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Why doesn’t ‘Hillsong’ copy Cambodian music?

October 5, 2010

Last week I was visiting a Christian recording studio looking for Cambodian traditional music.  They were more than happy to provide me with the latest traditional worship music.  During my conversation with the Cambodian studio operator I mentioned to him that I enjoy Cambodian traditional music, but I hardly ever hear it because all the young musicians apparently like to sing Australian “Hillsong” worship music and seem to have little interest in Cambodian culture.

The studio operator then said to me, “Why doesn’t ‘Hillsong’ copy Cambodian music?”

I chuckled.  Then I thought about it.  “Well”, I answered, “Australians don’t know anything about Cambodian music.  ‘Hillsong’ wouldn’t appeal to the Australians.”

“Right”, he replied.  “They write the songs which appeal to their culture in Australia.  So, Cambodian’s need to write music according to our culture.” He continued by saying, “I don’t like the Western songs they sing in churches, so in my church (he was a worship leader) we only sing Cambodian songs.”

Now I was the one with many degrees in cross-cultural studies, but this young Cambodian leader made a good point.  In fact, during one of my trainings I conducted an experiment for the benefit of the church leaders.  I split them into two groups and told them to design two different worship services.

For one group I told them to design a service using only Western songs and Western musical instruments like they find in many churches (especially those a part of Western denominations).  For the other group I told them they would have no “traditional limits” but they could design any kind of service they wanted, but I wanted them to specifically highlight Cambodian culture in their worship and service.  After they finished their preparations, we all participated in the two worship service.

The first service was all in Khmer, but used translated songs and even a translated “hillsong” song or two.  We all sat in rows just like you would find in any Western style church.  The drums were center stage with guitars and a single worship leader.  The preacher wore a nice shirt and gave a long oration behind a large pulpit.  It could have been any small church in America, only the words were all Cambodian.

The second service was immediately unique. The leader had us remove all the chairs (80% of Cambodian households don’t have furniture and so it is customary to sit on the floor in a large circle).  We all did so and the service began.  The worship time was wonderful.  They used a hand drum for music and a two string instrument called a “trow”.   All the worship songs were Cambodian, with Cambodian music.  I noticed half way through the worship that nearly every person was crying.  Why? It was only a “test”; an experiment.   The worship spoke to their heart; their Cambodian hearts!

Today I went to a grocery store here in northern Cambodia. . . You may think I have jumped off subject.  I assure you, I have not.  In the store I went to buy some snacks and I saw some Pringles.  I love Pringles!  Good American Idaho potatoes!  Yummy.  However, when I looked for my favorite flavor I was surprised. I read, “Soft-Shelled Crab flavor”; “Lemon-Sesame;  “Blueberry and Hazelnut”.   What a combination?  I almost thought it was a joke!  The last one was “Grilled Shrimp”!  If they were selling these flavors in America, Pringles would go bankrupt and Idaho potato farmers would protest, but this is Southeast Asia.  Pringles is making millions of dollars on these flavors!  Why?  Technically they call it “contextualization”.  They adapt their product for the taste buds of the local people.  In Southeast Asia they salivate over soft-shelled crabs and contrasts in flavors like “Blueberry and Hazelnut”.  In America they would vomit.

Seems like Pringles has learned the lesson of contextualization much faster than us Christians.   The message of Christ never changes, however, the presentation and expression of the Gospel needs to be adapted for our culture.  The Cambodians need to have the freedom to express themselves with their own music and to develop their own unique cultural expressions.  I know some will say, “no one is forcing them to copy ‘Hillsong'” and they are of course correct, however, few missionaries and leaders that I know are encouraging their churches to develop unique cultural expressions.  I know churches who send their worship leaders to Australia to learn the Western music, yet never thought of sending their leaders to the “Royal College of Fine Arts” where they teach Cambodian culture, design and music.  We need more of the later!

Note: Pastor Mam Barnabas, a great leader and musician in the Christian church along with Transworld Radio have just developed two new albums using purely Cambodian music.  I highly recommend them for the Cambodian church.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Duane Talbott permalink
    October 6, 2010 12:04 am

    Amen to that Steve! I agree with you whole-heartily! Let the Cambodian heart of worship be released!

  2. greg potthoff permalink
    October 6, 2010 12:38 am

    Steve,I agree with you. Whaen I was in Cambodia I obtained a couple CDs of traditional music. It is so beautiful and brings me back to your country when I listen to it. Why couldnt a worship leader in Cambodia combine western drums(Im a drummer) guitar, and bass with the string instruments of Cambodia. It would be awsome. There is a girl who did just that North Records The album is “Debbie ” Crossover. I think its Thai more than Kmer but it gives you an idea how it can be done. How can I get a copy of the music you were talking about? Love you Bro Greg

  3. Kevin Kane permalink
    October 6, 2010 1:55 am

    Your comments are right in line with what I’ve been thinking for years! Are you in touch with Noren Vann and Gioia Michelotti at the Cambodian Christian Arts Ministry there in Phnom Penh? They’ve been there doing just what you’re advocating for 15 years now. Check it out at And kudos (that’s Austrailian for bravo, isn’t it?) to Barnabas Mam too.

    • October 6, 2010 6:54 am

      Cambodian Christian Arts Ministry are doing a great job. Partly because of them most Cambodian churches teach traditional dancing and use it on special occasions in the church. The government, and even media, in the last few years have been pushing hard to promote Khmer culture and music. Christians have a unique opportunity here to promote the Cambodian culture in ways which glorify God.

      • October 6, 2010 6:56 am

        The CD’s are available at a couple of bookstores. I can send them to you.

  4. Nel Dekker permalink
    October 6, 2010 4:56 am

    Wonderful article Steve, I could not agree with you more!
    Over the years of coming to Cambodia, I have always loved it when an (occasional) Khmer worship song was played and sung. It stirs the spirit so much more and the reactions of the people (especially older ones) is quite different. As you say, there are tears….
    The voices of the people somehow also fit their style of music and expression in dance, etc.
    To me the Western style of music and song does not quite seem the right expression of worship for the Khmer people. Bless P. Barnabas for producing the ‘right’ music on CD. How can I get some??
    Love to all. Nel

  5. Michael Scott permalink
    October 6, 2010 9:50 am

    In my experiences in churches in Cambodia.. I always ask .. okay is this an American style service.. Phillipino .. Korean .. extra crispy .. or the seldom seen Khmer style.

  6. October 7, 2010 5:54 pm

    Great blog and a wonderful post! Music is not a universal language!

    I’m an ethnomusicologist with SIL in W Africa and am constantly teaching folk that 100 year old hymns from the West are really not the best they can have in worship!

    Keep up the good work,



  7. Alan Fortenberry permalink
    October 8, 2010 9:26 am


    Send me an email. I would love to get in touch with you.


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