Songs of survival

David Hutt

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Him Sophy. Photograph: John Vink

One evening in April 2007, the din of buffalo horns and tones of the famed Cambodian singer Ieng Sithul rang out through the halls of a high school in Lowell, Massachusetts. On stage, Sithul began to recount the star-crossed tale of a young Cambodian American music producer who, after returning to his native home, fell in love with a karaoke singer, only for their romance to be severed by familial medalling. A twelfth century gong reverberated. An electric guitarist carved out a lengthy solo. More than 14,000 kilometres from Phnom Penh, Massachusetts appeared an odd location to preview the first ever Cambodian “rock opera.” But with the second-largest Cambodian population in the United States — about 13,000 people — it was the perfect place to stage a contemporary take on the traditional story of Tum Teav, often dubbed the Cambodian Romeo and Juliet. Where Elephants Weep was the brainchild of Arn Chorn-Pond, a Cambodian refugee who, in the mid-1980s, founded Cambodian Living Arts, a Lowell-based group devoted to preserving the traditional arts of his homeland. John Burt, executive producer of the opera, was CLA’s co-founder, and along with Chorn-Pond, asked a Cambodian composer named Him Sophy to write the music, a medley of traditional Cambodian instruments, pianos, bass guitars, crooning soloists and more.

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