UPDATED:  October 28, 2008 9:15 PM
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Chum Ngek, Reviving Cambodian Culture

By: Solia Kem

Chum Ngek of Gaithersburg, an extraordinary Cambodian musician, has been honored for his artistic contribution to Cambodian culture at every level of government except local–until now.

On October 20, Chum Ngek was one of seven recipients recognized by the 2008 Montgomery County Executive’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities at the Strathmore Music Center, hosted by County Executive Isiah Leggett.

Ngek received the award for Outstanding Artist for his lifelong devotion to the performance and teaching of ancient Cambodian music.

Community leaders and members nominate outstanding citizens, and a panel of judges selects recipients in different categories. “Chum Ngek is one of the most highly accomplished Khmer music masters in the world,” said nominator and long-time apprentice Joanna Pecore in her introduction.

Considered a master musician by age 18, Ngek possessed specialized skills in the Roneat or 21-keyed xylophone and 14 other Cambodian instruments. His musical virtuosity, along with his vast repertoire of the three major Cambodian genres, expedited his journey to America in the early 1980s from a refugee camp in Indonesia.

Ngek’s skills were needed by Cambodian classical dancers to develop Cambodian culture in America. He later recorded a CD entitled Homrong, a compilation of 12 sacred Cambodian songs that are important to a genre called pinpeat, music traditionally used for the royal courts.

However, it is Ngek’s continued dedication to passing on his knowledge to future generations that makes him such an important asset to the community, according to Pecore, who originally nominated Ngek in the category of community service.

“I was having trouble choosing between categories so I just picked one,” Pecore said, laughing. “Chum is a very accomplished and outstanding artist, but everything he does has to do with the people involved. He won’t plan a performance without thinking about the community first and what they need. He’ll use any free time on the weekends and evenings to do whatever he can for the community. If the temple needs music, he’s there.”

The Cambodian Buddhist Temple in Silver Spring is considered one of the largest Cambodian temples in the nation. It draws thousands each year from the Metropolitan D.C. Region and even other states, for annual celebrations and ritual events.

“Every time we have a celebration at the temple, people drive from all over the state because that’s the only day they feel like home,” said long-time friend Raci Say, “They’re so happy to hear their music from home.”

In addition to creating the instrumental accompaniment to classical Cambodian dance performances, Ngek teaches students across the country, and donates his services regularly to the Cambodian Buddhist Society, providing lessons every weekend at the Cambodian Buddhist Temple to people of all ages. He’ll also provide private lessons at his home.

However, it is also Ngek’s ambition to pass on his knowledge to those in his homeland by starting a foundation that would allow younger generations with musical interest but with little opportunity the ability to realize their dreams.

“It’s my plan…I want to go to my country to teach children Cambodian music,” he said.

Over several trips back to Cambodia, Ngek has found that the wealth of musical skill and knowledge abundant in Cambodia before the rise of the Khmer Rouge was never fully recovered in its aftermath. It is estimated that nearly 90 percent of the artists in Cambodia perished under the Khmer Rouge. As a result, their knowledge perished with them.

“What he has in his mind is much more than what he found over there,” said Say, “He carries so much knowledge that he’s afraid he cannot pass it on in time. He wants to recoup the loss of knowledge from the Khmer Rouge because there’s a lot of lack of that in Cambodia. The culture is broken and he wants to revive that,” she said.

As for now, Ngek is hard at work on a large production of a new work entitled, “The Story of the Magic Diamond Finger,” which entails choreography and musical accompaniment to the section of the Ramayana prior to when Rama is incarnated, a piece of the epic that has yet to be performed. The performance is scheduled at the University of Maryland on June 28, 2009.

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