Published: June 16th 2012June 16th 2012
Arn Chorn-Pond is a complex person. Arn is a flute player, an orphan of war, a brilliant musician, a storey teller, a graduate of Brown University, a son of an opera singer and an accomplice to countless murders. These are just a few of the people living inside Arn's skin. In the empty moments of the night Arn hears two very different sounds. He hears the cries of the dying, the children he was a child with, his mother and father, the men he cut the pants from from as the Khmer Rouge slamed a rock or machete into the back of their head and he hears the soothing music of his native land rich in tradition whose masters were almost all exterminated during the four years of the killing fields. And he has a vision that Cambodia can be remembered not for the killing fields but for the centuries of musical legacy passed all the way down from the Angkor Empire.
Last night I met Arn Chorn-Pond. On the surface he seems healed. A gracious and grateful smile looks so comfortable on his face. He eases into a small crowd of adoring people of all ages both Western and Khmer. He's yet very handsome at age 47. During a Q and A one of of young Cambodia woman asks, "are you married?" She took the words right out of my mouth! He's absolutely magnatic in the way he draws people to him. He embodies inimaginable strength with the vulnerability of the 8 year old child he was before Pol Pot nearly destroyed him. He said, "I'm not a famous karaoke singer. If I was a famous karaoke singer you would get to know my personal life, but since I'm not, you don't get to know that." Absolute class.
Arn loves music because it saved his life. It's an ironic story because music and the arts cost his mother and father their lives. His father owned an opera company in Phnom Penh and was a well known opera singer. The arts of all types thrived in Cambodia prior to 1975. Remember this was a French colony so many artists where trained in European classics and they had a deep grounding in their own traditions. When the Khmer Rouge came to power they systematically tryed to eliminate every artifact of intellectualism including universities, books, professors, government institutions, religion and arts. Arn was very quickly separated from his parents when Phnom Penh was evacuated. They probably didn't last long after. Arn had two strikes against. He was lighter skinned than most Cambodians, a sign he didn't spend much time in the sun doing manual labor and his hands were smooth. The Khmer Rouge came looking for young people to form a band that would play propaganda songs in public places and sometimes play to overshadow the screams of people beinging slaughtered. Arn tried out and thus was saved some of the brutality of his peers. He was fed better but still wasn't spared being forced to participate in the violence against his own people. This is what haunts him. These are the voices and cries he hears in the wee hours of the morning.
At age 14 the Khmer Rouge forced him into battle in the war against the Vietnamese. He was issued an AK-47 and told to kill. He watched children all around him die in battle, many weakened already from the years of starvation brought on by those they were now forced to protect. He found a moment of courage and bolted to the jungle making it all the way to the Thai border into a refuge camp. As fate would have it, he was noticed by the former Ambassador to Thailand who would become his adopted father. His life was about to change in unimaginable ways. I'm going to intentionally leave this gape because you must set "The Flute Player", a PBS documentary about Arns life that was nominated for an Emmy (just google it, it's free on You Tube). It was shown last night at the event I attened. Patricia McCormick just released, Never Fall Down
, a novel about an 11 year old boy who survives the killing fields through his music. It's Arn's story but he's never mentioned by name in the book. McCormick came here and interviewed him. He took her to areas in the northwest to meet former Khmer Rouge that knew Arn as a boy. Arn spoke about McCormick with the utmost respect for her and the way she worked to keep the integrity of his story. She interviewed people Arn knew without him present. I don't have this book yet, but will be downloading it tonight and probably finish it tomorrow. In Arn's words, "the book is 85 percent me."
Arn is a hero and he will be one of our features in the heroic imagination project that I blogged about earlier. He's not a hero for surviving the horror of a genocide although that probably would qualify him. He's a hero for what he did with it. Arn has met Jimmy Carter (helped him get into Brown University), he has played with Sting and Bruce Springsteen, and he's been an international spokesperson for Amnesty International. Again, all pretty heroic things. In my opinion, what makes Arn a hero is his love his country and it's music and his passion to keep it alive. When Arn returned to Cambodia he sought to find as many of the old masters of Cambodia's musical era as he could and enlist them to teach a new generation of classical musicians. He found Cambodia's most famous opera singer living homeless on the street. He found the "Ray Charles of Cambodia" living as a peasant. These people were the Frank Sinatra's and Louis Armstrongs of their day. What was so profoundly sad beyond their living condition is that NO ONE knew who they are. The Khmer Rouge wiped the slate of history clean. There is almost no connection to a past. Arn is slowly, methodically and intricately re-connecing the historical threads of Cambodia to today's generation. He has founded three non-profit organzations but you can tell that Cambodia Living Arts is his passion. He has currently grown it to a $250 million dollar organization and says next year they'll get to half a billion. There's no shortage of optimism there. He was invited to join both the CPP (ruling party) and an opposition party but he said if he joined with the politicians he could no longer speak the truth about what's going on in Cambodia. (What is it about politicians everywhere that renders them incabable of speaking truth).
Arn pointed to the building across the street (we were about three blocks from my house). "When I came back to Cambodia there were four massage parlors on this street. There are now 25. Inside the largest one are 500 girls being sold for sex. What do we want for Cambodia, folks? You must know these girls see 10 percent of what they earn, I mean EVERYONE knows this. The rest go to their pimps and the government for allowing them to operate." I was shocked at Arn's outspokenness about government corruption and lack of responsiveness and frankly, a little afraid for him. "Look at this young woman here," as he points to one of the students at Cambodian Living Arts. "She's one of the best performers in our school and she came from the slum behind the building we are looking at. What is it we want for our future? Do we want Cambodia to be known for it's sex trade or do we want people to know us for our rich tradition of artistic achievement?"
I love people's stories. I felt both inspired and small next to Arn. I wondered why with all I've been given I haven't accomplished 10 percent of what this man has done. Why am I not living more fully into my potential. I'm seeing these people almost every day that throw their entire self including every penny they have into a personal mission. And it return, it all comes back multiplied. I know this is the law of attraction. It's biblical, it's Buddhist, it's apparently a law of the universe. Maybe my job is to just keep capturing these images and giving witness to possibilities for making a difference. The encounter with Arn also made me even more excited about the Heroic Imagination Project. As I talk about it to people here, it seems really well received. Hopefully, I've at least inspired you to read Never Fall Down or see The Flute Player or both. I promise you won't be a lesser person for it.