They didn't go for the music, but it's a reason to stay

By Peace Corps
May 25, 2013

Peace Corps Volunteers Diana and Sara entranced the Peace Corps online community by recording a Bach double concerto – with Diana in Cambodia and Sara in Burkina Faso. 

Question: How did the two of you find each other and learn about your shared love of music?

Diana: I first found Sara because the Peace Corps Facebook page posted an article she wrote about why music education majors make great Peace Corps Volunteers.

Sara: She said that she was also a strings music education major but she was serving in Cambodia.

Q: How did you coordinate the playing of the concerto?

Sara: In order to coordinate everything we first ensured that we had the same edition from the Internet Score Library Music Project. I decided to play the second violin solo part because I only had a viola and the first violin solo part is too high to play on viola. We both practiced, and I did some rough videos without a metronome (mine is a pendulum model because I don't have electricity).

Diana: I recorded my track first (while listening to a metronome), and then sent it to Sara. Then she recorded her track while listening to my track. Sara sent it back to me, and I edited the videos together. Our videos were different sizes, which made awkward black boxes in the corners, so I just added fun facts about our lives.

Q: What were the biggest logistical and technical challenges, and how did you make it work?

Diana: The biggest challenge was the lack of reliable technology. While I can have fairly regular access to internet here in Cambodia through a phone company USB modem, it's not very strong, and it also is very expensive. To send Sara my track, download her track, and to upload the video I had to wait for a day I could be in the capital city and use Wi-Fi at the Peace Corps office or another place.

Sara: I have no electricity at site, and I wanted to record with my flip camera, but I was unable to maintain its charge, so I ended up using a still camera. The internet in Burkina Faso is notoriously bad, and I ended up uploading the videos when I was on vacation in London. It is also very hot at my site and it can be very uncomfortable recording in those conditions.

Q: How do you incorporate your love of music into your Peace Corps service?

Sara: I try to get my viola out at least every two weeks, but the heat is a problem. Unless I get up very early it can be hard to practice. I get my ukulele out at least twice a week. It keeps me sane at site.

I've also participated in many a jam session with other Volunteers, played the national anthem at swear-in twice, and even played at the U.S. Ambassador's Christmas party.

Diana: Music has been a part of my service in even more ways than I had dreamed. It started right from training, when I was asked to direct a small choir of PCVs in the national anthems at our swear-in ceremony. I took that as an opportunity to take out my manuscript staff paper, arrange two-part harmonies for each anthem and teach them to my friends. We were then invited to sing for the U.S. Embassy for their 4th of July celebration. This summer, we are invited back again, and we’ll do a full concert of my arrangements.

I teach a small choir at my high school as well. We do songs in both Khmer and English, and I also have taught a number of those students to play guitar.

One of my favorite projects is the Create Cambodia Annual Fine Arts Festival. I got together with a few other Volunteers in early 2012 and planned the first festival. We encouraged PCVs across the country to start arts-based clubs in their school, and then they applied to participate and perform in the festival. The first festival was such a success that we decided to make it annual.

Q: What’s music like in the community where you live and what do people think about the music you share?

Diana: Cambodia is a really special place to serve as a musician because of the genocide that took place here 35 years ago, which wiped out nearly all the country's musicians. Now the country is finally stable enough to try to salvage what is left of their traditional art. Most of the Cambodian population does not have access to any sort of traditional music or music instruction, but out of the cities we are now starting to see organizations pulling together to bring back the music and other arts that were lost. For me, it has been inspiring to see the way the students react with excitement and pride as they finally are given a opportunity to learn about music, especially music from their own culture.

Sara: Unfortunately there are no formal music groups at my site. Whenever they have local celebrations they hire musicians from my provincial capital. The traditional Mossi Liwaga music generally consists of drums and hand bells with traditional dancing. They really like to hear me play my viola or my ukulele.

Q: What have you learned from the musical influences of your host community and country?

Sara: The biggest thing I’ve learned is that you don’t need a whole lot to make music, although there are not a lot of musicians in my village, for big celebrations everyone comes out to sing and dance.

Diana: I've had the opportunity to try out a couple of traditional instruments here, but my favorite was the "chapei dong veng," which is a long-necked, three-string guitar. I love the sound of the instrument as well as the style of music it plays. Chapei players are musicians as well as comedians: They improvise melodies on their instruments and then stop to sing improvised musical jokes, usually making fun of the people or places around them. I got to have a short lesson with a professional player, and then my students took turns improvising jokes about each other. It was one of the silliest “jam sessions” I've ever had.

Q: What will you miss most about your host community?

Diana: When I think of my village, my mind automatically brings up my students’ faces. I have dedicated my two years of service to a group of about 12 students. Most of them are graduating this year, just as I am also leaving. I spent so much time with them and they have become like younger siblings to me.

Sara: I think I will miss the people the most in my host community. They treat me like a village daughter and really look out for me. One of my favorite things to do in village is to sip green gunpowder tea with my neighbor. When he makes tea he is a real showman. It’s a simple gesture that has become very special to me. I guess it’s the little things that make the largest impact.

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