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Peace Lecture Series: Arn Chorn-Pond and the Power of Music

Arn Chorn-Pond inaugurates the Peace Fellows Lecture Series with a powerful account of the impact of music in his life.

Arn enjoys eating ice cream. He likes pop songs from the 1960s. He wears black framed glasses and cargo pants. He carries his flute wherever he goes. Similar to many of us at NYU Abu Dhabi, Arn calls more than one country home.
Arn Chorn-Pond was born in Cambodia in 1966. He belonged to a family of performers, his parents owning an opera house in Battambang. He describes happy memories of his childhood, sneaking into movies with his brother and playing war on the streets. This was all to be changed very quickly, as the Khmer Rouge marched into his city and came into power.
On Oct. 2, Chron-Pond was invited to speak at the NYUAD Institute as the first peace fellow in the Peace Fellows Lecture Series and Residency Program 2019-2020. The program “is envisioned to bring high profile diplomats, scholars, humanitarian workers, mediators, and peace-makers to NYU Abu Dhabi.”
Chorn-Pond began his Institute talk with an ancient Buddhist chant. He explained that it comes from a Buddhist festival of gratitude towards parents and masters. With that he launched into the story of a Cambodia ripped apart by war and tragedy.
The Khmer Rouge, a communist party-turned-authoritarian regime, rose to power in 1975 with the fall of Phnom Penh – the capital of Cambodia – and ruled brutally until 1979. The regime preached self-sufficiency, Cambodian purity and for a return to an agrarian society. To enforce this ideology, the regime evacuated all major cities, put forth the collectivization of food production and perpetrated a gruesome genocide to cleanse Cambodia.
Many minority groups in Cambodia were targeted during the Khmer Rouge as well as masters of the arts. In an attempt to erase religion and tradition, the leaders of the regime murdered musicians and artists that knew the old traditions of Cambodia.
Despite the efforts of the Khmer Rouge, Chorn-Pond owes his survival to music. In 1975 he was taken to a labor farm with 700 other children. Forced to work day and night, starved and abused, the children witnessed horrifying acts of cruelty. Chorn-Pond explains that there was a point of desensitization, when death became a common fixture of everyday life.
One day, an officer asked whom among the children knew how to play music and Chorn-Pond saw an opportunity of survival. Raising his hand, terrified that this might backfire, Chorn-Pond took the first step in a path that would define the rest of his life.
The children were forced to learn the music of the Khmer Rouge as quickly as they could and to play for the soldiers and laborers in the camps. Through this music, Chorn-Pond found many opportunities to survive and help other children in need. He remembers the instructions of his first master to play light and fast, “like a hummingbird wing”.
Chorn-Pond was adopted by Peter Pond, a United States reverend, from a refugee camp in Thailand. He remembers the struggle of adjusting to life in the United States, of the bullying and the painful memories of Cambodia. Eventually, Chorn-Pond found his voice and was able to tell his story, and that of Cambodia, to the people around him.
Chorn-Pond went back to Cambodia and founded the Cambodian Living Arts in an effort to rescue the oral traditions of his country. He found revered masters on the streets, begging for money and destitute. After many years of work, the CLA has grown exponentially and is holding the Arts4peace Festival in November.
Today, Chorn-Pond is an ambassador for peace and for the recognition of genocides around the world. He takes the Khmer Magic Music Bus to remote areas of Cambodia, spreading the joy of music and the arts. He advocates for the use of music over violence, calling all to hold “musical instruments, not guns.”
It is his advocacy that brought him to NYUAD as the inaugural speaker for the Peace Fellows Lecture Series and Residency Program. The funding for the series was granted to Professors Jocelyn Belanger and Gwyneth Bravo “through a Dean of Science Grant and with the generous support of the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute under the leadership of Director of Public Programs Philip Kennedy and Assistant Director Nahed Muthanna Ahmed.”
As we wrapped up our conversation, Chorn-Pond took up his flute. He calls it his secret weapon, as unassuming and humble as he is. We stood in the A6 atrium and watched him play. There was an incredible peace and flow of emotion on his face and, for those few seconds, the world seemed to disappear. After an exhausting and emotional few days of speaking, playing music seemed to refresh him and breathe in renewed purpose.
Arn’s story has been chronicled in collaboration with Patricia McCormick in the book Never Fall Down, a thrilling and humbling read.
Mari Velasquez-Soler is Features Editor. Email her at
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