Weeks went by and word reached the cooperative leader that I was able to play music. This leader was a woman named Miss Khon. She replaced Mr. Nhek when he was taken away to be killed because the Khmer Rouge believed he had been disloyal.SOURCE: Music through the Dark: A Tale of Survival in Cambodia, by Bree Lafreniere (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2000), pp. 100-101.
One day, Miss Khon came to see me while I was cutting a log. She asked me, "Are you the one who plays the strange instrument?"
"Yes," I said.
"Then I order you to play!"
I was so scared I jumped down and ran to get my accordion and find Mr. Chhoeun. I looked for him everywhere and finally I saw him and exclaimed, "We must play music right away for Angkar!"
We returned to the leader, who stood waiting. Armed bodyguards were on either side of her. She did not have a gun. She did not need one. If she wanted someone to die, she just used her voice. I was nervous, and my arms were shaking from having cut logs all day. I wondered how well I'd be able to play. Miss Khon asked, "What do you call that instrument?"
"It's called an accordion," I said.
"Is that a Cambodian word?" she asked.
"No," was all I said.
"Did you make that instrument yourself?" she asked.
"No," is all I said again.
I grew more tense. I waited for Mr. Chhoeun to tune his mandolin. Miss Khon grew impatient and yelled at us to hurry. When we were ready to start, I asked the leader what song she wanted. She said she wanted to hear a song called "The Children Love Angkar without Limit." I played and she listened while staring at the accordion. Then she sat down and asked for another song. I don't remember what that song was. Then she requested a third song, "The Children Work on the Railroad."
The last song she asked for was a song about how the capitalists killed the Khmer Rouge by hanging them from trees. The Khmer Rouge loved this song because it filled them with emotion and gave them a taste for revenge. As the leader sang along with the music, it appeared some distant emotions were flooding back to her. I recognized the look because I had seen the same expression on my mother's face. Tears formed at the edges of her eyes. I pretended not to notice. After we had finished she stood up, put her hand on my shoulder, and said: "I want you to come play for me at my house." Many times after that she ordered me to play.
Once when I went to the leader's house, she asked me if I would like a bag of jewelry in exchange for my music. But what good was jewelry to me? I said, "Thank you so much. But may I have some sugar and oranges instead?"
She told me, "Yes, take what you like."
I took the sugar and oranges and left her house running to share them with the others. Giving another person an orange was not just giving them an orange. It was giving them a day of life.
28 January 2004
Music through the Dark, cont.
Posted by Joel at 1/28/2004 05:38:00 PM