Mr. Xylophone Man
After Cheating Death, Chum Ngek Lives to Play, and Teach
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 20, 2004; Page N01
During the week he is a truck driver and stock clerk, carting bolts of fabric around the city.
But this is Sunday, and he is gliding through a tiny room in the basement of the Cambodian Buddhist Society where boys kneel on brightly colored rugs and coax bell-like music from large wooden xylophones.
Though the National Endowment for the Arts has just designated him one of this country's master musicians, Chum Ngek lives a modest life. Wearing a gold-and-brown shirt, white chinos and gray socks, he walks softly among the youngsters, his gaze intent on their hands. He stops, hearing a soft ringing that he wants to correct. Without a word, the middle-aged man stops behind a student, reaching over his shoulders to grasp and lift his hands and the mallets. After a few minutes of coaching, the notes coming out of the 21 keys of the xylophone click along like precise steps on a smooth walkway, each note quick and definite.
The hands guide student after student. Chum hums as he guides the young hands. The students frown in concentration. For these boys, Chum's hands are a connection to a tradition, the pin peat music of Cambodia, the music meant for royalty and the gods.
Master Chum fled his homeland more than 25 years ago, during the brutal period when Cambodia's Khmer Rouge government killed a quarter of the country's population. But he could not bear to leave his music behind, and he wants his American-born students to understand the sounds that were so much of his boyhood.
He glances back at a student who has struggled today. The boy's progress pleases Chum. He smiles and rubs the student's thick black hair.
Remembering the sounds of his childhood is easy. Teaching can be a challenge. "Their parents want them to learn their culture and traditions. We have the young ones for two or three years. Once they hit high school, they change. So we have new students almost every year," he says. The distractions are the ones facing every teen, from the store logos on the T-shirts to the comic book that appears as soon as Chum moves to another side of the room. "It is harder teaching here than at home. I try to explain that music is an exercise and helps you relax."
Since his arrival in the United States in 1982, he has worked to preserve the music of Cambodia. That means exposing his new countrymen to the ceremonies, dance and music that give younger Cambodian Americans a sense of their musical identity, and even remind the adults of rituals that may now be fading.
For his work, the National Endowment for the Arts is saluting him as an artist of the highest rank in the folklore field, and the only local artist to be honored this year. In September, when the NEA honors practitioners of their heritage, he is slated to receive an award named for folklorist and performer Bess Lomax Hawes.
"Master Chum, to me, is the best Cambodian xylophone player alive and he happens to be here," said Sam-Ang Sam, a Cambodian artist and a past National Heritage Fellow. In addition to the classical pin peat music, Chum also performs and teaches a style that deals more with earthly issues, such as love and geography, called mohori, and ancient wedding melodies, called phleng kar.
When the students disperse, he talks about his work and life along with his daughter, Sovath, 22, a molecular biology and Spanish student at Towson State University, and Joanna Pecore, a doctoral candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of Maryland, who has studied his music.
The Buddhist Society's headquarters, on the upper reaches of New Hampshire Avenue in Silver Spring, bulges with activity after the Sunday morning services. It's one of the hubs for the region's estimated 30,000 Cambodians. The music classes last two or three hours. The air still carries the spicy scents of lunch. Girls in bright-hued costumes are practicing their traditional dances. A group of young girls is playing London Bridge. A robed monk is on his cell phone. There's an animated conversation about a wedding and the Cambodian traditions.
Playing for his own enjoyment and passing on the traditions come naturally to Chum, who picked up his first instrument at 10 in his village of Anglong Vil in western Cambodia. Eventually he would learn about 14 instruments, including the hammered dulcimer, called the khimm; the hand drum, or sampho; the bowed fiddle, or tror; and the gongs, or kong. His grandfather, Heng Um, could play eight instruments from the obo to the high-pitched circular drum, and they played together in an orchestra.
At age 18, Chum was named a master teacher, or krou.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Chum Ngek instructs Gunarat Lorn in the finer points of the kong, or circular frame gong.
(Len Spoden For The Washington Post)