Cambodian Classical Music: Buddha Overcomes All Obstacles

Dancers portray Mara and his demon army, while another actor portraying the historical Buddha meditates behind them on stage

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Led by master musician Ngek Chum, Cambodian musicians from across the United States perform the undulating melodies and mellow percussion of classical Khmer music that accompanies Buddhist dance-dramas. This performance for the play Buddha Overcomes All Obstacles was produced by Cambodian American Heritage, Inc. (CAHI) and presented in 2018 in conjunction with the exhibition Encountering the Buddha: Art and Practice Across Asia.

Buddha Overcomes All Obstacles

Ngek Chum, roneat aik (treble xylophone) and music director
Sovann Chum, korng thom (large gong circle)
Sophy Hoeung, vocals
Sinath Phul, vocals
Soeum Kim, tror (fiddle)
Kimhan Meas, sampho (small barrel drum) and skor thom (bass drum)
Soboun Nol, sralai (double-reed) and khloy (flute)
Joanna Pecore, roneat thung (bass xylophone)

This performance was recorded in the Meyer Auditorium of the National Museum of Asian Art on November 10, 2018, in conjunction with the exhibition Encountering the Buddha: Art and Practice across Asia.


Siddhartha Kumar was born into the Sakyas (Kshatriya) caste in the capital of Kapilavastu, located in what is now Nepal. When he was born, a fortuneteller announced to his parents that the child would become either an important religious figure or a political leader. Hoping for the latter, his parents ordered Siddhartha be trained as a warrior. They surrounded him in luxury and protected him from experiencing anything unpleasant. At the age of sixteen, Siddhartha Kumar married his cousin, Princess Pimpa Yasodhara, and settled into a privileged family life. Unhappy living in the palace, the prince wanted to go out and see how other people lived.

Scene 1 (0:00 – 13:05)

Prince Siddartha, now twenty-nine years old, and Princess Pimpa Yasodhara are in the palace garden, enjoying a life of luxury.

Song lyrics

Oh, Once upon a time . . . oh . . . Prince Siddhartha and his wife, Pimpa
Oh, seated on an elegant throne . . . oh . . . surrounded by their attendants.

The princess walks . . . oh . . . to enjoy the beautiful sights of nature
Oh, as if it were neatly embroidered.
The Sapotaceae flowers are in full bloom.
She picks them and adorns her body.

The fragrant, flowering trees grow in attractive straight rows.
The prince picks a champei [frangipani or Plumeria alba] flower to give to his beautiful wife.

Scene 2 (13:05-18:40)

Prince Siddhartha leaves the palace with his charioteer, Schannamatya, and witnesses the four signs: an old man, a sick man, a dead body, and a monk. In fact, these are not actual people but instead are the messenger Devabutra transforming himself. The prince, who has never before seen these things, asks Schannamatya for an explanation. Carefully considering what he learns, the prince is determined to find true happiness and supreme peace.

Song lyrics and narration

The prince sees people who seem strange to him,
Strange, uncommon, and extraordinary.
Schannamatya responds to the Prince’s inquiries.
Oh, an old man and sick man . . . oh . . . and there, a dead man.
The prince asks Schannamatya where such men, whom he had never seen before, came from.

Schannamatya continues to explain.

Oh, and over there, there is a monk who is seeking nirvana.

Transience, suffering . . . oh . . . so much suffering . . . birth, old age, sickness, death . . .
bones and flesh returning to the earth.

Scene 3 (18:40-26:30)

Prince Siddhartha’s father, King Suddhodana, prepares a banquet to celebrate the birth of Rahula, the prince’s son. The palace is filled with music and dance. Everyone celebrates until they tire and fall asleep. Prepared to leave the palace, the prince wakes up and takes a final look at his sleeping wife and child.

Song lyrics

At the royal residence, in the hall of the glorious castle,
The monarch and the beloved crown prince preserve time-honored tradition.
Triumphant and prosperous, an auspicious day,
Rahula inherits the power of the Sakya dynasty.

Scene 4 (26:35-32:28)

In search of everlasting peace and happiness, Siddhartha leaves the palace with his charioteer, Schannamatya, and his horse, Kanthaka. They stop at the Anoma River, where the prince renounces his earthly possessions by removing his jewelry, putting on a yellow robe, and cutting off his hair. He tells Schannamatya to bring his jewelry and horse to the king. Schannamatya and Kanthaka are sad to leave their master.

Song lyrics

When the prince arrives at the Anoma River,
he immediately cleanses his body, leaving the laity to become a monk.

He does not hesitate to remove his ornate clothing or to cut his hair with his victory
sword and put it on a golden plate.

He instructs Schannamatya, “It is time for you and the resplendent Kannaka to return to
the city with these things. Inform my father that one day I will return happy and

Then, Siddhartha puts the yellow robe on and becomes a monk.
He sits underneath the bodhi tree.

Scene 5 (32:28-41:30)

Siddhartha assumes a new identity as the ascetic Gotama. He meditates in solitude under a large bodhi tree in a quiet forest. Mara, the Evil One, makes every attempt to prevent Gotama’s enlightenment. Mara tries various tricks to distract him, makes several threats, and even enlists his beautiful daughters to flirt with him. Gotama remains undisturbed.

Song lyrics

Three exceptionally beautiful girls with sparking eyes and lovely smiles entice the monk,
who does not flinch or respond to any of their deceptive gestures.
Oh, offering food from the heavens along with fans, lotus flowers, music, and dance.

Scene 6 (41:30-59:22)

Mara’s army and daughters persist in their attempts to obstruct Gotama’s enlightenment. They intensify their efforts. Meanwhile, Gotama points to the earth to be his witness. Neang Kanghing, Goddess of the Earth, appears and bears witness to his enlightenment. While the goddess squeezes the earth’s water out of her long hair to drown out the evil forces, Gotama becomes Buddha, Sammana Gotama, or the Enlightened One.

Mara’s army marvels at the miracle. The demons instantly have a change of heart. They celebrate and pay their respects to the Buddha. The candlelight represents the emergence from darkness and has become a Buddhist symbol for enlightenment.

Classical Cambodian Dance-Drama: Buddha Overcomes All Obstacles

This dramatic retelling of the Buddha’s determined search for enlightenment follows the Historical Buddha as he encounters the world outside his family’s palace, renounces secular luxuries, and resists temptations from an army of demons. Long performed in the Khmer court tradition, this dance-drama has not been seen on stage since the 1960s. Master musicians and dancers carefully restaged it for this performance in the Meyer Auditorium of the Freer Gallery of Art. Among them are winners of major awards from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as artists formerly with the Royal University of Fine Arts and the Royal Dance Troupe of Cambodia.

View a video the performance here:

Buddhism and Cambodian American Communities

The artists who collaborated on creating and performing this dance-drama represent the resilience of Khmer culture in the diaspora while the dance-drama itself provides a window into the complex interweaving of Buddhism and other religious traditions in contemporary Cambodian American communities. These master artists and their students carry on a tradition that is rooted in the ancient temple dances of the Angkor Empire, which was dominated and highly influenced by Buddhism. In addition to Buddhist stories, Khmer classical dances traditionally told stories from India, such as the Ramayana. As practiced in Cambodia for centuries, Khmer Buddhism blended Theravada Buddhist doctrine with Taoist practices and traditional beliefs in spirits and healing arts.

Following the conflict that roiled Southeast Asia from the 1950s to the 1970s, about 150,000 Cambodians who fled their war-ravaged nation resettled in the United States. Within four decades, more than a quarter million Americans were of Khmer descent, the vast majority of whom were Buddhists. In spite of the war and genocide in the mid-1970s, during which temples were destroyed and monks and other religious leaders were killed or sent into exile, Cambodian and Cambodian American families have sustained their traditions and cultures.

Today, centers of Khmer Buddhist activity can be found in the many cities that a significant population of Cambodian refugees came to call home, including Long Beach, California, Lowell, Massachusetts, and Seattle, Washington. In the United States, the temple (wat) serves as a central gathering point and Buddhism remains an important focal point of the Cambodian community, offering venues for ritual, prayer, and other communal activities, as well as an institutional repository for traditional language and learning, which provide ongoing connections to the homeland left behind.

Cambodian Americans have established Buddhist temples around the country, from modest storefront conversions to large complexes built from the ground up. These not only serve people’s spiritual needs but also support social life, provide language classes, and host music and dance groups. In some regions, the annual Cambodian New Year’s celebration, typically observed in temple complexes, has become a large public festival attended by thousands. The family home also serves as a site of Buddhist practice and socialization, where small shrines are assembled to pay respect to spirits and ancestors, culturally revered beliefs and behaviors are reinforced, and Buddhist stories are shared.

Ngek Chum is the music director, lyricist, and playwright for this production. A master musician on the roneat aik (treble xylophone), Ngek Chum is one of the few Khmer music masters who possesses a vast repertoire across genres and a command of multiple instruments. He has received the Bess Lomax Hawes Award, the NEA’s National Heritage Fellowship (conferred upon an artist who has significantly contributed to teaching and preserving important repertoires), and honors from the Maryland State Arts Council. He teaches at the Cambodian Buddhist Society, Towson University, and Cambodian American Heritage. Master Chum, who remembers accompanying performances of Pchanch Mear in the 1960s, provided critical guidance to the production of this performance.

Sovann Chum performs on the korng thom (large gong circle). The son of master musician Chum Ngek, he was born in the Khai I Dang refugee camp in Thailand. He says, “There is not really a day or year when I started to play music. I just did it when I was three years old. When I ran around and made noise, Dad would give the mallets to me to keep me quiet.” Sovann made his public “debut” at Carnegie Hall in the early 1980s when he was just four years old. Since that time, he has performed on various stages throughout the United States.

Sophy Hoeung, the daughter of a traditional musician, was surrounded by music throughout her childhood. Although she never planned on becoming a singer, local Khmer communities quickly discovered her exceptional vocal skills when she settled in the United States in the late 1970s. Now a master vocalist, Hoeung is a favorite singer of both popular and traditional music.

Soeum Kim is a musician and teacher who performs today on tror (fiddle). Born in Cambodia, he fled to Khao I Dang refugee camp in Thailand with the assistance of World Vision in 1979. Soeum returned to Cambodia in 1993, studied music under tror master Sar Dan, and joined Norn Chenda’s traditional wedding band. He migrated to the United States in 2014 and performs regularly with Master Ngek Chum’s music ensembles and at CAHI events, including Cambodian New Year celebrations in April.

Kimhan Meas, a master drummer, performs on sampho (small barrel drum) and skor thom (bass drum). A master teacher with Angkor Dance Troupe, he lives in Lowell, Massachusetts, and is an internationally recognized master performer and instructor of Cambodian classical dance. Trained at the University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, he has toured internationally and performed in the Philippines, Japan, Malaysia, China, and Thailand. In 2011 and 2012 he worked with the Angkor Dance Troupe under the Parker Foundation to teach dancers in folk and monkey (hanuman) dance. He also provides expertise on traditional Cambodian music development at Lowell Community Charter Public Schools and the music department of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

Soboun Nol is a master musician on the sralai (double-reed) and khloy (flute). Born in Phnom Penh, he graduated from the school of classical music at the Royal University of Fine Arts and then became a music teacher there. He toured Japan, France, Thailand, Denmark, and Thailand as a member of the music ensemble of the dance troupe company of Cambodia. Soboun Nol migrated to the United States in 2001 and now resides in Minnesota.

Joanna Pecore, roneat thung (bass xylophone), has studied music under Chum Ngek since 1996 and wrote her doctoral dissertation at the University of Maryland College Park on Cambodian performing arts in the Washington, DC, area. She directs the Asian Arts & Culture Center at Towson University.

Sinath Phul is a master vocalist who also served as lyricist and playwright for this program. A former singer at the University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, she toured several countries with the troupe and now lives in Philadelphia.

Sam Oeun Tes, artistic and project director for this program, is also in charge of wardrobe and costume designs. A master dancer, choreographer, and playwright, she trained in classical court dance at the Royal Ballet of Cambodia. She performed for many guests of state before migrating to the United States in 1971. Since the early 1980s Sam Oeun has been the principal teacher and dancer of the Cambodian American Heritage Dance troupe. She was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the NEA in 1998. In addition to performing in Egypt, South Africa, Turkey, and Taiwan, Sam Oeun regularly leads her troupe in performances in the Washington region.

Saroeum Tes, president of CAHI, contributed to this production as playwright, transcriber, and translator of song lyrics. Born in Cambodia, his career spanned forty years working for the United States government in the US Agency for International Development and then with Voice of America, where he retired as chief editor of the Khmer (Cambodian) Service. In retirement, Tes continues to serve the Cambodian community and DC area government as an interpreter. Tes has been honored by the Cambodian government for his service and commitment to Cambodian arts and culture in the United States.

This performance was presented in collaboration with Cambodian American Heritage, Inc. (CAHI), a nonprofit art organization in the Washington area that has promoted the preservation, teaching, and performance of Cambodian traditional culture since 1980. The performance was presented in partnership with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and the Religion in America Initiative of the National Museum of American History, with support from the Lilly Endowment. This project also received Federal support from the Asian Pacific American Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

The podcast was coordinated by Michael Wilpers, manager of performing arts. Audio recording by Andy Finch, audio engineering by SuMo Productions. Photography by Hutomo Wicaksono. Web design by Ryan King, with additional web production by Torie Castiello Ketcham and Gio Camozzi. Copy editing by Nancy Eickel. Special thanks to the artists for granting permission to share their performances at the National Museum of Asian Art.