The master practitioner of lakhon bassac (Cambodian folk opera) in Philadelphia, Peang Koung is a professional who had 35 years of experience with the art form by the time he emigrated to the United States. Born in Kompong Thom, Cambodia, in 1931, he was drawn to music and the arts. He learned from village elders and taught himself; by the time he was 14, he had a growing reputation for his skills on wind, string, and percussion instruments. Mr. Koung was also known for his ayaii singing (a kind of improvisatory verbal dueling between a female and a male singer), his knowledge of wedding and mohori music, and his musical instrument-making, costume design, painting, and sculpture.
At 19, Mr. Koung was singing, acting and producing an opera that played to overflowing crowds twice a night in Phnom Penh. He became a monk when he was 22, and stopped playing music for a time, but after five years he gave up being a monk, married, and returned to his musical career. The war in Cambodia put an abrupt end to his role as a musician.
Mr. Koung spent three years in a Khmer Rouge labor camp. Twenty-six musical instruments that he had painstakingly crafted were destroyed. He and his family escaped, eventually making their way to a Thai refugee camp. In 1983, they came to the United States, carrying their musical instruments on their backs. Mr. Koung has taught his children to play Khmer traditional music, and they perform regularly, supplying the music needed for traditional Cambodian weddings, funerals, and ceremonies welcoming the new year and honoring the ancestors.
Mr. Koung's instruments were displayed at the Philadelphia Folklore Project's exhibit "Folk Arts of Social Change." He has also been featured in numerous PFP publications.
Folk Arts of Social Change (FASC)