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Heartfelt Narratives: Nostalgic Memories, Music Transmission, and Cultural Sustainability in the Cambodian Diaspora


The Khmer Rouge genocide (1975-1979) led to the death of 80 to 90 percent of Cambodian artists and scholars and the broader displacement of Cambodians. Many Cambodians resettled in Long Beach, California and formed one of the largest Cambodian communities outside of Cambodia. During resettlement, diasporic Cambodians began to transmit the Cambodian arts to future generations by institutionalizing the arts. My master’s thesis explores music classes at the Khmer Arts Academy (KAA) and highlights how the younger generation continues to lead efforts to sustain Khmer arts in diaspora. I examine how personal anecdotes and stories as a part of instruction shape music transmission in the Cambodian American diaspora. I employ hybrid ethnographic methods and explore the Khmer arts both online and offline in addition to my personal, somatic experiences as a second generation Cambodian Chinese American studying pinpeat music, the court music of Cambodia, in Long Beach, California for critical inquiry. These personal accounts facilitate the re/imagining of Cambodia that incorporates experiences beyond the Khmer Rouge genocide and images of Angkor Wat. I suggest these extramusical and heartfelt narratives are intertwined with emotional ties bound up within extended histories of displacement that facilitate the production of postmemory and nostalgia. Using music sustainability and infrastructure as a framework, I also interrogate cultural transmission in the Cambodian diaspora and the factors which inhibited the sustainability of the Khmer arts. By attended to the material, social, economic, and systematic aspects of cultural transmission and performance, my research indicates that endeavors to sustain cultural practices in diaspora necessitates close attention to the multiple situated loyalties within the Cambodian diasporic community and to its surrounding systems and infrastructures to understand barriers and impediments to cultural sustainability.

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