A blog post about Create Cambodia is a really daunting task. How can I possibly explain accurately how amazing it all was if you weren't there? How can I even come close to doing it justice? But I will do my best.
I’ll start by thanking every person who made this possible. Claire, I could not have had a better partner to help me pull all this together, and Lauren and Megan really completed the dream team. Next year, I am so confident to leave this project in your capable hands. Thanks to all of the volunteers who attended the festival. Every single one of you was necessary to pull it all together, and of course the group took a lot of pressure off of the “dream team” and allowed us time to enjoy ourselves at the festival as well. Last, but far from least, I want to thank the people who donated money to the festival. You chose a wonderful cause to give to, and I want to thank you on behalf of the participating Peace Corps volunteers, as well as the 150 Khmer students and counterparts.
Here’s what went down at the festival:
Friday Evening, March 1st
About 140 students plus 16 Khmer counterparts arrived from all around the county between 3 and 5 o’ clock. During that time they were checked in, and sent to decorate name tags. Once everyone was settled in, our first simple activity was to hand out water bottles and art supplies. The students decorated their water bottles so they would be easily recognizable, and the students could reuse them throughout the festival to cut down on garbage.
At 5:30 we had the essential and inevitable group meeting to explain the rules and schedule of the festival. I was given the job of being MC for the weekend because my Khmer is the best in this group, and probably also because I’m good at yelling at students and I don’t care if they’re scared of me. Somebody had to keep order in this place. After the meeting we had dinner.
At 7:00PM the students were treated to a professional dance performance with 4 different organizations in Cambodia. The first was Epic Arts. This organization takes in disabled students, and helps them acquire a full education, specifically training them in the arts. There were about 10 dancers, most of whom were deaf and one was in a wheel chair. They performed 3 different dances. The first moments were particularly exciting because they came on stage using crutches, but as the music started up, they used the crutches as props to do flips and spins. All 3 dances were modern, but the moves were clearly influenced by traditional Khmer styles. The next performers were from Krousar Thmey (which translates to New Family). This organization is similar to Epic Arts in that it educates students with disabilities. Krousar Thmey specializes in educating deaf and blind children dancing and music. They also developed and taught the students Khmer systems of Braille and Sign Language. Krousar Thmey performed 2 dances. Blind students played traditional instruments, while the deaf students danced, following the directions of their teacher. The third organization was Apsara Arts Association. Apsara is the name of Khmer ballet. It involves beautiful traditional costumes, slow and controlled movements, and twisted but beautiful positions. We were surprised to find out that this dance troop was entirely made up of 12 year olds. They were so young, but danced with the perfection of dancers twice their age and with twice their experience. The final performers were students from Tiny Toones, an organization that takes in poor students, gives them an education, and also teaching them break dancing and other art forms. Needless to say, it was all impressive and really exciting. After the concert our students had a brief meet and greet with the performers.
At 9:00PM we started our last activity, which was origami. A group of Peace Corps volunteers taught the students step by step to make origami cranes. This activity had a second function as a cool-down activity, meant to slow down the excitement in the hopes that they would fall asleep faster. Lights out finally happened at around 11PM. Students (and PCVS) set up rice mats and mosquito nets around the open-air venue and slept on the floor.
Saturday Morning, March 2nd
6:30AM was official wake-up time, but students started getting up and making noise before 5AM. They packed up their bedding, were led in group stretching, and then we all got our breakfast of rice porridge.
At 8:30AM we had our first workshop. Apsara Arts Organization came back with their 12 year old dancers. We thought their teacher was going to lead the workshop, but what she had in mind was even better. She brought about 7 or 8 girls to teach the whole group of students the beginning of one of their routines. I was so impressed by the little girls. They were professional and funny, and knew how to rock the crowd with the microphone to get better participation. The students really enjoyed it, and so did I! The movements are so intricate and precise that I had trouble keeping up, but I loved seeing some of my students finally getting it after an hour of repetition.
At 10:00AM we had our second workshop, done this time by Krousar Thmey. Krousar Thmey came to educate the students about working in the arts as a blind or deaf person. Our students got to meet with their performers and ask questions about a variety of topics. Our students learned some key words and phrases in sign language, and got to see how their names look and feel written in Braille. Very few of our students even knew that these systems existed, and they were all eager to learn more. They particularly loved learning sign language, and I caught them signing to each other throughout the rest of the festival.
Before lunch, we finished with one more big group activity. Remember when you were in elementary school general music, and your teacher led you in a series of snaps, pats, claps, and stamps to create the sound of a rainstorm? Well that’s what we did with 150 people all in a circle. The effect was really cool. My students particularly loved this activity. It might as well have been magic to them.
Saturday Afternoon, March 2nd
After lunch, the students had an hour of free time. Most of them were exhausted and spent this time relaxing. Others spent it socializing and listening to music. PCVs used this time to sit down and have a casual meeting about upcoming activities, all the while guarding the venue entrance to make sure we had no students escaping out into the wild dusty streets of Kandal province.
At 1:30PM, we were supposed to have a workshop led by a fine arts university, but they had to cancel last minute. Instead the Peace Corps volunteers led the students in a few activities meant to encourage the students’ acting skills. First was a game called Emotion Orchestra, and I of course volunteered to be the conductor. We separated the students into 4 groups and gave them 4 different emotions- angry, tired, happy, and sad. Then I stood in front of them, and controlled the levels of their emotions like a conductor. I’m sure I was having even more fun than them. After I had my fun, I stepped down and we let the students be the conductors.
3:00PM started our workshop with Cambodia Living Arts. CLA is an awesome organization, really on the front lines of bringing all forms of traditional art back to Cambodian people. This year they brought a team of Chapei Dong Veng players. Chapei is a two stringed long neck guitar. In the traditional style of playing, the lower string acts as a constantly strummed drone while the higher pitched string plays a melody. After about a minute of an improvisational melody, the chapei player stops, and improvises a similar melody with his voice. The lyrics are often jokes and comments about what the singer sees or thinks about his current situation, or about his audience. After singing a verse, the player then leads back in with his chapei. My students told me that this was their favorite workshop, and I think it was mine too, but this is probably because after the workshop, the players gave us an opportunity to try out their instruments. I had myself a short two minute lesson, and then was on my way, creating silly verses with the students in the traditional chapei dong veng style. Another cool part about this organization is that they offer lessons on Chapei and many other instruments to Khmer students for pretty cheap while they are studying at university in Phnom Penh. I know some of my students are ready to sign up.
At 4:30, a Peace Corps Volunteer led a visual art workshop. The students all created their own versions of the painting Starry Starry Night, except with Angkorian temples. Just like last year, by this time in the festival, the students were used to being asked to create things in their own way. In the beginning they were hesitant, but by now they all had their noses to the paper, feverishly drawing colorful skylines and temples.
Saturday Evening, March 2nd
After dinner, everyone was exhausted, but we knew they’d get their second wind with what we had in store for them. First was a rhythm activity led by another PCV. She handed out and tied different colored string to students’ wrists and ankles. Depending on what color they got, tied to where, that determined which beat they would either drum (with a chopstick) or stamp their foot. The volunteer slowly brought them to do a typical drum set beat, filling in the beats with different groups of sounds. When it was put all together along with music the kids were so proud of themselves.
And then at 7:30 came the moment that all the students had been waiting for- PROM! Or, well, the closest thing they’ll ever have to a prom. Despite the humidity, the students danced with high energy for 2 hours. Songs ranged from the Cupid Shuffle to JLO to Khmer Rongvong. I played DJ and did my best to keep everyone happy, and also get as much time dancing with my students as I could. Everyone had a blast letting loose and showing off their goofy moves.
Before sending the students to bed, we had 2 more cool-down activities. First, we had the students sit and either write thank you letters or draw thank you pictures. We gave them the option of either addressing them to their Peace Corps Volunteer, or to the sponsors who made the festival possible. Then we collected all the materials, and the students did a half hour of yoga. The idea was to make them sleepy and also give it a little more time for the sweat to evaporate off their bodies before going to bed (not all the groups could have their shower time before lights out.. there were only 4 showers for over 150 people!)
Sunday Morning, March 3rd
This time, the students stayed in bed even past 6AM, which was a miracle. We clearly wore them out on Saturday! We led them in morning stretches again, they had their breakfast, and then met in their groups to prepare for each of their performances. For my group, that meant tuning our guitars and warming up our voices.
Soon after 9AM, our big Student Exhibition started. The students performed what they had been working on with their teachers and PCVs at site for months. Instead of writing what each individual group performed, I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
Some of the participating groups did not put on a performance because their art was visual. Their artwork was displayed throughout the festival, and the students had scheduled time to do an “artwalk” and discuss what they saw.
As you can see, the festival was a huge success. The students will be talking about it for the rest of their lives, and so will I. When I joined the Peace Corps, I had dreams of doing projects in the arts, particularly in music, but I never dreamed that I could do something on this massive level. Artistic expression is something that I’ve held so dear to me my whole life. I can’t imagine having to grow up without ever studying music, holding a crayon, or creating my own story. I think back on my life, and so much of my happiness has come from music. I dedicated my life to music and the way that it makes me feel, and the way that I can make it speak to others. I feel so blessed to have been able to watch so many wonderful students get a small taste of that through this festival, and through my own chorus class. This country is seeing a rebirth of art and creativity after it was all but wiped out in the genocide 30 years ago. After collaborating with wonderful organizations like CLA, Epic Arts, Krousar Thmey, Apsara Arts, and Tiny Toones, and also after seeing the students thirst for more, I know that the beautiful and unique artistic traditions in Cambodia will one day see a full recovery. We didn’t bring the students here to train them to be professionals, or in the expectation that they would become experts, but rather to open their eyes to a world where art is celebrated, understood, and respected. It is THEIR culture and THEIR country and they have every right to feel proud of their ancient heritage, and to be leaders supporting the new artistic and creative revival in Cambodia.