Music therapy in post-conflict/crisis situations

Last update: January 8, 2024


This article is about music therapy. This name alone evokes a "Western" concept (in the sense of "technological society", i.e. not only located in the West) created from scratch with sounds and music from diverse horizons, in the image of spiritual practices borrowed, for example, from the East, where everyone mixes what seems good to them. This Western practice, created from scratch, under the supervision of a state or federations, dispensed by qualified therapists and subject to fees, is to be distinguished from the involuntary practices carried out by each of us for ourselves, by musicians, village communities in societies with a traditional way of life, religious leaders during ceremonies where sound and music play a predominant role, and many others. If Monsieur Jourdain was writing prose without knowing it, these actors are also practicing music therapy without knowing it. Better still, we're not always aware that our musical choices, which vary according to our moods, make us music therapists in the instant in which we make that choice.

Beyond individual practices, there are also collective practices that can affect a group or an entire people. The question then arises: should we "heal individuals in order to heal a people", or "heal the people in order to heal the individuals"? As is often the case, the answer probably lies at the crossroads of these two concepts.


Music therapy is the use of music or sound in a care process that is identified when it is conscious, or only identifiable, as each person is a music therapist by choice. It's a non-verbal therapy using sound, musical or otherwise. Music (or sound) mediates the relationship between caregiver and patient. Music therapy is part of the field of supportive therapy, helping patients suffering from pathologies.
Three dimensions of music therapy are described: active, receptive and psychomusical relaxation.
In technological societies that consciously use the concept of music therapy, the music therapist is a professional practicing care based on the healing use of music or sound. Their aim is to help people feel better.
Far from certain preconceived ideas that attribute an "artistic" character to it, music therapy is concerned with the potential and evolution of therapeutic communication by working with the subject's sound and psycho-sound functionality. It offers the subject a "sound and/or psycho-musical intermediary object" with the aim of weaving and then perpetuating the therapeutic bond, giving legitimacy via the therapist to the very concept of therapy.

The "conscious" music therapy practised by technological companies has borrowed certain concepts from ancient societies who were already practising (consciously or unconsciously) what they never qualified with a specific term. And with good reason. Even the term "music" escapes the vocabulary of many vernacular languages. So how could they have invented the term "music therapy"?

The case of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge

Music (and art in general) is one of the ingredients for rebuilding individuals and a culture in a post-conflict/crisis period. It is so essential to life, along with physical and spiritual nourishment, that the genocidal Pol Pot began by getting rid of artists to carry out his great program of "societal reset".
The conflict and violence in Cambodia in the 1970s are part of the living memory of most people over the age of 40. The country's arts and culture suffered enormously: 90% of artists were killed, and the many traditions handed down orally were endangered. Fortunately (so to speak), this revolution did not last long enough to wipe out an entire generation, unlike in Vietnam, for example. Irreplaceable damage was done, but the roots were still alive at the end of the crisis, either because some artists were able to keep their status quiet, or because they fled abroad. Since then, the extraordinary resilience of the Khmer people has given rise to a number of fortunate initiatives aimed at regenerating the arts in general, and music in particular. These include:

  • The revival of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia under the impetus of the Ministry of Culture and the tenacity of Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, followed by its inclusion on UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008.
  • The creation of the Cambodian Living Arts organization by Arn Chorn-Pond to revive traditional music.
  • The creation of Golden Silk Pheach for the revival of Khmer silk.
  • Etc.

The Khmers* have a particular cultural attachment to the Hindu and Buddhist temples of the Angkorian period (9th-14th c.). The best proof of this can be found on Cambodia's national flag, which features the famous temple of Angkor Wat. It's a visceral attachment without which contemporary Khmers would not be what they are. But beyond the temples, the Khmers are attached to the legends surrounding these monuments, to the fact that they were built by giants. They have created a mental universe in which many of them see themselves as reincarnations of kings and queens of the past. They like to identify with these real, mythical figures, such as King Suryavarman II, builder of Angkor Wat, or Jayavarman VII, founding monarch of the Buddhist Empire at the end of the 12th century with his two wives, the queens Indradevi and Jayarajadevi. I myself have had the opportunity to meet these "reincarnations". There are so many of them that you're unlikely to miss them if you speak Khmer and happen to strike up a conversation while visiting the temples.

Therapy therefore begins with this identification and all that flows from it. For example, the people around these "reincarnations", both near and far, express their pride in knowing them and in belonging to the Khmer people. You only have to look at the comments on the YouTube channel TUK-TUK.TV, dedicated to Cambodian culture, to realize how attached Khmers are to their ancient culture, right down to the youngest generations.


*The Khmers are the majority ethnic group in Cambodia. They are bound by Khmer royalty and language, and the Buddhist religion, although some have now converted to Christianity. The Cambodians include the Khmers and a number of minority ethnic groups who speak Khmer today, as well as vernacular languages, or languages used by immigrants (Chinese in particular).

The case of Master Ty Chean's troupe

With the Khmer Rouge conflict still unresolved in 1992, Master Ty Chean, one of the last holders of the Reamker text and the practice of shadow theater, under the guidance of ethnomusicologist Jacques Brunet, shows the way to a new generation. (in progress) …

The Cambodian Living Arts case

In 1998, following Pol Pot's last uprising in 1997, Arn Chorn-Pond founded the Cambodian Master Performers Program, which later became Cambodian Living Arts (CLA). Born in Cambodia into a family of artists who had survived the genocide, he studied in the USA and worked there for several years as a social worker before returning to Cambodia.
For twenty years, CLA supported a handful of music "masters" who taught their knowledge and skills to the younger generation. A number of them went on to become professional musicians and teachers in their own right.
CLA has used music to heal trauma, safeguard traditions, restore meaning to the community and train young people to contribute to the country's development. The organization now has an extended ecosystem of partners in other parts of the world, spreading the results of all its years of experience.

As its current Managing Director, Phloeun Prim, explains, the destruction of cultural symbols and artifacts (religious and cultural sites, monuments and works of art) is an integral part of the consequences of conflict.The oppressor, whether another country or a dictator, will seek to uproot the oppressed group from its identity, its culture and establish its own societal vision. As a contemporary example, the "world government" seeks to unify peoples around the "Vaccine Myth", the new common bond between peoples to better enslave them.

Patrick Kersalé's experience

In 2009, French ethno-archaeomusicologist Patrick Kersalé founded Sounds of Angkor (SOA), a laboratory for fundamental and experimental research into Cambodia's traditional and ancient music, dance and performing arts. SOA initiates research into these intangible heritages, which are based on tradition, but also, and above all, on the vanished heritages of the pre-Angkorian and Angkorian periods (7th-13th c.), for which substantial iconography, epigraphy and archaeological artefacts exist. The walls of some major temples (Angkor Wat, Bayon, Banteay Chhmar) depict a material heritage, a number of elements of which (musical instruments, ox carts, crossbows, etc.) remain in contemporary Cambodia, as well as elements that have disappeared (clothing, musical instruments, etc.). There are also scenes of intangible heritage (ritual celebrations, funerals, music, dance, etc.). These heritages of the past unite Khmer society. Thanks to the coalition of a number of nations and a few wealthy Cambodians, this heritage has been preserved and restored since the early 20th century (surrounding walls, gates, temples).

In 2012, drawing on his long experience in the field of ethnomusicology, Kersalé began to reconstruct the lost musical instruments featured in temple iconography.
In October of the same year, the Institut français du Cambodge in Phnom Penh hosted the first exhibition of his work.Some forty instruments were displayed alongside colorized photographs of the bas-reliefs.It was an incredible success.State dignitaries, members of the royal court, the Indian Prime Minister's communications director, and hundreds of Cambodians come to visit the exhibition and take part in his lectures.Tears of joy flow down the cheeks of these Khmers as they discover a forgotten age-old heritage: Their Heritage. In the face of this unconcealed emotion, Patrick Kersalé understands that the Sounds of Angkor mission is part of a process of mental reconstruction for the Khmers, a common thread that will never leave him and even overtake him...

The adventure continued in 2013 with a memorable performance at the opening of the 37th UNESCO International Session at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh.
The event was attended by high-ranking government officials, the Director General and UNESCO ambassadors from all affiliated countries.An opportunity for Khmers to shine on the international stage.For this performance, something new had to be created: martial music for the military parade orchestra of King Suryavarman II (early 12th c.) and court music for the string orchestras of the same period.The martial music was inspired both by the processional musical practice of Tibetan Buddhists and by a collective Khmer memory.For court music, Cambodia's Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts proposed music considered one of the oldest known, adapted to the "new" instruments emerging from the stone.
Then came the time for teaching and creation: music schools, conferences and temple visits.
The harp, a mythical instrument for the Khmers, was the focus of all attention.
It was and remains the central focus of SOA's project.Its name had never been forgotten, nor its general form, perpetuated through the paintings of Buddhist monasteries.Although the Buddha was not a fan of instrumental music, musical instruments or instruments of sound communication (conches) have always occupied a place in Buddhist painting to serve the rituals depicted or the metaphor of the Middle Way, one of the foundations of Buddhism.

Since 2009, Patrick Kersalé has been making his own decisions about all development programs. However, he owes Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) moral and financial support for the creation of the Sounds of Angkor troupe.With a wealth of experience in instrumental reconstitution, it was time to bring these instruments back to life.The idea of creating a troupe that could perform at official events (government, royalty), religious festivals (Buddhist processions and ceremonies), on stage and on television was born. His development began in Phnom Penh, firstly because he was living there in 2012, and secondly because there was a potential pool of musicians trained by Cambodian Living Arts. But mobilizing these musicians was not easy. Kersalé organized daily Khmer harp lessons at his home with the help of one or two masters, but the pupils, while willing, were not gifted.Then an exceptional boy, Chen Sopheak, who had spent fifteen years of his life in an orphanage in Phnom Penh, came along.Every day, he left the orphanage to come and work on his instruments, especially the harp, at Kersalé's home.Sopheak was supported during this period by the Éléphant Blanc association, which financed his transport.Thanks to the musical genius of this young boy (a veritable Cambodian Mozart!), the Sounds of Angkor adventure took on a new lease of life.Sopheak is an unusual child: small, visually impaired, bordering on autism, but a musical genius.At first, his peers found it hard to accept these differences, until one day, when backed against the wall, a seasoned musician with a strong ego left the rehearsal after being humiliated, unintentionally, by Chen Sopheak; he returned two hours later, recognizing in a submissive gesture the musical superiority of his alter ego. In 2013, Kersalé migrated to Siem Reap and landed a contract for Sopheak in the town's largest palace. He will play there for four years.

The Sounds of Angkor troupe

The Sounds of Angkor troupe grew to include 22 musicians and dancers. It performed for His Majesty Norodom Sihamoni, King of Cambodia, Cambodian government authorities, representatives of international organizations, religious festivals and more. To maintain and develop the troupe, CLA and SOA sought to create a permanent show in Siem Reap. CLA's director used his connections to travel to Siem Reap, but the town had no venue for the troupe. And yet, Siem Reap had great tourist potential, with millions of visitors each year coming to discover the Khmer temples. Nevertheless, Siem Reap remains a small provincial town that has seen the construction of numerous hotels, including several 5-star ones, but no performance hall. In the end, it was the Buddhist monastery of Vat Reach Bo that welcomed the troupe for occasional performances for tourists.

Despite modest means and performances, the troupe's aura was carried by the media and through lectures given in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
The Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh opened a Khmer harp class, thus multiplying SOA's action.Harp maker Keo Sonan Kavei has made (and continues to make) dozens of harps, struggling to keep up with demand.More and more musicians began to play the harp in public.Better still, composer Him Sophy included two harps in his symphonic work Bangsokol: A Requiem for Cambodia.Competing troupes sprang up in Phnom Penh or began incorporating instruments revealed by SOA's research.

Bangsokol : A Requiem for Cambodia

Bangsokol: A Requiem for Cambodia is Cambodia's first major symphonic work to address the traumas of the late 1970s. It fuses voice, music, movement and images. The score combines a Western chamber orchestra and choir with traditional Khmer instrumentalists and singers.
A selection of the best traditional Cambodian musicians and singers, such as Sophy Keo and Savy Him, are joined by string players from Singapore's Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music. The music is by composer Sophy Him, and part of the set design by filmmaker Rithy Panh.

First review

Before COVID comes along and turns everything upside down, we can take stock of SOA's work in Cambodia:

  • 10 years of archaeomusical research, with all results published on the Internet (written documents, films).
  • The reconstitution of all Angkorian instruments visible on bas-reliefs and identified in epigraphy.
  • The creation of permanent exhibitions (Theam's Gallery in Siem Reap) and temporary shows in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
  • Participation in the International Coordination Committee for the Safeguarding of Cultural Heritage - CIC UNESCO.
  • Conferences and training courses for politicians, researchers, academics, schoolchildren and tourist guides.
  • Visits to temples with schoolchildren, academics, Angkor Archaeological Park authorities and the Minister of Culture.
  • Participation in major events in Cambodia's cultural life organized by the royal court, the government, international organizations, monasteries, private individuals...The presence of the harp in the symphonic work Bangsokol: A Requiem for Cambodia, which was performed on three continents.
  • The advent of the harp on the stage of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia.The return of the harp to various social strata of Khmer society, including the Khmer Krom of Viet Nam.
  • The creation of prestigious instruments enabling craftsmen to rediscover their skills.The return of the Khmer harp to the Royal Palace of Cambodia after centuries of absence, thanks to the support of Cambodian Living Arts.

The Khmer (not Cambodian!) nation is licking its wounds by reconnecting with its most prestigious past: the Angkorian period. In the 12th century, Angkor was the world's largest city. The latest research puts the population at 700,000. SOA helps make the stones sing. The government, through its Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, has seized on the results of this work to communicate. Most Khmers can once again see and hear the Khmer harp on stage or on television, and thus regain a hint of pride.

Particularities of Patrick Kersalé's approach

For the first nine years of his professional career, Kersalé worked for the French administration, formerly France Télécom. When, at the end of the 1980s, the beginnings of privatization appeared, he decided to join the private sector rather than succumb to the charms of the "fortune tellers" delegated by the government: career, promotion, salary, etc. Another nine years were spent happily in two private companies, where everyone does their own job and not that of others! Then, in 1995, came the leap to total independence that he would never renounce. He decides, finances and acts according to his intuition and needs, within the limits of his know-how. When he needed additional skills, he found them in his address book. He never wavered. Even when hospitalized, he continued to work. His goal? The common good, sharing ideas and knowledge, defending the rights of ethnic minorities.He shows the beauty of the world.His seriousness is matched only by his joie de vivre and humor.At once adventurer and homebody.Give him freedom, and he'll roam the forests and savannahs in search of a musician.Confine him, and he writes, edits documentaries and publishes.Thanks to the Internet, he has acquired total autonomy in terms of publications.He goes straight to the point. He's not interested in barroom rants. Above all, he loves work and efficiency. Busy but always available if he needs to get his message across to an audience. He's just as at ease in front of a kindergarten audience as he is in front of a gathering of politicians or scientists. But what does this have to do with post-conflict music therapy? There's a big one! Kersalé's ability to infiltrate any environment without making waves, to spread the word, to restore pride wherever he speaks. But he's also able to shake things up, particularly in Cambodia, where people's minds are numbed by age-old beliefs. But don't worry, we're all attached to our beliefs, whatever our society. For example, thinking that France is a democracy is just a belief.
As Kersalé often says, you can always find financial means, but how do you find and preserve a passion?Find it?It's either there or it isn't. Preserve it?Preserve it?This requires a strategy of protection against the forces of misinformation, manipulation and the arrogance of salaried researchers.By acting in the shadows, alone, it is possible to cross the most impermeable borders.
Patrick Kersalé has given dozens of lectures to people of all ages and social classes, hundreds of videos circulating on the Web, and hundreds of media feeding the pride of the Cambodian people to help them rebuild their lives.

COVID and post-COVID periods

COVID paralyzed almost all Sounds of Angkor activities (apart from research and publications). The town of Siem Reap was economically decimated, losing 100% of its foreign tourists. Most hotels and restaurants have closed. There have been no shows since the start of the pandemic. What remains are the men and women who have been trained.
The country waits feverishly for tourists to return. Until June 2021, the government planned to reopen borders for travelers vaccinated in the fourth quarter. But the variant delta seems set to change all that... Wait and see.