If Cambodia Can Learn to Sing Again
December 18, 2005 | New York Times | By Patricia Cohen
It seems fitting that Arn Chorn-Pond should take on the inordinately ambitious goal of trying to rescue Cambodia's nearly extinct traditional music. After all, it was the music that rescued him.
His talent for playing the Khmer flute is the reason he survived the genocidal four-year reign of Pol Pot; the chief of the children's labor camp liked the way the 9-year-old Arn played the military and patriotic anthems that were based on familiar Khmer songs. Few were so lucky: among the estimated 1.7 million murdered by the Khmer Rouge were more than 90 percent of the country's artists and performers. For centuries, musicians had passed down their knowledge and skill orally, without recordings or transcriptions; now there are hardly any left. "We are on the brink of extinction," Mr. Chorn-Pond said. "This incredible culture has been reduced to the Killing Fields."
Mr. Chorn-Pond, 39, was stopping briefly in New York during a fall fund-raising tour. There was a few days' growth below his sharp cheekbones and soulful brown eyes. Sitting next to him in a small booth at a downtown diner was John Burt, a longtime friend and a partner in the effort to preserve Cambodia's thousand-year-old arts. "John is like my brother," Mr. Chorn-Pond said, throwing his arm around Mr. Burt's skinny frame. "He believes like I do."
For seven years now, the two have been working to record and teach Cambodia's arts, in part by finding performers and putting them to work as mentors for a new generation. So far they have tracked down 20 master musicians in 10 provinces, who are working with 300 students. A Cambodian Buena Vista Social Club.
Yet the men quickly realized that simply preserving the ancient arts wasn't enough, that without creating original work, the music would be like a pinned butterfly. They needed to provide new commissions, inspire new young artists. Mr. Burt recalled hearing that the ruins of Angkor Wat had become the largest single tourist destination in Asia. "Arn said it was fine that people were going to see these rocks,"
Mr. Burt explained, "but what about the living arts?"
So Mr. Burt, who is a producer as well as a philanthropist, came up with the idea of commissioning a new kind of opera that would shift the familiar focus from the Killing Fields and embody their project; it would integrate Cambodian and American, modern and traditional music, instruments and styles. He chose opera because it is one of the most popular forms of musical theater in Cambodia.
"We've never had a Cambodian-American opera," Mr. Chorn-Pond said. It is an example of "new musical forms growing out of the traditional."
It was also Mr. Burt's idea to base the story partly on Mr. Chorn-Pond's preservation efforts. In the opera, "Where Elephants Weep," Sam, a Cambodian refugee who escaped to America as a child, returns years later to salvage his country's ancient music [only to fall in love with a pop karaoke star].
Mr. Chorn-Pond's story, unhappily, differs in many important details from Sam's. Mr. Chorn-Pond did not escape the Khmer Rouge, who took over in 1975. Most of his family, which had run a musical theater for four generations, were murdered, including 9 of his 11 siblings. Sent to a labor camp with 700 others, Arn was one of five children picked to learn an instrument to play military songs. An old man with white hair taught him the khimm, a dulcimer, warning: "I'm not going to be here long. Learn well, this is your life." Arn never knew the man's name. After five days, he was taken to a mangrove field and killed.
When three of the five boys turned out to be insufficiently skilled, they, too, were taken to the mangroves.
Arn met another music teacher, Yoeun Mek, who taught him the flute, and the two helped each other stay alive. "I stole food for him," Mr. Chorn-Pond said, although the penalty for such a crime was death.
Arn's musical ability did not exempt him from the Khmer Rouge's other requirements: killing, observing daily executions, even witnessing occasional cannibalism. When the Vietnamese invaded in 1978, he was forced into the army. "Some refused to take the gun," he said, "but if they don't take it, they shoot them."
He eventually slipped away and made his way through the jungle to a refugee camp across the Thai border. Plucked from thousands of desperate children, Arn and a few others were adopted by the Rev. Peter Pond, a Congregationalist minister who worked at the camp. In a 1984 interview in The New York Times Magazine, when he was about 18, Arn told Gail Sheehy, "I am nobody before"; now, he said, "I am human."
For a few years after coming to the United States, he battled violent rages and suicidal feelings. Gradually those passed, but he was still haunted by terrible nightmares and guilt. He related a recurring dream to Sheehy: he is in a field holding a gun. On one side, the Khmer Rouge are beating an old woman; on the other, children are playing in a swimming ditch. He longs to join the children, but he knows that if he doesn't join the beatings, he himself will be punished.
Mr. Chorn-Pond has probably told some version of his experiences hundreds, if not thousands, of times during his 20 years of human rights work as a kind of perpetual expiation. He has raised money for Amnesty International, helped found Children of War to aid young survivors and started an anti-gang program in Lowell, Mass., and a community service program in Cambodia. His work has put him in contact with people like President Jimmy Carter, Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel and, most important, Mr. Burt.
In 1996, Mr. Chorn-Pond returned to Cambodia to work on a theater project for Children of War and to locate Mr. Yoeun. They had not seen each other since the Vietnamese invaded. Now Mr. Chorn-Pond found him, drunk, on the streets of his own hometown, Battambang, cutting hair for money.
"He's a big guy, looks like gorilla," Mr. Chorn-Pond said, recalling the reunion. "He cried like a baby. His wife told me he never cried even when his mother died." When Mr. Yoeun met the Children of War group, he told them how Arn saved his life - the first time he revealed that part of his past to anyone. Later the two played together. That was when Mr. Chorn-Pond got the idea for the Master Performers Program. "Our project gave him a life," he said.
In 1998, Mr. Chorn-Pond and Mr. Burt, along with the nongovernmental organization World Education, helped found Cambodian Living Arts, which includes the master mentoring. The following year he took another trip to Phnom Penh. "I met a girl who reminded me of Lucy, Lucille Ball, you know, 'I Love Lucy'?" Mr. Chorn-Pond said. "She sells Chuckles, the candy, and wine on the street, but no one bought the wine, so she drank it herself."
The woman was Chek Mach, one of the country's most famous opera singers. "I had heard her on the radio as a child," Mr. Chorn-Pond said. "I was looking for her for many months." She, too, became a master, earning $80 a month teaching before she died in 2002.
As Mr. Chorn-Pond was walking or bicycling miles to remote villages looking for musicians, Mr. Burt was searching for someone who could make his idea for a Cambodian-American opera come to life. He found his librettist in 2000 at a performance of one of her plays at the Asia Society in New York. Catherine Filloux, a Canadian who once worked with Cambodian refugees, had written three plays about Cambodians and a libretto for a Chinese-American opera. (Her latest work, "Lemkin's House," about Raphael Lemkin, who coined the word "genocide," opens Off Broadway in February.)
Ms. Filloux began working on Mr. Burt's idea, but it took him two more years to find a composer. He met Him Sophy, who comes from a family of musicians and was visiting New York from the Royal University of Fine Arts in Cambodia on an artist exchange grant. Like Mr. Chorn-Pond, he was a child when the Khmer Rouge took over. Somehow he survived a labor camp and eventually returned to study at the Royal University. In 1985, he won a scholarship to study at the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory, and he stayed 13 years before returning home as one of only three professional, classically trained Cambodian musicians who could write music.
For three years, Mr. Him has been working on the score for "Where Elephants Weep," combining Western rock, classical music and rap with Cambodia's music. It is a meeting of two worlds - like the libretto, which tells a story of Romeo and Juliet [or Tom and Taev, in the Cambodian version], of East and West, of the ancient and contemporary.
IN July, Mr. Burt, who lives part-time in Vermont, brought Mr. Him to New York, and set him up in his own West Village apartment to finish the score, while Mr. Burt continued to look for backers.
One afternoon this summer, Mr. Him and Ms. Filloux were working in her cozy Upper West Side apartment.
"I can sing, but my voice is not a singer's," Mr. Him said apologetically, tapping his chest. He was sitting at a wooden table in front of a laptop and two small Sony speakers, the cord stretching across the tiny kitchen like a tripwire.
On his keyboard, Mr. Him sounded a tinny pling: a computerized approximation of the chapey, a two-string lute. Like the traveling musicians who used to play as they improvised poetry and social commentary, Mr. Him began to sing the prologue in a high, warbling voice. His left hand fluttered up and down at his stomach, as if he were playing:
"You must listen to my story.
I start in the year 63 ...
Halfway around the world, a man called 'King' has a dream
And musicians called the Beatles make the ladies scream."
Mr. Him stopped singing and explained with a satisfied smile, "I make the chapey player imitate the 'ladies scream.' "After the prologue, the two went over the libretto line by line. As Ms. Filloux read, Mr. Him (who learned four languages before English) marked in his copy which syllable of each word should be stressed so that the music would match.
At one point, Ms. Filloux asked: "Can we go back to 'ancestors'? I worry about putting the emphasis on '-cestors.' "
He played it again.
"Our language is easy," he said with a laugh. "You don't need any stresses."
The complexities of the cross-cultural collaboration were also in evidence at a workshop this month in which the full opera was sung for the first time. Robert McQueen, the director, Scot Stafford, the music director, and Steven Lutvak, the musical adviser, painstakingly combed through the score, analyzing the lyrics, the concepts and the music. They suggested further Americanizing Sam's part, adding rock 'n' roll syncopation and some cursing. The musical changes were all right, but Mr. Him wasn't sure about the Cambodian audience's reaction to the swearwords. They spent 90 minutes working on four lines.
Later, Kay George Roberts, the conductor of the newly created New England Orchestra in Lowell, arrived. Home to Mr. Chorn-Pond half the year and to a large Cambodian population, Lowell seems a logical place for the American premiere [after the opera's scheduled opening in Phnom Penh next fall], and Mr. Burt was hoping that Ms. Roberts would agree to lead a performance of "Where Elephants Weep." She listened to the tenor and the soprano sing one of the songs, "No Mothers."
"These two different traditions have come together in an organic way," Ms. Roberts said later. As for performing it, she added, "I'm definitely interested."
Mr. Burt was at the session, but Mr. Chorn-Pond was not. He is back in Phnom Penh. With the opera on its way to completion and the masters program up and running, he has begun to close chapters of his past. A few years ago, he was able to find his mother and spend some time with her before she died of kidney failure. "She was a fireball, always talking," he said. She made everybody laugh, he added, even the doctors who treated her.
And four months ago, Mr. Chorn-Pond found Sokha, the only other boy of the original five chosen by the Khmer Rouge to be a musician who is still alive. "I've been searching for him for a long time," Mr. Chorn-Pond said. "Then, out of nowhere, I went to this mountain. He still worked for the Khmer Rouge for 50 cents a day, breaking rocks." [The Khmer Rouge control some disputed areas near the Thai border.]
"This guy is still a jungle boy," Mr. Chorn-Pond said. He took Sokha, seriously ailing from tuberculosis, and his wife and three children to live and work in his house, which is on a half-acre plot along the Mekong River.
During the trip to New York, Mr. Chorn-Pond talked about how much this home meant to him. "It's very difficult for me to put roots down," he said. He was turned toward Mr. Burt, his surrogate brother, looking imploringly at his face and holding his hand, seeming to forget that anyone else was at the table. "Hopefully, someday I can commit to somebody. I'm still scared."
Yet after talking about his large extended family, Cambodian and American, noting that he has lived longer than any male in his family and that, for the first time, he owns his own home, he pronounced: "At this moment, I'm a very happy man. This land, this house, I don't want anything more."
But actually, he does want something more: to explore his own art, to discover "who I would have been if it hadn't happened." He laughed, thinking of Cambodia's pop culture. "I want to be a karaoke star," he said. "I'm learning hip-hop, I'm learning break dancing, although I have problems with my body" - a result of repeated injuries during his youth.
Then, somewhat unexpectedly, he said, "I would like to be an artist instead of a human rights activist" - a sign, perhaps, that he might be ready to take a break from his self-imposed atonement.
During a recent cellphone conversation from Phnom Penh, he talked about how everyone can be redeemed, everyone can be forgiven. Did that mean he was finally able to forgive himself?
There was a long pause, and it was hard to tell if it was the bad connection or a hesitation. "Not totally," he replied. "It is very easy to get caught in your own wounds." But with his human rights work, he said: "There is a possibility I could do that. It is not easy, but I am doing it now."
So did he still have the dream, the one about the children playing on one side and the Khmer Rouge on the other?
"Yes," he said, but "I have it less now." He was explaining more, but the cell reception was poor and his voice kept fading out. In the dream, he said, he is still "caught in the middle."
"I know I will be shot if I turn away" from the Khmer Rouge, he added, but at least now a newfound confidence replaces the familiar terror. "I have no fear and no reluctance." He drops the gun and runs to the boys, to a lost youth, to innocence, to redemption.
Microsoft, Other Major Companies to Complete Phase-Out of PVC Plastic
December 9, 2005 | GreenBiz.com
Microsoft, along with Kaiser Permanente, Crabtree and Evelyn, and others, have joined the fast-growing ranks of major corporations demonstrating concern about the environmental health impacts of their products or packaging by phasing out PVC plastic [polyvinyl chloride or vinyl]. Hazardous chemicals are used and released in this commonly used material, the second highest selling plastic in the world. Studies show links between chemicals created and used during the PVC lifecycle and cancer, reproductive and immune system damage, and asthma.
A coalition of 60 organizations coordinated by the Center for Health, Environment & Justice worked with these companies to convince them to eliminate PVC packaging or products voluntarily, thereby helping build markets for safer substitutes. Health Care Without Harm works with healthcare institutions to promote safer substitutes to products such as PVC plastic in health care. The Healthy Building Network is leading the campaign to accelerate the transition away from PVC building materials in favor of safer, healthier alternatives.
New PVC phase-out developments include the following:
Microsoft announced that by the end of 2005 it will have completed its PVC packaging phase out, which has already resulted in the elimination of 361,000 pounds of PVC since July, 2005.
Crabtree & Evelyn, an international manufacturer and retailer of personal care products, toiletries, home fragrance products and fine foods, has announced it will phase out PVC in its packaging. Crabtree & Evelyn has already begun to phase out PVC in existing and all new product lines, and is developing a complete PVC phase out timeline.
Kaiser Permanente, the largest non-profit health care system in the U.S., has announced phasing out PVC wherever possible in millions of square feet in new construction to be built over the next decade. Kaiser vendors have developed PVC-free wall protection products and PVC-free carpeting.
Other recent PVC phase-out announcements include the following:
Catholic Healthcare West, a healthcare system with 40 hospitals, announced on Nov. 21, 2005, it awarded a five year, $70 million contract to B.Braun to supply CHW with PVC-free and DEHP-free IV systems.
HP announced on Nov. 1, 2005 that it plans to eliminate its remaining uses of PVC as safer alternatives are available. The company has removed PVC from all external case parts. In correspondence with HP, they noted that they will be out of all PVC packaging in two months. The Computer Take Back Campaign has worked with HP and other electronic companies to replace PVC and other harmful materials of concern with safer alternatives.
Wal-Mart announced on Oct. 24, 2005, it will phase out PVC in its private label packaging over the next two years. Environmental health advocates welcomed Wal-Mart's PVC phase out however stressed it's only a small step, and the company needs to address major outstanding environmental and labor concerns.
Firestone Building Products Company, the world's largest manufacturer of commercial roofing, closed down their PVC line in late 2005 in favor of safer materials. This represents some six thousand tons of PVC production annually.
Shaw Industries Inc. ran its last production of PVC carpet backing at the beginning of 2005, replacing it with EcoWorx, a cradle-to-cradle product that can be sustainably recycled, has less embodied energy than PVC carpet tiles, and maintains equal or greater performance.
Johnson & Johnson announced it has set a goal to eliminate PVC in their primary packaging, and is actively engaged with suppliers to identify alternatives to replace existing PVC packaging and avoid PVC use in future products.
A New Multi-Industry Trend
These companies join the ranks of other innovators who have already moved to phase out PVC including Adidas, Aveda, Bath and Body Works, the Body Shop, Gerber, Honda, Ikea, Lego Systems, Nike, Samsung, SC Johnson, Shaw Carpet, Toyota, Victoria's Secret, Volkswagen, and Volvo, among others. They are part of a broader economic trend in which US businesses are increasingly incorporating safer, sustainable materials into their operations.
"We are seeing a new trend: major corporations are phasing out PVC and switching to safer and healthier consumer products," said Lois Gibbs, the housewife-turned-activist who led the community effort to relocate hundreds of families away from the infamous Love Canal toxic waste site, and who went on to found CHEJ. "We applaud Microsoft and other innovative companies who recognize that safeguarding our health is not only the right thing to do, but also makes good business sense. Consumers need to support companies that have demonstrated commitments to safer products. Parents should remember the adage 'bad news comes in threes,' and avoid buying PVC products which are marked with a "3" or “v" in the recycle symbol this holiday season.”
The national report PVC: Bad News Come in Threes, released last year by CHEJ, the Environmental Health Strategy Center, and the national BE SAFE coalition, is available for download in PDF format online.