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Abstract

Drawing on fieldwork conducted in Cambodia and its diaspora since 2004, this article explores tensions that arise when individuals and institutions impose nation-state ideologies on music and ritual that predate the nation-state concept and transcend official state boundaries. In numerous contexts, musicians and dancers in Cambodia and Thailand perform offerings and blessings that honor their teachers and initiate artistic lineages. Due to broad influence from India and centuries of conflict and borrowing, these rituals—though not necessarily their musical content—have proliferated in these two countries. I describe these nearly identical rituals—called thvāy grū in Khmer and wai khruu in Thai—and their contexts before outlining the historical narratives that have led to their attainment of political and nationalist significance. Today, individuals and institutions in both nations claim that these rituals effect a continuity that reflects each country’s unique national identity. Using Paul Ricoeur’s essay on “Memory and Forgetting,” I argue that these rituals fulfill a “duty to remember” that, in Cambodia’s case, counteracts a colonial narrative of decline. However, this remembering works against an equally essential task, what Ricoeur calls “the duty to forget.” I argue that the prioritizing of memory over forgetting, enacted by the thvāy grū and wai khruu, contributes to the continuing animosity and violence between Cambodia and Thailand. In making this argument, I attempt to show how ethnomusicology can move beyond consideration of how ritual reflects social structures to explore music and ritual’s role in inculcating political thought.

Author Biography

A graduate of Hamilton College and current PhD student in ethnomusicology at Boston University, Jeffrey Dyer has researched and performed Khmer music since 2004, when he completed a Watson Fellowship on Khmer music in Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. He has also worked teaching high school and middle school English and has led two educational trips for high school students to Cambodia. His work has previously appeared in the journal Asian Music.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

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