A Snake Skin Drum from Cambodia

We were putting together a production of something I wrote—a collection, based in history and imagination, about people in the region of New England I came from. My friend Geoff was writing, and would perform, the musical score for this presentation in upstate New York.

He was stuck in writing the music to accompany an essential piece. I based it on a recent visit to a cultural center in Lowell, Massachusetts. It’s easier to quote than paraphrase:

At Lowell, near the end of the Canal, in a mill building
restored for history and culture, a beautiful Cambodian
demonstrates a blessing dance of her country.

She wears embroidered silks and dances barefoot,
all curves, stillnesses, and concentration.

The dance blesses this place and us. It has survived
her country’s tragedies. The audience represent a hundred years
of immigration from most of the continents.

It was just an interval, the Anglo-Saxon hegemony in New England,
though not quite finished yet, an interval between the Indians
and then the hungrier nations, each in its turn—

as the Canal was an interval between ox teams and the railroad—
as each patch of Earth belongs, as each second of light
belongs for a moment to each of us.

Curves, stillnesses, concentration.

The problem for Geoff was: what did Cambodian classical dance music sound like? Today we would go online to find examples, but this was before that was possible. I thought I had a simple solution: I was planning to visit my mother, whose town on the coast of Massachusetts had a Cambodian neighborhood, including a street with stores that sold goods imported for that population.

I went to three of them. The customers that evening were mostly young. The music being played–and sold on CDs–was Cambodian popular music, a blend of East and West. Take that, Rudyard Kipling, I thought, telling us “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” My half of this particular twain found the music unpleasant. More important, it wasn’t the classical music I’d heard when the dancer performed.

The young sales clerks didn’t know of any recordings that would contain what I was looking for. At the last of the stores, the young man at the CDs counter referred me to an old man stationed at the back of the store, near tables of clothing and silk cloth.

Managing to communicate despite his limited English and my non-existent Cambodian, I explained what I was looking for, and what it was to be used for. He smiled and disappeared for a few minutes, returning with a single tape cassette, with text on its box in both Cambodian and English.

The smile, repeated as I assured him this was what I was looking for, was something I recognized from other encounters. I assumed I knew what it meant: I respected his culture; I wanted to share some part of it; this stranger from the other side of the world honored some small part of what he had left behind.

More than that: I was interested in what the young man at the front counter–who may have been this man’s grandson–surrounded by flashy products and music that fused the brashest elements of our cultures–couldn’t value.

Don’t we always take pleasure and a kind of comfort when we see that something we love is appreciated by someone else? When you add age, distance, and history, the joy can be deeper.

The old man asked me to wait. He brought out something from the back of the store, a small hand drum. He explained what was obvious when I looked more closely: it was handmade and covered with snake skin. He let me tap it.

The price of the beautiful drum was more than I could comfortably afford. I’ve always regretted that I didn’t buy it.

Example of Cambodian dance and music:

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