VOICES OF THE SPIRIT: SACRED MUSIC IN HOUSTON'S CAMBODIAN COMMUNITY
Pat Jasper, Director of Folklife + Civic Engagement
Angel Quesada, Folklife + Civic Engagement Manager
When I was a graduate student at UT Austin studying Folklore, a peer introduced me and several colleagues to an amazing woman, Yani Keo. At the time, Yani worked for Catholic Charities in Houston and was in the eye of the horrific storm created by the killing fields of Cambodia. Over thirty years later, when I came to Houston to work for Houston Arts Alliance, I set out to find Yani again. She was the head of a major refugee resettlement program, the Alliance for Multicultural Community Service, which served people from all over the world. That first reconnection in 2010 was in her crowded office in a building teeming with people seeking services from job placement to driving instruction to ESL classes.
A few years ago, Yani invited me to a Cambodian New Year celebration on a farm outside of Houston. There, over the course of the day, I enjoyed a Buddhist service, a procession of monks ritually requesting alms, families gathered with pots of food to share, and several tables pushed together overflowing with delectable dishes that were likely only exotic to my eyes. The celebration also included an ensemble who performed in the temple to commemorate the New Year and their Buddhist devotion.
Every time I have seen these musicians, who have chosen to call themselves the Neak Porn Ensemble, it is a transporting experience. The music has a tranquility, a subtlety that both eludes and seduces me as a Westerner. And yet the musicians are easy going, welcoming and casual about keeping alive such a profound tradition. Many of their instruments are somewhat familiar --- they are comparable in many ways to zithers and xylophones and hammered dulcimers. It’s not hard to slip into the assumption that they have drifted over from the West.
But then I remind myself how totally wrong-headed that idea is. The accordion, which has a strong presence in Texas – likely brought to Texas via Mexico after arriving from Europe –actually has origins in China; as do many other instruments used in Cambodia. Many of these instruments are used in both Cambodia and Thailand and some have clear roots in China.
The beauty of their sound is equaled by the beauty of the instruments themselves. The handwork on a takhe, the slope of the keys on the roneat, the organic shape of the khim and the delicacy of its strings – all are artworks unto themselves. To sit in Miller Kleng’s living room with Wayne Chhin, Saren Meun, My Mom, Chay Chea and Hay Kleng, the members of the Neak Porn Ensemble, and hear these gentlemen evoke the music of their homeland, to know that they can play both sacred and party repertoires, to know that most escaped peril to come to the U.S. in the 1980s, is to be repeatedly reminded of the way in which refugee communities don’t just enrich our city, but also make Houston a very special place.