The sounds of Phnong
by Tom Vater
[ places - november 02 ]
"We live as free men on this earth that was passed down to us by our ancestors, who were never anyone's subjects. Today, if the country is ruled by the French, we will not ask them for help. The Phnong have always been independent."
- Phnong chiefs' joint statement made in 1922, facing a French administration.
The rolling hills of Mondulkiri look desolate in the bright light of the early afternoon sun. Above the barren landscape, burnt to a crisp during the dry winter months, the Cambodian sky looms as it does everywhere, silent, dark, waiting to discharge the first rains of the season at any time. Despite the red laterite dust that whirls across the deforested countryside and gets into clothing, hair and eyes, the views are great. In all directions low green and brown brush covers the plateau in the centre of Mondulkiri Province, which rises 800m above sea level.
This is Cambodia's wild east, an area rarely visited by tourists and backpackers. Population density is low here and more than half of the province's 30,000 or so inhabitants belong to the Phnong minority. The indigenous communities in the area share their space with increasingly rare mammals. Wild elephants, bears, several species of wild buffalo and deer, leopards and even a few tigers are said to live in the remoter parts of the province.
The huts and houses of the Phnong hug the gently undulating hills. There is no protection from the elements here; the nearest clusters of pine trees are a long way away.
Outside the province's capital, Sen Monorom, in the small Phnong villages, there are few facilities. There is no electricity or running water, though many of the Phnong settlements are situated not far from streams. The bamboo framed, straw covered houses are home to several families at a time.
During the daytime the villages are almost deserted; the Phnong are out in their fields, often some considerable distance from their homes. They cultivate rice and more recently coffee on patches of land that are wrested from the forest by slash and burn. The Phnong also grow bananas, corn and various vegetables, which they sell in the market in Sen Monorom. This enables the hill tribe to participate marginally in the cash economy; their meagre earnings buy them salt, spices and clothes. Pigs and a few cattle meander between village huts but meat here is too precious to be part of an everyday diet. It's reserved for sacrifices and occasional festivals, paying respect to the spirits that pervade all aspects of everyday life.
The Phnong are experienced elephant mahouts too, catching young animals in the wild with nothing more than ropes, separating them from their herds, a risky and dangerous business, and finally domesticating the giant pachyderms to carry heavy loads and help with logging.
Budang is a settlement of ten or so houses. The village linked to the province's capital by a series of narrow, dusty paths that criss-cross the rolling emptiness.
In the centre of the settlement, a young man with distinct tribal tattoo markings on his forearms sits under the shade of a roughly built shelter, sorting out strands of rattan grass for the construction of a new roof. There are children everywhere. Dressed in torn and frayed Vietnamese army shirts and little else, they roam through their settlement on the look out for something to do. The young man has an open, welcoming smile and a knowing carefree expression on his face.
In cultural terms the Phnong are not doing too badly right now. After resisting the French, the Vietnamese, the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese again, and now the Cambodian government authorities, their language and cultural integrity has survived, even if the exact location they call home has not. In the Pol Pot years the Phnong did not fare well and were forcefully resettled so many times that although they are still on their homeland, the exact locations of old villages, birthplaces and so on is long lost. For a visiting anthropologist, the indigenous communities of Mondulkiri Province present a real challenge. The Phnong, alongside smaller ethnic communities, have been disenfranchised, displaced and suppressed so many times in the last thirty years that their cultural and spiritual traces are strewn haphazardly all across the province.
The rattan piled into neat mounts, Don, the village's Kuong player, marches to his hut, a simple Khmer-style plywood box house and soon returns with his instrument. The children, happy to have a break from chasing each other and the village's dog population around, gather round the young man as he tunes up his 8-stringed instrument. The Kuong is fashioned from a bamboo stick that serves as a neck. A hollowed-out dried gourd serves as the body, while thin hardwood sticks wedged through the upper half of the neck are used as machine heads. The sound is a bit weedy but not at all unpleasant. The strings are played open, without recourse to a fret-board, melodies emerge from the combination of root notes repeated in small riffs and patterns over and over again. A large crowd of children accompanied by a few women is gathering around the musician in the afternoon sun.
The Phnong don't grow drugs like their indigenous Lao counterparts, they don't wear colourful tribal outfits that identify their community to outside visitors, they are not on any tourist route. And yet there is a certain vibrancy and resilience against outside forces evident in their lives. The majority of Phnong have not bothered to learn Khmer. No one in Budang speaks English or French. In fact village chiefs are usually selected on the basis of who's the best man around to communicate with the outside world, a mediator who keeps Cambodia and Khmer culture at a distance, rather than a figure of authority.
Don has made his way to the only house in the village that rests on stilts. On a narrow veranda, he cracks open a bottle of rice wine and explains with a wide grin, "No wine, no music."
The women and children have followed suit and are beginning to settle in a semicircle around the young man as he continues to tune his instrument between occasional gulps of wine and short bursts of wonderful soaring melodies. A little of the wine is tipped between the wooden floorboards of the house, a small offering to the spirits that inhabit all aspects of natural life for the Phnong. Small rituals to appease these spirits, as well as elaborate sacrifices and ceremonies are another important part of Phnong culture, that have survived thirty years of war and carnage.
The elephants are kept some way from the villages. Here on the plateau there is not enough food for the gentle giants. The Phnong identify strongly with the animals, and a legend about the elephant's origin is told over and over again.
Once upon a time, two young Phnong boys sat by a river fishing. After a successful catch, the older boy grilled and ate his fish. Soon he felt his body break out in a rash and began to scratch feverishly. His skin suddenly turned hard and grey and the boy grew and grew quickly in front of his brother's eyes. When he reached an enormous size and stopped growing, he said to his brother, "Please run to the village and tell our friends what has happened. I don't want to be the only one looking like this."
The younger brother followed the elephant's instructions, and soon the villagers all grilled their catches and ate with great joy. The villagers all began to itch and scratch. And after a short while, they all turned into elephants. The young boy had to prepare food for these giants who refused to consume anything but cooked rice.
One day, the boy jumped up in protest, "I can't cook this much rice anymore," he said and flung the bowl of boiled rice to the ground. Everywhere the rice fell, lush vegetation sprung up from the dry soil and the elephant grass soon covered an area as far as the boy could see. The remaining people quickly trained the elephants to carry huge loads and it wasn't long until the elephants complained about their work. But the men countered, "Your bodies are so enormous, you should be able to carry anything."
One day, a giant called Nut arrived and turned the elephants tongues upside down, then pulled their lips away from their faces, stretching them longer and longer until the elephants could complain no more.
Don gets down to seriously pick out a melody. The young man next to him, Cham, a friendly bearded face with a huge smile of perfect yellow teeth, falls slowly into an understated sing-song, weaving in and around the melody played on the Kuong, as the entire population of Budang gathers around. This village is home to no more than a handful of men, about ten women and many many children, most of them under ten. There are no old men here and only one or two women over 45.
Cham has picked up an empty glass bottle and is soon beating a pulse with a pen, a high-pitched clank as steady as a metronome, until he rests to light a cigarette. The music is not tightly structured. Musicians work in their own time, stop and start at will without interrupting the flow of the song or the festive occasion in general.
The afternoon sun bathes the veranda in a warm light that has broken through the looming cloudscape, which races across the plateau, turning the hills golden. The wine bottle empties quickly and another one is fetched from one of the near-by houses where rice wine is stored in great earthen jars, the pride and most important possession of any Phnong household.
Two more women arrive on a clapped-out moped, perhaps the only one in the village and the only quick link to Sen Monorom, 10 km across the hills. The women take their places amongst the group of villagers.
Kiun is about 22, heavily pregnant, a tiny baby in a sling around her neck. She fills her glass twice and rolls a joint from what looks like an old shopping list on a piece of scrap paper and dried, roughly cut ganja. Now she is ready to sing. Don, pretty oblivious to who exactly is singing and who is not, carries on playing regardless. His friend Cham continues beating his bottle, falling into mumbled song occasionally. The villagers are amused and happy. After a hard day out in the burning sun, any kind of change from the daily grind of tilling an unforgiving land and eking a subsistence level life from the hard soil is more than welcome.
Kiun starts to sing, irregardless of the percussion's speed. It is her song and the kuong as well as the bottle have to follow. The children chatter and a few of the other women sing weird echoing harmonies in the background.
Kiun is in her element, her rough and beautiful voice soaring above the clamour and happy chaos that is turning the small veranda into a party. Behind Cham, in the door of the house, just outside the reach of the sun's rays, a young woman combs her long wet black hair, without self-consciousness or awareness of anyone watching. She slowly applies some crème to her expressionless, placid face, her eyes drifting lazily from the musicians to Kiun.
Kiun is gregarious and in a riotous mood. Despite having her third child on the way shortly, Kiun likes to party as hard as anyone else and soon launches into a song about lost love and misery that sounds grating and up-beat, in a defiant kind of way. Cham glances at the woman sceptically every now and then, really not sure at what speed to accompany her. The last sun of the day throws wild rays across the tired faces of the musicians, while pigs root noisily around the mud underneath the house, their snouts just visible between the slats, probably hoping to catch a few drops of the sacrificial rice wine.
The music carries sonic traces of the Phnong's entire history, voices their concerns and dreams of better times.
Kiun launches into a song about friendly visitors, who, although rare, are always welcome in a Phnong community. The Phnong are happy to share what they have - nothing but their language, culture and animist spirit faith.
As the light slowly fades another lady makes her way through the crowd of half naked urchins.
Samai is 25. She's wearing a stiff marine blouse that gives her a very formal countenance, enhanced by the only wristwatch in evidence. Her hair is tied in a neat, hard bun. Unlike the wild hair and clothes of the other women, Samai's appearance betrays a large amount of self-confidence and not for nothing. She sits down in the centre of the small gathering without hesitation.
After a short hushed consultation with Don, Samai, a faint, confident smile on her face, knocks back a glass of wine and launches into a song about Phnong family life, about the loss of her parents and relatives to the war and the lawlessness that has plagued Mondulkiri for so long. The song's melody, driven by her pure high-pitched voice clearly stands out. The village's most accomplished vocalist has touched down. Samai's voice silences the chatter of the kids, pulls the fading sun right onto the terrace and into the small group and fills this little oasis of community life with purpose and joy.
The song finished with, Samai is applauded and explains that she has been singing in Charrai, another minority language from the Mondulkiri area, because she likes the Charrai songs very much. Cultural confusion and uncertainty have brought the various indigenous groups closer together.
The wine gone, the last joint burnt out, the sun dipping below the hills and ushering in a cold breeze that sweeps through Budang, the party quickly disperses. The women return to their huts to cook, the kids jump excitedly around the dusty tracks between the houses while the men are off to look for their elephants in the bush, and perhaps to have a hushed conversation about heavy loads and cooked rice, as they have been doing on their own terms for as long as they can remember.