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Sinn Sisamouth painting by Sasha Constable at The Little Red Fox Espresso in Siem Reap, Cambodia


During the three years, eight months and twenty days of the Khmer Rouge occupation, leading up to the Vietnamese invasion of 1979, Phnom Penh was a silent capital, abandoned to its scars of violence and bomb squads. The once-bustling sounds of celebration, music, and dance were suddenly taken away in minutes by the marching red army of genocide.

The Khmer Rouge came pronouncing against debauchery, social inequality, corruption, religion, and traditional celebration such as New Year. No culture, but work and dedication to Angka. The Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge mimicked Mao’s Red Book to the max. The living and the dead prayed in silence for their demise. By the end, more than two million dead.

The Vietnamese invasion unearthed skulls and bones and the remains of torture prisons all over Cambodia. Music and cultural preservation returned, but Khmer weren’t free to express themselves as they knew it before. Vietnam, too, was a communist state. Under Vietnamese occupation, there was a different type of silencing, though people were able to restart the performance art school, and those surviving masters worked tirelessly to pass down what they knew with urgency. Save Khmer cultural heritage. It’s worth it, and indeed, it is up to now. Art and culture make people who they are. They’re part of their identity and the way they interpret the world all around them. They cultivate a kind of unity and a collective identification of their language and aspirations.

Once ingrained, the language, culture, art, and music are never to be forgotten. A period of restoration of what the Khmer Rouge had systematically set to destroy flourished again with sheer Khmer determination and resiliency even with little financial resources. When the Vietnamese invaded, all the Khmer Rouge were pushed back into the border shared with Thailand. People were free to return home finally, after having been told by the Khmer Rouge that they were only evacuating them for a few days until the American bombing stopped. A few days turned into months and years of torture and starvation, sleeping in the rain. On top of that, there was no music, no radio to keep them connected and hopeful to the outside world. Only the sounds of people being murdered moaning and groaning, asking for mercy.

One survivor echoed what everyone was feeling when he said he dropped everything the moment he heard Sinn Sisamouth being broadcasted from a radio. The song of his youth paralyzed him to one place, giving him goosebumps and tears like water down his cheeks. The music of the golden era of Cambodian rock ‘n roll returned, though Sinn Sisamouth and others like him had been murdered. Their voices remain just like old-time, and this golden voice of Sinn Sisamouth, for many Cambodians of the 60s and 70s generations, was something that flooded their memories with goodness; not the brutality of the Khmer Rouge —- something Cambodians didn’t expect could happen to them in such cruel ways.

After UNTAC monitored democratic elections in 1992, Cambodians began gathering documents, sieving through old memories of dance gestures, traditional music, and stories of written and oral traditions and organizing all antiquities that had not been looted or stolen, smuggled into foreign museums and into the hands of wealthy collectors all over the world. A reemergence of Khmer culture and identity started to reroot themselves. Alongside these efforts, the emergence of a karaoke culture, prostitution, human trafficking, and other social problems, and a sexually transmitted disease AIDS, the selling of flesh, young girls from the poor countryside flooding into the city looking for work ended up working in bars and nightclubs, selling cigarettes and beer, and their bodies for the right price.

Few had written all these things down in songs or their diaries. It was history lived and forgotten until a few returnees from France and in the United States came home. Rithy Panh made his debut movie, The Night Before The War, followed by Rice People and many others. He founded The Bophana Center, where young people get to learn the importance of documentation. They started to digitize the history of their country and the changing landscape of their society. Students can go there and research for free.

The National museum reopened for business. Tourism boomed. Cafes and galleries showed visual arts of local artists, though, music-wise, Cambodia was accused of singing the same old love songs, copying others. Originality was lacking, and the music, karaoke videography was poorly acted and filmed, but Cambodians were experimenting, and relearning how to use these medians by themselves, playing with lights and shadows, progressing slowly to now, busy preserving the old but in fear of creating anything new.

During her TedTalk, Phnom Penh, Laura Mam provided evidence of her generation reclaiming the originality and authenticity of their lyrics and songs.
When she returned to Cambodia with her mother, she realized how singers were just remixing and re-singing old songs. A few had tried infusing Western music with that of the old traditional instruments, like the Chepey Dong Vang. They also copied foreign music, not respecting copyright infringement. Even Sinn Sisamouth had gotten in trouble for singing one of the French songs in Khmer. But during the era of Sin Sisamouth, Ros Serey Sothea, Pan Rom, or Huy Meas, alongside copying, was their own unique culture of creative originality. That was why they called it the golden era.

Today, the younger Cambodians are realizing that they need to support their authenticity for originality and cultural re-rooting. Laura Mam, born in the US, a singer and songwriter herself, can claim a lot of credits for her work to bring this type of originality back to Cambodia. She had been turned down by traditional labels like Hong Meas when she went to them looking for originality. All they said to her was, just sing old songs and look pretty. Laura persisted to prove them wrong. Now, she started her recording label, Boramey Production, which is growing into a working force of young, emerging artists making their marks inside and outside Cambodia.

During her TedTalk, she inspired the young audience to support original music. With Facebook and Youtube, traditional recording labels are no longer vital in the success of individual young artists in this century. Just go to Youtube and search Khmer contemporary music, you can find an array of young, interesting artists, singing in various genres, especially rap. Some are mixing old songs with a bit of rap.

Rap was born out of African-American culture. Now, rap has gone viral globally. Rap, however, in Khmer, is such a natural fit, since Khmer had an oral tradition of singing and reciting poetry. Young artists like VannDa are using rap to make their mark inside Cambodia and internationally. VannDa’s songs have at least a million or more views globally. I had not heard of him before until a friend on Facebook tagged me to watch his latest song, Time to Rise, rapped alongside the famed master Kong Nay of Cambodian Living Arts, spearheaded by Arn Chorn-Pond, another Khmer-American who worked tirelessly to champion the restoration of Khmer culture, music, and dance. Cambodian Living Arts organization has been instrumental in bringing about a new consciousness of creativity among the young generation of today. The organization had enabled many surviving masters a second chance to pass down their arts so Khmer culture can once again thrive in the hearts of the young. Also, to commit arts as instruments or vehicles in which young people connect to their traditions and the older artists before them, to build bridges, and to sow the seeds of healing among the traumatized by the long wars and genocide. The vision is to spread this necessity of rebuilding the art network or system in other countries in conflicts so arts can become humanity’s part of healing.

One of Cambodian Living Art’s visions was to introduce friends and visitors of Cambodia to more than the genocide. In Cambodia, there’s a lot of rich cultural traditions, arts, and dances, and warm-hearted people contrary to what the Khmer Rouge came to symbolize. As a result, Cambodia is changing with young people like Laura Mam and others, like the older masters Rithy Panh in films, Kong Nay, Arn Chorn Pond, and others working to restore and revamp excitement and pride in the younger generation what it means to be Khmer.

VannDa is one of those young rap artists now the most popular in the Cambodian music scene. He has a husky, raw male voice, though physically small, like a boy.
In his new release, Time to Rise, he collaborated with our famous Chapey Dong Veng master, Lok Ta Kong Nay, who is equal to Prach Chuon as a Chepey artist. This is a young man interested in his cultural renewal and revival, who is sincerely interested in what the old has to teach him about the present and his future, so in this song, he urges unity, pride, and courage to rise and reclaim Khmerness that is positive and non-violence.  Working under Boramey Production are rap artists like Klapyahanz, Jivit, Khmeng Khmer, and others. These young rappers have unique sounds that are very natural in Khmer.

When I listen to music, I pay close attention to the lyrics. If it’s only about love, I turned it off. This is not the case among these young artists. They sing about their lives, poverty, work, loss, and separation – topics relatable to listeners.

Here’s an example, Don’t Worry, by Khmeng Khmer, translated by Laura Mam during her TedTalk Phnom Penh.

Far from my family
I miss them
I just want to see father and mother happy

Meeting and parting is always short

Your child here can only say goodbye for now

Please, don’t cry, my good-natured parents

I’ve almost reached my goals
Your child cannot turn back now
My destiny is about to answer me
My dreams are finally close