BU Today feature: How Cambodian Music Recalls Ancestors and Brings Comfort

Jeffrey Dyer, an ethnomusicologist pursuing his PhD at Boston University, says Cambodians use music and chants to invite the dead and ancestors into their lives, which provides them with a feeling of support as they work through day-to-day hardships.

This article originally appeared in BU Today on November 25, 2019. By Art Jahnke. 

Sixteen years ago, when Jeffrey Dyer first heard Cambodian music in the documentary The Flute Player, the classically trained pianist was captivated. Later, visits to the Angkor Dance Troupe in Lowell, Mass., deepened his fascination with the non-Western sounds and harmonies. Dyer, now a PhD student in Boston University’s College of Fine Arts’ department of musicology & ethnomusicology, has since made seven research trips to Cambodia, and has worked with dozens of Cambodian American musicians in the US.

Jeffrey Dyer poses for a photo while performing music in Cambodia
Dyer has learned to play nearly forty songs on Cambodian instruments, and has had the chance to play alongside local musicians at rituals in Cambodia.
“Over the years, I learned to play close to forty songs on Cambodian instruments, and as I got better, I had the chance to play with [Cambodian] musicians at rituals,” Dyer says.

Now, he’s exploring all the ways that musical sounds of rituals are used to call spirits and ancestors who bring comfort and guidance to ritual participants and witnesses.

Cambodia, Dyer says, has long been a land in need of comfort. From the late 1960s to the early 1990s, much of the country was a world on fire, torn apart first by US bombing during the Vietnam War, then by a civil war, then decimated by genocide at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, and finally plagued by violence that lasted long after a Vietnamese army removed the Khmer Rouge from power. Today, many observers see Cambodia as a scarred country, a place where people still struggle to recover from decades of trauma.

Dyer’s research pushes against such characterization. He believes Cambodians’ appeals for comfort are more likely to be focused on immediate needs, such as food, clean water, and relief from poverty. He is examining how music and rituals help Cambodians deal with hardships, including both their painful past and their daily deprivations. The Brink talked with Dyer to learn more about his research.

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