Smot chanting is a Cambodian tradition that few carry on, but Phoeun Sreypov (24) has found creative ways to maintain and modernise the craft through business and television. Joanna Mayhew speaks to the Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) graduate. Photography by Anna Clare Spelman.

What is smot chanting?
Smot is the way of chanting poetry and is usually used in the funeral ceremony. It’s also [used for] other ceremonies, especially at the Buddhist temple. From what I researched, it’s been since the first century that they have had the poems. But no one knows when the chanting [started], because it is passed from one to one. The oldest [recordings] are from before the Khmer Rouge, from the monks. Most people feel scared to hear smot because they think it’s for ghosts. But actually it’s not for ghosts, souls or the people that pass away. It’s for the people who are still alive, to think about the meaning.

When were you first exposed to it?
I was one of the students at CLA who started to study smot in 2004. I was at secondary school in Kampong Speu. I heard from my neighbour that artists would come to select the girl or boy who has a good voice to learn smot. I liked to sing, so I felt I should go. After the test, they selected 14 students, including me.

How did the CLA scholarship help?
Life in the countryside is completely different from the city. Most of my friends dropped out of school at grade eight to work at the factory to support their family. I felt I should go too, because my family needed money. But I wanted to learn more. After I [trained] with CLA for a few years, the founders thought they should bring me to the city to continue my study. Without that scholarship, I wouldn’t be able to work with all kinds of people, go abroad to see the world. It changed my life.

What was the process of learning smot?
In the province, I took lessons five days a week. After I moved to the city, I took a class with Professor Yan Boren, who is one of the famous artists of smot. I took almost 10 years to learn over 100 songs. When I was young, I felt scared of smot. [But] after I learned one song, I performed in my village. After people listened, they came and encouraged me. So I [wanted] to learn more, to have a chance to perform in other villages or the city.

What skills does it take?
Smot uses [some] Pali, the old language. It’s hard to make the sounds. Smot is without music, so the voice is most important. Another is the heart. Some people can smot, but their heart [doesn’t] go [with it]. They just chant and chant. But when we smot, our actions, everything goes together, as we give peace to people. Nowadays it’s hard to find the real smot performer, and people need it. For me, it’s very special when I chant and people [say] they feel better. I [even] chanted at the Royal Palace, when our King Father [passed away]. It was a great experience.

Are you worried the tradition will die out?
Nowadays, [there are] few smot masters, and they are very old. [Those] my age are not many–just 10 people maybe that can chant. I always worry, if all those masters pass away, who can take care of it and pass it to the next generation? Before, people used cassette players and hardly saw the real smot chanter, so they don’t care about the meaning. But the [last] few years, I can see it has become more popular.

Tell me about your new business.
My business, Sreypov Smot, is selling Buddhist offering goods and providing ceremony services–decorations, preparing the place for monks and chanting. So [when] I promote my business, it means I promote my smot. If I just smot, I cannot get enough money to live. I have to do something that connects with smot. I can also give jobs to other chanters. I have five full-time staff and 10 part-time staff. Everywhere I go, people say I am the first one who’s doing this for ceremonies. I believe my business will grow and grow. Everybody in the country has to do a ceremony in their family.

How does your television work and business intersect?
They come together very well. I’m one of the hosts and co-producers for one program on CTN. My program is about ceremonies, and how they connect to religion, culture and arts. My TV program is shot from the ceremonies that my company provides. I don’t have to go to the TV station; I can work and do my program as an emcee. It’s all together.

How do you hope to impact your peers?
I want them to think about the culture, about the old art form. I don’t want them to forget. I don’t want them just to see everything that’s new. I want them to carry both, the old and the new. Even if they cannot smot, I want them to support smot. I don’t want them to [think] all chanters [have to] live in a difficult situation. I want them to see the chanters can do business and live well. I will continue to smot, do business, and teach smot.