Dr Elaine Kelly: "Musical Diplomacy and Cultural Transfer: From the German Democratic Republic to Cambodia and Back"

Event date: 
Tuesday 30 November

Please note this event will take place on Tuesday 30 November, not Wednesday as is usual.

An IASH Work-in-Progress seminar, delivered by Dr Elaine Kelly (Sabbatical Fellow 2021; University of Edinburgh):

Musical Diplomacy and Cultural Transfer: From the German Democratic Republic to Cambodia and Back


Musical diplomacy was widely deployed in the second half of the twentieth century by governments in the global north seeking to exert influence on postcolonial states. Such endeavours were premised more often than not on a unidirectional concept of cultural transfer; music—western art music in particular—was something that Western and Soviet Bloc states bestowed on the postcolonial world. In practice, however, the direction of cultural travel was frequently more fluid. The musical relations that developed between the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and Cambodia in the 1960s are illuminating in this regard. From 1964 to 1972, the GDR supplied Cambodia with teachers to develop a music faculty and chamber orchestra at the new Université royale des beaux-arts in Phnom Penh, and provided scholarships for Cambodian students to further their music education at conservatoires in East Germany. This programme did much to establish the presence of western art music in Cambodia. No less significant, however, was the extent to which it facilitated the emergence of hybrid forms of musical expression both in Cambodia and in the GDR.

Drawing on archival materials, interviews, and audio-visual artefacts, this paper will chart the musical relations that developed between the GDR and Cambodia, and will explore the bilateral transfers of culture that these engendered. The East German music teachers took their lead from the Cambodian government, who sought not to import unmediated forms of western culture but to create new national art by combining western modernity with Khmer traditions. And this aspiration found an inadvertent realization in Weimar with the experimental band Bayon. Founded in 1971 by a group of Cambodian, Cuban, and East German students, Bayon brought together Khmer and Latin-American influences, the blues, and J.S. Bach to articulate a “third space” that challenged the monolithic constructs of self and other underpinning the official rhetoric of international solidarity in the GDR.

This research is based on work in progress for the project Music Diplomacy at the Peripheries: East Germany and the Postcolonial World, funded by a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship (2021–24).


Elaine Kelly is a senior lecturer in music at the University of Edinburgh and a Leverhulme Major Research Fellow from 2021–24. Her work is concerned primarily with the intersections between music and politics in the German Democratic Republic, and she is currently researching the roles that music played in the global contexts of the state. 

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