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Rekindling the fire

By: Greta Kite-Gilmour Posted: April-19-2015 in
Greta Kite-Gilmour

At first glance, Lomorpich Rithy seems like your average uni kid. Casually dressed, well-spoken and congenial, she eagerly rattles off her latest projects with bubbly enthusiasm. Yet, as she further delves into her vision with a

professionalism and poise one would expect of someone twice her age, it becomes clear that Ms. Rithy – who prefers to be called ‘YoKi’ – is not your regular student. Last year, at age 21, she founded Plerng Kob, a group of local university students drawn together by their love of art, and passion to reignite an interest in traditional art forms among younger generations. The major avenue through which they achieve this is the revival of the annual Bonn Phum, an ancient village festival traditionally held prior to Khmer New Year.

With equal parts humility and pride, YoKi explains how the idea for the collective first came about. “Plerng Kob is a group of art lovers: kids in town from different universities who just love art and to watch art performances. One day in August last year, we came together to talk about making a place to see our performances and share our interests with an audience,” she says. “So we are here to preserve art culture, but also take it into the next level. Plerng Kob means ‘campfire.’ It’s important because the original Cambodian light was made with a campfire – every house used one in front of their house. It’s also used for the traditional shadow puppet performance, which is displayed during festivals.”

As a natural progression of this concept, YoKi and the Plerng Kob team realised that one of the most effective ways to present traditional arts and culture was through a festival. Rather than create an entirely unique celebration, the group instead decided to revive what was once one of the most important village festivals in the Kingdom, Bonn Phum, adapting it with subtle additions to appeal to younger audiences in an urban setting.

“We presented our first Bonn Phum last year,” explains YoKi. “The idea came about because I was doing my thesis on documentary films and the shadow performance at the time. I started thinking about celebrating art through the context of the old way of performing. My sister, who is an art student at the Royal University of Fine Arts, said, ‘Let’s make a festival so I can show and sell my art.’ Another member of the group is a fashion student. She said, ‘Well, I want to show my fashion, so why don’t we present a fashion show there, too?’ Then we discovered the history of the village festival, so we took the old programme of the village festival and then added to it to create this new style of celebration.”

While recognising that the addition of a certain amount of modern elements were essential in engaging and inspiring a younger crowd, YoKi emphasises the importance of retaining the authenticity of the ancient festival customs as much as possible.

The village festival concept has always been one of the original ways of life of the Cambodian people,” she says. “We always celebrated every festival at the pagoda, especially New Year’s Day. We gathered at the pagoda to play traditional games, to celebrate the fruit and vegetables we grew, to pay respect to the monks and to meet the people in town. It disappeared because of what happened following the war. So what we want to do is bring our people back to the old time, to what it looked like and how we celebrated. We have just adapted it to do so in a modern way. So we showcase new art, like fashion drawing and shows, alongside the old. It’s a platform where youth in the city can show their original artwork too.”

With a turnout of around 10,000 people over the three-day event last year, YoKi expects numbers to increase further this April, with a greater focus on attracting international attendees.

“Last year our target was mostly locals, but this year we want to target both local and international people. Our posters are bilingual this year, and we have introduced a tour package for foreigners as well. If you want to spend a day at Bonn Phum you will have a student guide and they will drive you around and explain how to enjoy it at its best. It’s free entry, but if you want to have a guide we will charge for transportation, food from some of the stalls, and the guide. But it’s very cheap – the students are very hard-working!”

With a range of traditional games and performances, a guided tour would seem a favourable option for city-dwellers – both foreigners and locals. Many of the traditional performances and activities will never have been seen before by many local urban youth, after having been forgotten for decades in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge.

“One of the dances we present is the trod dance, a kind of performance that we normally perform during the Khmer New Year season,” YoKi says. “It’s like the equivalent of the Chinese New Year lion performance. You call them to your house to dance as a sign of good luck and blessing. It’s the identity of Cambodian New Year’s Day. So we want the Cambodian people to become more familiar with the trod dance, because many Cambodians, especially the younger ones, are so much more familiar with the lion dance than they are their own trod dance. Every day at 3pm we will show it so they can see.”

Activities are spread over a schedule which runs through both day and night, with nightly events showcasing the main traditional performances. The first night begins with bassac, a colourful pantomime, which YoKi likens to a hybrid of soap opera and comedy theatre, in which performers dress in very thick make-up representing regular characters such as the monkey or the giant. Traditional yike singing is scheduled for the second night, while the lakhon khol – a masked dance performance – and a shadow performance wrap up the third night.

Although the festival is heavily performance-based, YoKi emphasises the importance of crowd participation at the festival, particularly during daily workshops and traditional games.

“For the daily schedule, we bring different workshops with small performances. We have ayai, which is stand up singing and a little bit of comedy, and also chapey. Then there is the hand drum performance which we all sing and dance to. We also allow a platform to play traditional Cambodian games, which are lead by village people and everyone can join in and play.”

Of course, no cultural celebration would be complete without paying homage to the local cuisine. Vendors from surrounding provinces will travel to the site to sell produce and cook for hungry festival-goers. “We sell food which is all Cambodian,” YoKi says. “Village people sell whatever products they like: food, milk, eggs – anything they want, they can sell there.”

Although Plerng Kob itself remains proudly not for profit, YoKi insists that one of the central aims of Bonn Phum is to ensure all artists and performers are paid for their services during the festival.

“The event is not for profit and the organisers, Plerng Kob, are just volunteers,” YoKi says. “But we collaborate with local sponsors, like the radio station FM 107.5, who help find us sponsors. That means all the artists in the event get paid. That is one of the main purposes of the festival. We want to create a place where the performers and artists can find their market. We don’t want them to perform for free – we pay them through sponsorship. We also do some fundraising before the festival starts, and because of the event we did last year we have more people who know about us and want to support us.”

With each year, YoKi and the Plerng Kob team plan to expand the Bonn Phum village festival, incorporating more performances and activities, and hopefully bringing it to more cities and provinces across the Kingdom.

“In the next few years, we would like to see it happen across the country on the 3rd of April in three places: Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville. Kampot too – it’s a very artistic province. That’s our future plan,” she says. “In the future, we’d also like to bring Bonn Phum to Cambodians overseas who are far, far away from their country. Cambodian Living Arts has a program called Seasons of Cambodia in New York. So we would like in the next 5-10 years to hopefully work together to bring Bonn Phum and the Cambodian way of life to Cambodians there.”

Comprised of a diversely talented team of young students, Plerng Kob uses the period between organising the annual Bonn Phum festival to continue working on smaller creative endeavours, gathering funding and providing support to young artists who wish to carry out individual projects of their own throughout the year.

“The members in our team have talents from many different fields,” YoKi says. “We have musicians, a painter, a fashion designer, an independent filmmaker, professional photographer, etc. So the idea is to ask [young people], ‘What do you want to do?’ And we will support them. Any young person wanting to showcase their work can ask us and we will help them and support them under the name of Plerng Kob. In November this year, for example, we will run a recycled fashion week, because that was an idea of one of our fashion designer team members. Bonn Phum is simply the first of many things that are to come from Plerng Kob.”

Plerng Kob runs from Fri-Sun April 3-5, from 7am-10pm daily at Prek Thloeng Pagoda. Entry is free.

Reproduced with the kind permission of The Advisor
The Advisor is Phnom Penh’s leading arts and entertainment newspaper. Published weekly and delivered to almost 600 locations throughout the capital, The Advisor covers and uncovers art, music, theatre, books, food and drink with style, grace and attitude.

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