Chum Ngek & Suteera Nagavajara
Pin peat is a classical music tradition that has been central to Cambodian cultural identity for centuries. A small orchestra comprised primarily of tuned gongs and drums, pin peat accompanied highly controlled, stylized dance dramas that were prominent in ceremonial life in the royal court of Cambodia. Homrong, a subgrenre of pin peat, is typically played immediately prior to a classical dance performance.
Recipient of the Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship in 2004, Chum Ngek is a pin peat master. He has worked as a performer and teacher to keep the music of his homeland vital since arriving to the United States in 1982, a refugee from the bloody Khmer Rouge regime that forced countless traditional artists out of Cambodia and caused the deaths of many more. His apprentice for the past year is Suteera Nagavajara, who grew up in Thailand just over the border from Chum’s native Battambang Province in Cambodia. Their work has focused on the kong touch, an arc of small gongs mounted on a wooden stand and played with a set of hammers, wrapped in either leather or fabric, as the performer sits on the floor with the instrument.
Working in international development by day, Suteera says practicing homrong brings her deep satisfaction. “Both Thai and Cambodian—we share history. For me, it’s spiritual. I cannot just do my daytime job.” At the National Folk Festival, Chum and Suteera will perform this ancient Cambodian art form with an 11-member ensemble of musicians and ornately dressed dancers.