Bangsokol—Remembering Those Gone

Artists during a performance of “Bangsokol: A Requiem for Cambodia” Wednesday in Phnom Penh. Photo credit: Cambodian Living Arts

The contemporary-music concert presented this week at Chaktamuk Theater in Phnom Penh is very much a performance for our times: The story of tragic years told soberly but also richly through both music and images, ending with the future that children represent. 


Entitled “Bangsokol: A Requiem for Cambodia,” it is singing, music and visuals unfolding a “narrative:” a classic in the age of social media meant for all publics, including today’s people used to quick-pace text and images.  


On the haunting music of Cambodian composer Him Sophy played on violins and Khmer traditional instruments, the story of Cambodia in the late 1960s and 1970s unfolds, told by two Cambodian singers accompanied by choirs of adults and children. 


And on three giant screens behind them are projected archives-film clips edited by Cambodian director Rithy Panh: Images that make one realize the shock it was for people of the 1960s used to rock’n roll music and mini-skirts to be thrown back centuries into a world of forced labor with no contact with the outside world and death the ever-looming threat. 


Sober images. A sky filled with bombs falling, as they did during the American bombardments in the late 1960s and early 1970s; people still dancing the night away, hoping for an end to that war. Then rows and rows of empty homes as the Khmer Rouge forced people to leave cities in April 1975. And Khmer Rouge propaganda film clips showing thousands of Cambodians working in fields, all dressed alike. And later on during the concert, images of a parent crying over his dead child lying in a field, people unearthing skulls of those executed. 


Then a film clip of train tracks appears several times during the concert, running through deserted land where nothing grows, with short lines of reflection.    


But the work ends with the future reconquered: Children taught Khmer classical dance movements, linking the past, future and present of the country.


Produced by Cambodian Living Arts, the requiem was meant to mark the 40th anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge in January 1979. The project took years to develop.    


And it nearly turned into an obsession for Him Sophy who became seriously ill as he was composing the music, adding or modifying it as possibilities grew such as adding a choir or incorporating visuals. 


But it finally happened with the premiere taking place in Melbourne in 2017, and the work being staged in New York City, Boston and Paris.


Conducted by Yu-Chung John Ku of Taipei, this week’s performance features Cambodian singers Chhorn Sam Ath, Him Savy, and Deap Setsothea; the Taipei Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Children’s Choir from the Secondary School Fine of Arts in Phnom Penh; Cambodian traditional musicians, orchestra Cambodian musicians and musicians from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music in Singapore. 


“Bangsokol: A Requiem for Cambodia” is presented as part of Cambodian Living Arts’ Arts4peace Festival held this month in Phnom Penh. 


Staged every night through Saturday, the performance Saturday will be dedicated to the late Princess Buppha Devi who passed away on Nov. 18. 

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