Authentic Khmer wedding music comes to Billsville

If you’ve been on the second floor of Paresky recently, you may have noticed the gorgeous art illuminations, featuring intricate inked designs. A presentation of authentic Khmer music last Sunday served as a supplement to the illuminations, created by artist Amy Fagin.

They are titled “Beyond Genocide” and serve as reactions to the Cambodian genocide at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. According to Fagin, they deal with the “trauma suffered when individuals are uprooted from their homes.”

Bin Phan, a Cambodian who moved to the United States, and Jeffery Dyer, an American who studied in Cambodia in 2004, performed several traditional Cambodian wedding songs. Afterwards, they discussed the meaning of the pieces. They also talked about their individual experiences in Cambodia.

Dyer described Cambodian weddings as big, spectacular events with immaculately decorated costumes that traditionally lasted a total of seven days. Now, the ceremony has been shortened to two days. Each of the many rituals involved in the ceremony relate to a specific song.

These wedding rituals include the hair cutting, a practice whereby the families of the bride and groom cut some of the bride’s hair, and the hand tying, in which practice members of the family drape strings over the couple’s entwined hands to symbolize unity.

The first song Phan and Dyer played is traditionally performed at the beginning of a wedding to give offerings to the spirits of the musician’s teachers and their predecessors, Dyer explained. This tribute reflects one generation looking to predecessors for guidance and hope, creating a sense of continuity between generations.

Dyer and Phan performed on traditional Cambodian instruments. Dyer played an “old wedding ensemble” instrument with one copper string named the kse diev, the image of which has been discovered on the wall of a twelfth century temple in Cambodia.

Phan played two different instruments – first, a “new wedding ensemble” instrument called a tro and second, a dulcimer-like instrument with origins in China and India known as a khimm. The kse diev creates longer, smoother songs.In an interim between songs, Dyer quoted the statistic that between 1970 and 1975 the Khmer Rouge was responsible for the deaths of 90 percent of musicians in Cambodia.

He believes this statistic to be an overstatement, because the continuity of music and tradition remains intact. According to Dyer, the arts allow us to move past genocide, and, while a great deal has been lost, this connection remains.