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Amplifying the Indigenous Identity (language)  through theatrical performance and multimedia

Written by: Chhim Chhounden, Phum Asia Centre founder and CoP-IP Lead 

Supported by: Linking and Learning Team of Live and Learn Cambodia, Linking and Learning Facilitator of Voice in Cambodia

Our journey began with a vision to excavate our culture and tradition, the rich cultural tapestry of the Kouy indigenous people, a community whose voice has been fading into the background of modernity. Recognising the Kouy language as the soul of their identity, we sought to amplify their stories, traditions and beliefs through the powerful medium of Yeke opera—a traditional Cambodian art form. This project was a collaboration between Phum Asia, specialists in performance arts, and OPKC, advocates for the Kouy community’s cultural preservation. Together, we embarked on a mission to rekindle pride in Kouy heritage among the youth and the wider community in Kompong Thom and Preah Vihear provinces. 

During a rehearsal supported by an Art Teacher from the Department of Art in Kompong Thom town
During a rehearsal supported by an Art Teacher from the Department of Art in Kompong Thom town

Our narrative unfolded over 68 days, starting with a month dedicated to scenario writing, capturing the essence of Kouy life 50 years ago. With no prior experience in opera, our seven actors—hailing from the heart of Kouy communities—embarked on an intensive 8-day training regime, spanning weekends full of rehearsals from dawn till midnight. The linguistic shift to performing entirely in the Kouy language posed a beautiful challenge, weaving authenticity into every dialogue and song. Community engagement was profound, with local leaders, guardsmen, women, and youths contributing passionately, showcasing a united front of cultural celebration and support. 

March 8, 2024 marked a historic moment for the Kouy people and our team as the curtains rose on the first Yeke performance in the Kouy language. Witnessed by 1,000 individuals from 12 villages, the opera was not just a performance but a declaration of identity, resilience, and unity. The overwhelming attendance and support from the Department of Culture signified a collective endorsement of our cultural conservation efforts. This event transcended entertainment, becoming a beacon of pride and a catalyst for reinvigorating the Kouy language and traditions. 

A prayer by the whole group before opening day
A prayer by the whole group before opening day

A spiritual prayer before starting the event
A spiritual prayer before starting the event

The journey was laden with challenges, from compressing training into brief weekends to navigating the complexities of budget management and linguistic fidelity. Yet, each obstacle became a steppingstone towards innovation and deeper community integration. Our reflections reveal the indispensable value of genuine collaboration between organisations and the communities we serve. As we ponder future endeavors, our sights are set on broadening the project’s reach, potentially through media collaborations, to immortalise the Kouy legacy and inspire other indigenous communities to voice their heritage with equal fervor. 

Our narrative is a testament to the Kouy community’s power, resilience, and determination. Through this Project Journey, we aim not just to share our experiences but to inspire action and support for the ongoing celebration and preservation of indigenous cultures. We envision a future where every indigenous voice is heard, cherished, and amplified across generations. Join us in this mission to safeguard the tapestries of our shared human heritage, for in each story and song lies the heartbeat of a culture waiting to be discovered and revered. 

Reflecting on this journey, it’s clear that our path was not just about reviving a language or an art form; it was about reigniting a sense of belonging, identity, and pride among the Kouy people. As we move forward, we carry with us the lessons of resilience, the joy of collective achievement, and the hope of a future where cultural heritage is a source of unending pride and unity. 

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