Chum Ngek was born in the Battambang Province of Cambodia. He escaped the Cambodian holocaust to become a well-known performer and teacher of traditional Cambodian music in the United States. He began learning the major genres of Cambodian music when he was t109. His grandfather Um Hene taught him several instruments: the sralai (oboe), kong (semicircle of gongs) and sampho (small barrel drum). At 12, he began studying with other teachers and went on to master the roneat ek (treble xylophone), khimm (hammered dulcimer) and tror (violin). Within a few years, he was performing professionally.
Chum was among the few artists to escape the brutal reign of the Communist Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. His life was spared when a guard at a detention camp remembered his beautiful flute playing. Chum was in a group that managed to escape to a refugee camp in Thailand. Recognized as a krou, or master teacher, he taught there and at orphanages before moving to a refugee camp in Indonesia, where he continued to teach.
Chum arrived in the United States in 1982 and settled in the Washington, D.C., area. He has remained in demand as a teacher and performer around the country, though his travel has been limited by the demands of a full-time day job. He often consults with Cambodian music groups and provides guidance on repertoire for ceremonies and celebrations. He has also composed and performed music for dancers.
Balancing work and art has been a struggle, but one worth waging, Chum told NEA interviewer Mary Eckstein. “I don’t want to lose my music,” he said. “If I don’t teach, it will disappear. Actually, at first, when I realized how hard it was going to be to have a job and be a musician in the United States, I wanted to quit teaching and playing. Coming to live in the U.S. was hard. I could not speak English very well, and I could not find a good job that didn’t require tough labor. A lot of people asked me to teach them. I actually refused, explaining that I was tired and had no time. But then I thought, ‘I have a lot of musical knowledge. What am I doing, throwing it all away? I love my music. I don’t want to keep my music all to myself. I’m supposed to teach.’ So I made time. I was very tired. I still am, but I don’t want to lose it. So I decided that I needed to dedicate Saturdays and Sundays to music. Ever since then, I’ve tried to do both, work and music.”
Discography Chum, Ngek. Classical Music from Cambodia. Celestial Harmonies LC7869.
Chum Ngek interviewed by Nicholas R. Spitzer, 2004 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Washington, D.C., courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Chum Ngek, 2004 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Washington, D.C., courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Chum Ngek's son answers the question 'How did your family get to America?' Arlington, Virginia, 2004, interview by Alan Govenar
Chum Ngek's interpreter Joanna Pigori answers the question 'How did Chum Ngek become elected as musical director?' Arlington, Virginia, interview by Alan Govenar
Chum Ngek speaks in traditional Cambodian dialect, Arlington, Virginia, 2004, interview by Alan Govenar
Chum Ngek's son interprets his father's views on the future of Cambodian music, Arlington, Virginia, 2004, interview by Alan Govenar
Chum Ngek's interpreter Joanna Pigori speaks about how she became involved with Cambodian music, Arlington, Virginia, 2004, interview by Alan Govenar
Chum Ngek's interpreter Joanna Pigori speaks about the struggles of combining traditional Cambodian musicians together in the United States, Arlington, Virginia, 2004, interview by Alan Govenar