Cambodia’s music scene is headed in an exciting new direction as the independent movement that has been rumbling underground starts to emerge. Words by Marissa Carruthers; photography by Enric Català.

Theara Ouch’s eyes light up as he flicks through photos on his smart phone of previous year’s Waken Open Air festivals. Spotlights shine on a crowd of tens of thousands of fans gathered in front of a Glastonbury-style stage at the German punk metal festival, which attracts 80,000 people annually.

“I feel crazy, I can’t believe it,” the 20-year-old says, unable to contain his excitement at being invited to perform at the festival in August with his band, Doch Chkae. “When we were younger, learning to play and watching music videos from abroad, we always said this would be amazing. Now it’s a dream come true.”

Theara is one of a growing number of young musicians who are breaking away from the norm to create space for an alternative music scene and helping shape Cambodia’s future musical landscape.

From hip hop and rock, to pop, punk, blues, traditional music and every genre in between, the appetite for original content relevant to modern Cambodia is increasing, and a creative explosion is bubbling on the horizon.

Standing Out

“When I get old, I don’t want people to look back at my generation and think we were just copycats,” says Hang Sokharo, co-founder of non-profit music foundation #IAmOriginal. He is referring to the replica music that he says dominates the industry, with lyrics from popular songs abroadtranslated into Khmer and the music remastered.

“A few years ago, there was very little original song-writing, or music being produced,” Hang recalls. “It was all very much the same; no creativity. But we’re starting to see more artists creating original content and Cambodians wanting to hear it.”

Recognising that one element contributing to musicians’ reluctance to stray away from the mainstream market of karaoke and commercial songs is the lack of support and promotion, a rise in initiatives aimed at nurturing talent have started in recent years.

In 2015, Dream of Songsters was launched along with The MIC Cambodia – both contests called for original songs and music. #IAmOriginal launched the next year, with the aim of providing a supportive platform for emerging and established artists. Laura Mam also launched a songwriting contest that year. And the fruits of these seeds are starting to shoot and spread as this fledgling movement gathers momentum.

“The music industry is still very young here but there is a new scene emerging, and I’m not talking about the pop generation influenced by KTV,” says Sok Visal, founder of Phnom Penh-based hip hop record label, KlapYaHandz. “There’s a whole generation starting to produce original songs.”

Evidence of this can be seen in the saturation of bedroom musicians, singers and songwriters uploading their work to YouTube and other social media channels. “There’s so many of them,” he says. “While only about 30 percent are good, and the rest are just ok, at least there is more creativity. It’s a start.”

Christopher Minko, an Australian musician and co-founder of Delta Mekong blues group Krom, has high hopes pinned on the future landscape of Cambodia’s music scene. He adds that a “cultural renaissance” is in the making, with the future of Cambodia’s creativity starting to be shaped by today’s generation. However, he cautions, it is vital that Cambodians lead this renaissance.

“There are too many foreigners trying to influence and define Khmer culture, past, present and future,” he says. “There is a lot of cultural colonisation going on but Cambodia’s culture in the future must be defined by Cambodians for Cambodians. That’s essential.”

And Minko believes the copycat and karaoke generation that often generates complaints is simply part of a post-conflict country grappling to find its identity. “I hear a lot of criticism. I hear a lot of people say the word “copy”. I say, it’s only been 20 years since the end of conflict. There is still a lot of confusion, horizons are still being broadened and this is part of the process. Young Cambodians are now listening to guys making music, experimenting with music, creating music and forming independent record labels. This is new Cambodian music.”

Doing it Differently

Theara had just entered his teens when he was taken to Show Box in Phnom Penh to watch deathcore band Sliten6ix perform.

Having spent his childhood collecting waste on dumpsites, he was taken in by an NGO, with one of the workers teaching Theara and some friends how to create music.

“I heard it [Sliten6ix] and thought, “What is this music?” I’d never heard music like this in Cambodia before,” he recalls. “I went home and thought about it a lot. I liked the music. It made me feel free, forget everything and got rid of my stress.”

Inspired, Theara recruited the help of Sliten6ix frontman, Vanntin Hoerun, to help him form a band with three friends. In 2014, Doch Chkae (like a dog) launched and was signed by Yab Moung Records, which was itself only founded in 2012 to help push the nascent rock scene. The band became the first Cambodian outfit to record and release a death metal song in Khmer, garnering global attention. “A lot of music in Cambodia is same same,” says Theara. “There needs to be more diversity and that is slowly happening.”

The rise in internet access has undoubtedly played its part in shaping the alternative music scene, with the younger generation able to hear a swathe of music online. In fact, it was YouTube that first introduced Hoeurn – known as Tin – to the heavy metal sounds that define Sliten6ix, a band that was at the forefront of Cambodia’s metal revolution when it launched in late 2010.

“Cable TV came in in the early 2000s,” says the 25-year-old. “I was learning English at the time and was quite fond of music in English.” The first rock band he heard was Linkin Park, with their music instantly striking a chord.

It wasn’t long before he teamed up with a group of like-minded young Cambodian metalheads and Sliten6ix’s sounds were unleashed at a house party in late-2010. Since then, the band has secured a small but firm following, and, along with a handful of other local metal bands, is carving a space in the music scene for punk, metal and rock.

“Music is a form of expression and it’s important there is diversity,” says Hoeurn, who is also a member of blues-rock band, Phnom Skor.

Hip hop is another emerging genre that has been gaining momentum during the last decade, with the genre resonating with many youths.

“I’m very dedicated to developing the hip hop scene here,” says Sok. “It’s a sub-culture that started in the US and had a huge positive social impact. A lot of the lyrics talk about starting from nothing and creating something and how we can make a better world around us. That’s the real sense of hip hop. It can bring positive change to society and help the youth to grow, which is important.”

Born in Cambodia, Sok was raised in France, where he lived for 18 years growing up in the 1980s when hip hop was starting to rise.

He spent a few years studying in the US, returning to Cambodia in 1993. He secured work with an ad agency, spending his spare time learning to use music software in his bedroom, experimenting with sampling Khmer music from the 1960s with hip hop beats.

He teamed up with some local rappers to release two albums, before launching KlapYaHandz in 2005.

“Hip hop became big worldwide in the 1990s and that’s when Cambodia was coming out to the world,” says Sok. “The UN were here, then we had the first [post-Khmer Rouge] elections. Local people started returning to Cambodia from Australia, the US, France, and we brought hip hop with us to our country and motherland. Since then, hip hop has played a part in Cambodia’s music scene but on an underground level, and that is good to see.”

Stumbling Blocks

“When we launched in 2009 there really wasn’t a local scene, we had to make it ourselves,” says Julien Poulsen, co-founder of Cambodian Space Project. “We insisted on picking up professional fees and conditions for our work at a time when others were happy to jam in pubs.”

This remains one of the major problems musicians in Cambodia face today, monetising their music – an issue that is endemic across the globe.

“In Cambodian society, people don’t pay for local content,” says Hang. “We want to change perception. If you want good content, then you have to pay for it. Whether its supporting artists by paying to stream their music, buying their merchandise or donating.”

While the entire music industry was hit when free streaming websites, such as Napster, Spotify and SoundCloud, launched, Hang says paying for content remains an alien concept in Cambodia; iTunes is rarely used and concerts, which are often sponsored by private companies, are free.

“When concerts are free, or you can watch musicians on TV seven days a week, then it doesn’t encourage people to pay for music,” he says. “People feel local content shouldn’t be paid for because it’s free everywhere so why should they? Every artist now struggles with this, or artists have to change their music to make it more commercial.”

Financial freedom would enable the independent music scene to further flourish, with artists able to create the content they desire. “At the moment, the majority of artists’ income is from events, which are influenced by the private companies that sponsor them. If the public supports them and uses legal platforms so artists no longer depend on sponsors and can afford a living, the quality of music will rise,” adds Hang.

In February 2017, #IAmOriginal hosted Truck Music Festival at Koh Pich as an experiment to see if Cambodians were ready to pay for tickets. The two-day event presented a swathe of established and emerging artists, with effort placed on producing a stage show to accompany each performance – adding value to the acts, Hang says. Out of more than 1,500 attendees, about 500 stumped up the $3 to $5 entry fee. “It’s not a huge amount,” says Hang. “But it shows perceptions are starting to change.”

Sok has also been ploughing his own money into making music and keeping KlapYaHandz afloat, with the majority of its artists having side jobs to invest in their work. “I’m not in it for the money,” he says. “The reality is that until recently, we didn’t make any money and it’s hard.”

However, Sok has upped his game and is determined to transform his “music passion project” into a profitable record label. “I’m trying to find ways to make it sustainable,” he says. “There are now more opportunities to monetise music than there were four years ago. There’s more interest locally and brands are willing to be sponsors.”

Another major hurdle is a lack of support locally, says Poulsen. “There’s not much support from Cambodian labels or presenters,” he says. “It’s a very conservative culture so no real Cambodian media is picking up on grassroots talent unless it’s for commercial release through karaoke-style production houses.”

These companies are few in numbers and often only focus on the local scene, lacking the vision to prep artists to take the international world by storm.

“It’s almost xenophobic but really I find the majority of the music, bland contemporary Asia market stuff that is only made for commercial value, imitation K-pop produced for corporate sponsors,” he says. “The arts NGOs are filling the gap and so are all the DIY artists, this area is much more interesting, but few have the skills or resources to develop their work over the long-term. This is also changing, and a lot of new artists are seeing potential to go further.”

Going International

As the country’s music scene diversifies, and Cambodia continues to be flagged up on the international map, local artists are starting to capture the attention of audiences abroad – an element that needs to be pushed further, according to Poulsen.

“It’s [the local music scene] very small, robust et al but still mostly the same mix of players as it was when I first launched CSP in 2009,” he says. “I compare the scene or industry to similarly sized places in Africa or South America and wonder why so few of the acts have made it out onto the international circuit when there’s such rich source material in Cambodia. The industry really should be stronger, and the talent should be achieving wider recognition.”

One of CSP’s early objectives was to take their psychedelic 1960s Khmer rock ‘n’ roll sounds and made-in-Cambodia act across the globe, planting the country on the international music map, commanding fees along the way. “We not only did this but after touring some 24 different countries, found there’s an audience everywhere for our kind of Cambodian music,” he says.

In a bid to garner more global exposure to the wave of young Cambodian musicians, Poulsen received the blessing from iconic American musician Iggy Pop for local talent to reproduce a handful of his tunes. A total of 11 tracks were recorded in a studio, including Doch Chkae’s take on ‘Wanna Be Your Dog’, Phnom Skor’s ‘Ann’ and Prof Kinski featuring MC Lisha and Miss Sarawan’s ‘TV Eye’, with the results soon to be mastered and released on 12-inch vinyl as LP, Angkor Pop!

“The acts really show the diversity and strength of talent Cambodia’s underground scene has,” says Poulsen, adding Iggy Pop is already spinning the late Kak Channthy and CSP’s version of ‘The Passenger’ on BBC Radio 6. “It is also a CSP production intended to give a step up to all our local artists by compiling and marketing this LP to international audiences.”

Doch Chkae is another group that hopes to secure success with international audiences. The band members are currently arranging visas and passports to attend Waken Open Air in August. “We are very excited and proud to be representing Cambodia at such a big event,” says Theara, who pens lyrics in Khmer about life and its struggles. “It is an amazing opportunity for us, and really great promotion for Cambodia.”

Krom, which was born seven years ago as a Phnom Penh-based band creating bilingual, cross-cultural music, has managed to secure a strong overseas following having received two 2017 Grammy nominations for Best World Music Album and Song of the Year. The Australian-Cambodian band, which produces self-coined contemporary Mekong Delta Blues – a beautiful blend of blues and Khmer music, with lyrics that tackle social issues head-on – is also hoping to tour Europe next year.

And Krom’s talented singers Sopheak – who made it to the last four in The Voice Cambodia – and Sopheak Chamroeun, who also have launched Smiley Band, have travelled the globe performing Khmer songs and are currently touring the US. “Cambodia is full of so much talent that is waiting to be discovered,” says Minko.

#IAmOriginal has also set its longer-term sights on the regional market, hoping to forge collaborations between local artists and Thai and Vietnamese peers. “In Thailand and Vietnam, they already have a very big and established music industry, so it’s hard for Cambodia to infiltrate that. However, if we could collaborate then Thai or Vietnamese audiences would get to know Cambodian music and vice versa.”

The Road Ahead

With the foundations in place, industry players are optimistic about the future of music in the Kingdom. Attitudes are starting to change, and more value is being placed on the art form – two factors that are essential to its growth. The industry is also starting to up its game in terms of professionalism.

“The industry is still young and led by people who have learned in schools in Cambodia or taught themselves from the internet,” Sok says. “Everyone is trying to learn the whole business. Whereas people brought up abroad, like Laura Mam, have been exposed to a proper music industry and how it works. We don’t have that here and that’s what artists like her [Mam] bring and help to make it more professional.”

Having successfully launched its first album, Together, Stronger – a creative collaboration between 10 established and emerging musicians, with 10 accompanying music videos – #IAmOriginal is now working on the arduous task of shifting perceptions. Teasers for new tracks and videos are released on social media channels, with the full versions available to download through legal platform Smart Music.

It is also creating a Crowdfunding-style platform where individuals and companies can donate towards helping independent artists craft their tracks and videos free from the pressures of sponsors. Hang hopes the concept will help encourage people to pay for quality content. And the organisation is working to push professional standards by carrying out high-quality marketing and branding campaigns for artists, and producing top quality music videos and stage shows.

“There are two factors that keep artists underground,” Hang says. “Production quality and branding. Often artists don’t learn about marketing or branding, so they don’t know how to sell themselves. They compose a song and publish it on YouTube and that’s it. Even if they have really a good song, without marketing it can fail.”

As musicians and songwriters continue to push boundaries, adding Cambodian creativity that is in abundance across the country, the road ahead looks set to lead to an exciting place.

“Certain cultures hold music at the pinnacle of their cultural ladder, the Spanish, for example,” says Minko. “Khmer music is stunning and should be put at the pinnacle of the Khmer cultural ladder..”

Hang believes that the future lies with creating original content. “They [the artists] are building a legacy for Cambodian people and for the Cambodian music scene,” he says. “The original artists of today should be proud because they are creating a legacy, they are defining an era of Cambodian music.”