Tasked with guiding souls onto the next life, Seng Norn is one of the only surviving masters of kontoamming. Editor Marissa Carruthers finds out more about his incredible journey to keep tradition alive. Photography by Chean Long.
“I’m afraid of death but not the death itself; I’m afraid I will not have the time to pass on kontoamming to the next generation anymore as it’s my life.” Those are the words of Seng Norn – one of few surviving masters of the ancient form of funeral music that is believed to lead the soul from life to death.
Born in 1941 in Spean Koeak village in Siem Reap into a farming family, Seng’s lifelong passion for music started when he learned to play the pin peat at the age of 16. He soon discovered the ancient art of kontoamming – rare and ancient funeral music consisting of a large drum, two male and female gongs, and the srolai flute – was fading out so asked Master Um Cheib to teach him.
“I was afraid it would be lost,” the 75-year-old says. “People were frightened to learn it because it’s funeral music and they were scared of ghosts. The masters performing it were old and if I didn’t carry it on it might be lost forever.
It wasn’t long before Seng was performing kontoamming as part of a handful of ensembles that existed throughout the country at funerals across Siem Reap province.
Soon his fears came close to coming true when in 1975 the Khmer Rouge took hold, targeting artists among many others under the brutal regime. “Music was completely shut down,” he says with his head bowed. “There were no performances. We were not allowed to do anything.”
The only way to survive was for Seng to hide his identity, and his instruments. “I would be killed if they knew I was an artist,” he adds.
Determined to preserve the art form he had devoted most of his life to rekindling, Seng snuck to his Master’s house opposite his own. It was here that he wrapped his instrument in cloth, dug a hole in the ground and buried it.
“All I could think about was hiding them to protect them so they wouldn’t be destroyed, and remembering where I buried them so I could come back and get them,” he recalls.
Sure enough, when he returned after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge, his instruments were still there, intact. One of them is still used today. “All I could think about was trying to find other surviving kontoamming performers so we could form an ensemble again,” he says.
After seeking out three surviving musicians, who have all since died, the ensemble started performing again locally before Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) discovered him and another surviving kontoamming master in 2004.
In a bid to revive traditional art forms that were almost destroyed under the Khmer Rouge, CLA supported them in its mission to pass on skills to the next generation, including Seng’s grandsons, Pong Pon and his younger brother Rean.
Seng’s classes were initially hit with resistance from his community. “It is believed to bring bad luck to people living in the village if kontoamming is played there when there is no funeral,” he says, recalling how he had to build a shack in paddies on the outskirts of the village to teach from.
Said to have existed since Buddha found enlightenment, the music is made of three instruments replicating his meditation. The sound of cicadas is heard in the wind instrument, the drum resembles the claps of thunder and the monsoons are brought to life with the gongs.
While two troupes now exist thanks to CLA and Seng’s efforts, kontoamming remains rare across Cambodia where pin peat and smog singers are used instead. It is completely extinct in Phnom Penh.
In 2008, Seng had his own brush with death when he caught tuberculosis and slipped into a coma. Believed to be hours away from death, his family had a coffin made for him, which they set up next to his bed along with musical instruments to play upon his passing.
Fortunately, CLA staff visited him at home and took him to Royal Angkor Hospital, where he was stabilised and nursed back to health. “I was so happy to hear my grandsons set up the kontoamming performance,” he says. “I know I don’t have to worry about kontoamming music.”
Seng continued teaching until retiring in 2014 due to ill health. In September, his dedication paid off when he stepped outside Cambodia for the first time, travelling to New York with his grandsons to perform as part of American artist Taryn Simon’s An Occupation of Loss.
Comprised of 30 professional mourners from across the globe, including Russia and Venezuela, the performance saw each of them showcase their traditional music and song together at Park Avenue Armory.
In June, the performance will be replicated in London.
“I never expected that I’d have the chance to perform kontoamming and leading my two grandsons to perform internationally at least once in my lifetime,” he says. “I am so proud of my fortune, and especially kontoamming.”