Eerie Art Form
There’s something about smot that gives me peace and calm. I close my eyes and at once I am in a trance. For most Khmer people, young and old, smot is an eerie type of traditional music, one that beckons the dead. Just saying the word is enough to give some people the creeps.
I did not grow up listening to smot. I only heard of it last year when my parents listened to it constantly as my father’s health was deteriorating. My mother would play the CDs of smot music for my father to comfort him, to comfort both of them. Since then, I have been fascinated by this unique traditional music. Though I have limited understanding of the verses, it’s the sound that captivates me the most. The melodies are melancholic and heavy, unlike most traditional Khmer music, which are upbeat and light. The voices of the smot singers are mature and hauntingly beautiful.
Not Just For Funerals
When I came to Cambodia, I was interested in learning more about this music. I asked Khmer people what they thought of it. The most common reaction I would get is an immediate sense of fear. They were scared of listening to it. It would conjure up memories of a funeral and the fear of their own death. To many Khmers who are superstitious, the voices of the smot singers would summon ghosts.
Contrary to popular belief, smot is not just for funerals. It is an ancient art form central to Theravada Buddhism going back thousands of years. It is used for many Buddhist occasions, particularly in bonns (religious ceremonies) throughout the year, such as Bonn Kathun, Pchum Bun, Pachay Boun as well as funerals. Smot singers painstakingly chant intricate poems, which tell the story of Buddha’s life and recite the central tenants of Buddhist principles.
Smot singers are unique in their talent. They study the Buddhist texts and chant them elegantly with their voices rising and falling in perfect pitch. They hold their notes so long that it leaves you breathless. When they sing, they close their eyes, immediately drawn into another realm of consciousness, focusing on the melody and verses.
The listeners are in deep concentration, mediating on the words; the meaning of life and the finality of death. Perhaps this is why most people are afraid of it because to listen to smot is to realize and accept our own impermanence. It is to realize that life is a series of struggles. Smot singers chant their words with deep emotion. It is a difficult technique to master, takes years to learn, and in the past appealed to a small segment of the population. Smot singers are typically older women in the 60s or elder Buddhist monks. However, that is changing.
During the Khmer Rouge, the arts were nearly decimated. Many master musicians of all genres were targeted and executed by the regime, including smot singers. After the war, a non-governmental organization (NGO) called Cambodian Living Arts, was founded by Mr. Arn Chorn Pond, a Khmer Rouge survivor. CLA’s mission is to transform Cambodia through the arts by helping to reconstruct the artistic community. One of their most important initiatives early on was locating the few master musicians who survived. These master musicians train the younger generation their unique art form and through that process, traditional arts can be preserved for the country, for the next generation.
What was once seen as an illusive and eerie art form is slowly turning into a more widely accepted, and appreciated genre thanks to the work of CLA. Phoeun Srey Pov, also commonly known as Sreypov Smot, is only 23 years old but has made a name for herself as a young smot singer. Sreypov started learning smot at 13 years old when she attended an open audition by CLA in Kampong Speu province.
At first, she was also scared of smot, but since she enjoyed singing, she thought she would try it out. She also saw it as an opportunity to build her future and help her family. With the help of two master musicians, she learned the texts and trained her voice to hold the notes that are unique to the craft. With a natural talent and hard work she earned a scholarship from CLA to continue her studies in Phnom Penh.
When she was not in school or studying she would travel to the pagodas to sing smot. She became so popular that she landed her own TV show on the Cambodian Television Network (CTN). She never would have imagined that 10 years later, she would travel the world sharing this music. Through her work, she’s helping to create awareness that smot isn’t something to be feared. It’s part of our roots, deeply embedded in our culture, central to the Buddhist principles. Now, she has opened a consulting business helping people who need guidance in organizing Buddhist ceremonies. She also continues to sing smot at bonns, and on TV. Without that first step in overcoming her fear of smot, she never would have the success and notoriety she has today.
Cambodian Living Arts, the master musicians and Sreypov, are all helping to breathe new life into this ancient tradition. With the success of Sreypov, more young people are starting to listen and learn this ancient music. What once was an endangered artform is now slowly starting to be reborn and appreciated.
It does not have the wide appeal of popular music with synthetic beats, manipulated voices and foreign ideals of beauty and success. Instead, smot is profoundly deep and encourags listeners to contemplate the meaning of human existence. The voices of the smot singers are pure, unedited and timeless. It is beautiful, meaningful and authentic, the heart of Khmer music. Many people are still scared of smot—but perhaps if they overcome their fear, and take time to listen and learn about smot, they may see that it brings them peace in a chaotic world.
While most of the followers are still older, increasingly more young people are starting to embrace it. It is part of the Cambodian identity, that while you can enjoy modern music there is something beautiful and pure in discovering our traditional music, our roots. If more young people can open their mind to listen to this music, learn about it, and perhaps learn singing it, there will be a chance that this type of ancient music will live on for generations to come.
To learn more about Cambodian Living Arts, please visit: http://www.cambodianlivingarts.org
Watch the video below to learn more about Sreypov's story.