Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Poverty Song

Click the play button to hear the music: 

Flute song of a blind beggar, Cambodia
(The recording is somewhat on the loud side so prepare to turn down the sound level a bit.)
Check this out on Chirbit

I've heard this sound in the night since I've lived here in Cambodia, especially in Phnom Penh (to listen see above) - the flute song of a blind beggar wandering the neighborhood in the early evening. It's not a common occurrence, but not an unusual one either - a sound present often enough to have become one of the characteristic background noises of this city, (though I've heard it less in recent years - I'm not sure why.) The flute produces an exotic moaning whistle of a distinctly south Asian strain, particularly haunting in the evening when street noise is low and the song echoes clearly through the neighborhood, slowly increasing then fading as the beggar gradually shuffles closer and passes. It rings a sad song to my ear - a plaintive call, alluring in its way, more a pleading cry than a moan.

It is also a song of deep poverty. I don't know if this particular beggar whose song I recorded this evening was trafficked here to beg or is on his own, but either, he was in a poor way. Small and dark with ragged clothing, facially disfigured and totally blind, walking slowly down the street alone (!), playing the flute continuously and hoping for handouts. No doubt doing this same thing, walking and playing and hoping for untold years. When I heard him passing the house around 8PM this evening I went out and took him aside and asked if I could record his song. I wanted to capture this little bit of Phnom Penh - the poverty, the music, the tradition. He never said a word, but understood what I asked, and played for me. 

I recorded about a minute and a half there on the street on my iPhone. At the end I thanked him and gave him $5 with which he seemed happy. I didn't have a functioning camera with me, but I don't think I would have had the heart to take a photo of the guy anyway. He was poor, meek and disabled and a photo of his broken, pitiful form would have felt exploitative. Better to record his attempt at contribution, his music. Still, I wish I could have at least got a shot of the instrument - a recorder-like flute about 30cm long, built of a varnished bamboo body with open tone holes and a bone mouth and window piece.