Operas and lessons on the instruments of the Pin Peat and Mohoori Orchestras, the long neck Chapei Dang Weng guitar and the Memm from the ethnic minority Phnomg in north eastern Ratanakiri Province.

Performances in remote areas are a recent innovation with plans for a travelling cultural bus.  Raising awareness about performing traditional arts among Cambodian communities is an important and growing part of the program.

Arn ponders the survival of Cambodian music when most young Cambodians seem to favour Korean and American Hip Hop.  However after attending a CLA concert in Phnom Penh featuring traditional arts performances by some of the teachers with their students it was evident there is a place for traditional arts today.  The large concert hall was filled to capacity with young people.  Their excitement, appreciation and enjoyment were obvious by their clapping and stamping whenever a Master Artist appeared.  Hip Hop might be short lived I thought but traditional arts continue to survive and was obviously extremely popular.  And no one got out their mobile phones except to take photos.

This is one of the extraordinary stories in Cambodia; a story of centuries old music, culture and traditions, old masters, most of whom cannot read or write, and a race to pass on what was almost lost forever.

“As yet we don’t have any music lessons or instruments in our schools.  We must dream of the day whilst being practical and keeping on working towards it” said Arn.  And with that he picks up his flute and shows us the magic he can create with music.


Arn’s adoptive parents eventually adopted 16 other Cambodian children. 
Two of Arn’s Cambodian sisters survived; however the rest of his family perished.

Arn Chorn-Pond’s humanitarian work has earned him a number of awards including the Reebok Human Rights Award, the Amnesty International Human Rights Award, the Kohl Foundation International Peace Prize and the Spirit of Anne Frank Award.


This story is an excerpt from ‘UNSUNG HEROES CAMBODIA: People and Projects Making a Difference’ (2103) by Lee Anderson, Kerryan Griffin and Shawna Hartley.  In it you’ll find over 40 more stories that equally Upworthy. Please go to to learn more about this not-for-profit project that celebrates unsung heroes and hopes to influence and inspire more volunteers all over the world. Photo courtesy


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