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Homegrown Plus: Cambodian-American Heritage Dancers with Chum Ngek Ensemble

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In the Homegrown Plus series, we present Homegrown concerts that also had accompanying oral history interviews, placing both together in an easy-to-find blog post. (Find the whole series here!) We’re continuing the series with a concert and oral history with the Cambodian-American Heritage Dancers with Chum Ngek Ensemble. Update: in September, 2020, Chum Ngek did a second concert for the Homegrown at Home concert series. That video has been added below.


A woman dancer in traditional Cambodian performance dress performs with another dancer wearing an elaborate monster mask. Musicians can be seen in the background.
The Cambodian-American Heritage Dancers and Chum Ngek Ensemble perform at the Library of Congress in 2017. Photo by Stephen Winick.

The Cambodian-American Heritage Dancers and Chum Ngek Ensemble presented a program of classical Khmer dance and music from the Cambodian court repertoire at the Library of Congress on May 25, 2017. This classical art is associated with the Angkor Empire (802-1432), a time when Cambodia was large and powerful. In traditional Cambodia, music and dance were always respected as offerings to gods, ancestors, and teachers. They could also connect the human world with the supernatural world.  Since the fifteenth century, Cambodia has shrunk in size and has become poor as a result of centuries of invasion, colonization, war, and political upheaval, but these art forms preserve the learning of a more peaceful and prosperous time. Cambodian-American Heritage, Inc. is a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of Cambodian arts and culture here in the United States through its dance troupe and music ensemble.

Two female dancers dance on top of lotus blossoms.
Two Apsara, divine female spirits, dance on top of lotus blossoms on a stone at Angkor Wat. The main temple at Angkor Wat was built between 1113 and 1150. This photo was made between ca. 1900 and 1930. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. //

Cambodian classical dance, music, and song are connected to the Hindu history of the country and dances done as an offering to gods. Although dancing spirits, Aspara, are depicted on the walls of Angkor Wat and other ancient sites, there are no surviving written texts connecting modern artists to the meanings and traditions of dance as depicted in ancient sites. Still ancient reliefs and sculptures of dancers continue to inspire the living tradition. As the country became primarily Buddhist by the 13th century, the dances were adapted to the new religion. Dance, music, and song was also a part of official ceremonies and the Kingdom of Cambodia until 1970 had a large royal performing company. When the Pol Pot regime came to power all this was destroyed, as the new government tried to obliterate everything and everyone associated with the former government and Buddhism.  It is thought that between 80 and 90 percent of performing artists were killed or died in work camps during this time. Many of the survivors fled the country and did not return. Since the restoration of the monarchy in 1993 there has been a great effort to recover what was lost in Cambodia. Cambodians in the diaspora have also been working to revitalize their arts. Experienced teachers are treasured resources as they bear the traditions that must be passed on and have joined in an international effort to restore Cambodian arts.

Musician and composer Chum Ngek and dancer Sam Oeun Tes are two artists who escaped the Pol Pot regime and found their ways to the United States. Chum Ngek fled first to Thailand and then immigrated to the United States in 1982. Sam Oeun Tes cam directly to the United States in 1971. They have dedicated their careers to presenting, teaching, and preserving the performing arts of Cambodia. They collaborated in this special performance of the The Cambodian-American Heritage Dancers and Chum Ngek Ensemble. Enjoy the video and then scroll down for the oral history (direct links for both videos are in the Resources section at the end of this blog).

Principal musician Chum Ngek is one of the few living Khmer music masters worldwide who possess a vast repertoire and command of multiple instruments across various genres. He is a longtime teacher of Cambodian musical arts, and is the 2004 recipient of the Bess Lomax Hawes Award, the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship conferred upon an artist who has significantly benefited his or her tradition through teaching and preserving important repertoires. Chum has also received honors from The Maryland State Arts Council. He also teaches at the Cambodian Buddhist Society, Inc. in Silver Spring.

Principal dancer Sam Oeun Tes was trained in classical court dance at the Royal Ballet of Cambodia from Cambodia’s top dance masters. She performed for many guests of state before migrating to the United States in 1971. Since the early 1980’s, Sam Oeun has been the principal teacher and dancer of the Cambodian American Heritage Dance Troupe. She has also performed and conducted dance workshops in many colleges and universities on the East Coast. She regularly leads her troupe in both local and national performances at venues such as the Smithsonian, the Kennedy Center, the Library of Congress, the White House, and a host of other federal agencies and festivals. She has performed throughout the world in countries such as Egypt, South Africa, Turkey, and Taiwan. In 1998, Sam Oeun was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts.

In 2020 Master Chum Ngek kindly agreed to participate in the American Folklife Center’s Homegrown at Home virtual concert series, giving a solo concert on several instruments. The concert is narrated by Joanna Pecore. First you will hear him play the tror, a two stringed bowed fiddle. Next he plays a wedding song on the  khimm, a hammered dulcimer. Third is a piece called “Girl Walking on Sand” that Master Chum learned as a child from his teacher, Master Chou Nit, and is  is played on the roneat, a 21-keyed xylophone that is his specialty instrument. The last piece, also played on the roneat, is “Cutting in,” a piece usually performed by multiple players who “cut in” to take over the melody and compete with each other. [Added May 2021]

In this interview, Sam Oeun Tes, Chum Ngek, dancer Chhim Bonavy and musician Chum Sovann (son of Chum Ngek) talk with Joanna Pecore, Asian Arts and Culture Center Director at Towson University, about their art and what it means to them (2017).


Cambodian American audio recordings and photograph documented as part of the Lowell Folklife Project, Library of Congress. (Lowell Massachusetts)

The Cambodian-American Heritage Dancers and Chum Ngek Ensemble, May 25, 2017 (webcast). Also on Library of Congress YouTube.

Chum Ngek, virtual concert, Library of Congress, September 23, 2020. [Added May 2021]

Oral History with Sam Oeun Tes, Chum Ngek, Chhim Bonavy, Chum Sovann, and Joanna Pecore, May 25, 2017 (webcast). Also on Library of Congress YouTube.

Hall, Stephanie, “A Dance for the Birthday of the Buddha,” Folklife Today, May 12, 2016. A discussion of the performance of the Lao Natasinh Dance Troupe of Iowa at the Library of Congress in 2006. A video of the performance is included.

Hall, Stephanie, “Dance!” Folklife Today, April 19, 2016. Includes links to more videos and blogs.

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