How Cambodian Music Recalls Ancestors and Brings Comfort

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Kung-fu Hillbilly
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How Cambodian Music Recalls Ancestors and Brings Comfort

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Jeffrey Dyer, an ethnomusicologist pursuing his PhD at Boston University, says Cambodians use music and chants to invite the dead and ancestors into their lives, which provides them with a feeling of support as they work through day-to-day hardships. Photos courtesy of Jeffrey Dyer

Art Jahnke
November 25, 2019

BU ethnomusicologist is studying the ways that ritual music and dance connect living Cambodians with the dead and the divine

Sixteen years ago, when Jeffrey Dyer first heard Cambodian music in the documentary The Flute Player, the classically trained pianist was captivated. Later, visits to the Angkor Dance Troupe in Lowell, Mass., deepened his fascination with the non-Western sounds and harmonies. Dyer, now a PhD student in Boston University’s College of Fine Arts’ department of musicology & ethnomusicology, has since made seven research trips to Cambodia, and has worked with dozens of Cambodian American musicians in the US.

Dyer’s research pushes against such characterization. He believes Cambodians’ appeals for comfort are more likely to be focused on immediate needs, such as food, clean water, and relief from poverty. He is examining how music and rituals help Cambodians deal with hardships, including both their painful past and their daily deprivations. The Brink talked with Dyer to learn more about his research.

Cambodians use music and chants to invite the dead and ancestors into their lives, and there is a kind of support that they feel from that, which helps them work through whatever hardships they face. Many foreigners think that Cambodians need to remember the Khmer Rouge, but I find that there is much remembrance already embedded in the process of musically inviting the dead, whether or not those people died during the Khmer Rouge years.

Sometimes they’re performed for specific holidays, like the Feeding of the Hungry Ghosts, which is a widely practiced Buddhist ceremony that takes place in the fall, but the rituals can be offered any time. Some occur weekly, and some people conduct short rituals daily. For those [rituals], people usually conduct them alone in their own homes, where they might quietly speak a few words to their deceased relatives or their family’s spirits. It doesn’t even require sound.

After dinner, it was time for the dancing. Live musicians played rock and pop music onstage, and we all danced for hours. Late that night, I joined my teacher where he sat overlooking everyone. He turned to me and said, “My parents are here right now, watching them dance.” He then explained how he had set up the stage to face the small shrine that holds his parents’ bones, and he had opened the shrine’s doors so his parents’ spirits could return to enjoy the music they had loved when they were alive.

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