19 January 2021 | Written by Danielle KHLEANG with support from ROEUN Rina
This interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.
Since the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic on March 11, 2020, there have been no shortage of headlines announcing the hard-felt economic impact on the Cambodian arts sector. This left many cultural institutions lacking the vital patronage of tourists needed to stay afloat, thus putting artists out of work.
Among the performers left without a stage is Cambodia’s only all women drum troupe, Medha. Medha – meaning “the wisdom to move forward” in Khmer – formed in 2017 by SANG Sreypich and MEN Mao following their participation in a Cambodian Living Arts workshop. Despite the challenges that COVID-19 poses to art organizations and artists alike, Medha has remained true to their spirit. Not knowing when they’ll take back the stage, the group is forging ahead to explore new music.
To learn more about this powerful group of musicians and the community they’ve built through art, I spoke with the group’s own CHAMROUN “Vanna” Rittysokvanna. When I first attempted to call Vanna, the 24-year-old was nowhere to be seen. Instead my video call was greeted by an upwards view of a clear blue sky and the sounds of moto traffic. Vanna was still in transit and we agreed to try again in a few moments.
Speaking with the help of ROEUN Rina – our senior production coordinator with a long-standing relationship with Medha – translating, I posed my first question, “Tell me a little bit about yourself and why you joined Medha?”A single mom to a seven-year-old boy, Vanna worked as a dance performer at a restaurant in Siem Reap before joining Medha. Though Vanna enjoyed dancing, it didn’t bring her respect as an artist. She noted, “When I was a dancer people thought we just did it for money, so I didn’t feel proud of my profession.” But dancing became her path to Medha:
One of the founders [of Medha] was a fellow dancer and invited me to see them. When I first saw the troupe, I thought they were so cool. Eventually I was invited to join as an unofficial member. I started out in the back picking up bits here and there while they practiced. I got my chance to become a full member when one woman left the group.
Becoming a full-fledged member was just the beginning of Vanna’s journey as a musician:
When I first started my arms were swollen from hitting the big drums. People around me said this was proof girls couldn’t play the drums. That was the moment I knew I had to do it. To prove that women could do what they wanted.
Speaking on the impact playing music has had on her life, Vanna said, “Being a Medha member has made my life better because I’ve met so many good people and other artists who appreciate what I do and encourage me to go further” adding, “as a member of Medha, I’ve gotten to know myself better and found a community that supports me.”
The bonds of this community showed their true strength as COVID-19 shut down performance venues. Since the closing of public gatherings, the members of Medha have had to find other ways to support themselves and their families. However, jobs in any sector are hard to come by. Vanna shared that since Medha’s forced hiatus, she found work at a publishing house but was laid off due to the widespread economic impact of the coronavirus and now works part-time at a restaurant.
The Medha message is that we want every girl and woman around the world to know that they have wisdom. That women and men are equal in this world. Through our performances we want to inspire women and girls to know that they’re worthy and strong. – Vanna
During these uncertain times, one thing that prevails is Medha’s commitment to their craft and each other. In the last couple of months – as Cambodia eases some national restrictions – Medha has been able to come together to practice and explore new music. Speaking on this Vanna said:
If we didn’t play, we wouldn’t be musicians. We must play to stay sharp. We want to practice so we don’t lose the music we already have, and we come together to explore new pieces and keep growing as musicians. [During COVID] we can’t financially support each other because we all lost our jobs. But we always call to check in on each other and help each other find new jobs if we have any leads. We also remind each other to stay safe, stay healthy and practice good hygiene.
Rina echoed this sentiment about Medha’s community value when I asked her what the group’s presence brings to Cambodia’s arts ecosystem:
Their spirit is very strong… each has their own life and own issues, but playing the drums together and being artists, they believe makes their lives better and stronger… I see when they perform in the community or the school [that] they give people the opportunity to open their eyes. People say, ‘I can’t believe they perform so strong as women.’ The students – especially the girls – gave us feedback that Medha inspired them. When they perform for students, they share their story and [it] changes girls’ perspectives. [It] shows them how much they can do when they grow up.
My final question to Vanna was if she could tell people around the world one thing about Medha, what it would be, she responded, “The Medha message is that we want every girl and woman around the world to know that they have wisdom. That women and men are equal in this world. Through our performances we want to inspire women and girls to know that they’re worthy and strong.”
Cambodia Current is a Living Arts Blog pillar highlighting the intersection of arts, society and current affairs.