A young generation of Cambodians fighting to express themselves has turned to music. Marissa Carruthers and photographer Dylan Maddux caught up with three bands at the forefront of the alternative music movement.
Leaping into the air, the young singer dressed in skinny jeans and a simple black T-shirt screams into her microphone before launching into a head-banging session on stage. A healthy crowd of fans follow suit and transform the dance floor into a mosh-pit, moving to the sounds of the Khmer post-hardcore and metal-core band.
Welcome to the world of alternative music — a movement that seems to be quickly catching on with young Cambodians as talented rock bands join the country’s ever-growing music scene. “I love the attitude that comes with this sort of music,” says No Forever vocalist Pheng Sovandaeriza. “It comes with a certain kind of freedom to express yourself. Even if it’s brutal or cruel, it’s always so pure.”
Off stage, the 22-year-old student couldn’t be more different from her almost terrifying on stage alter-ego. Timid, polite and adorably sweet, Pheng — who also goes by the name of Sam — aims to inspire a generation of young Cambodians through her music, a blend of guitars and passionate screaming and shouting.
“What we want is for people in Cambodia to be who they are and not to be afraid of anything, and that’s what I think this sort of music is all about. Being a female singer in this genre of music is also unusual but I don’t like to think about what’s different. I don’t care if I’m female or male, I do what I want and that’s how it should be,” she says, citing bands Asking Alexandria and Sleeping With Sirens as her inspiration.
Despite only forming eight months ago, No Forever has already attracted a firm following of fans keen to rebel against social norms. And it seems they’re not the only band to create waves in the music scene.
Hoern Vanntin, front man of two-year-old metal band Sliten6ix, has noticed a rise in the number of young people in the Kingdom turning to alternative music.
“I’ve been a big fan since I was young,” the 20-year-old Slipknot fan says. “I like the aggression, the pure ecstasy, the heightened emotions — that’s not something you can fake and I love that. The majority of young people in Cambodia tend to listen to K-pop but there do seem to be more listening to alternative music. I think that’s because they’re rebelling and want to broaden their horizons and this is a way to do that.”
With relatable lyrics about love, life and teenage angst, it’s little wonder such music is capturing the minds of youngsters, many of whom are hearing alternative rock created by Cambodians for the first time. The genre’s rise is also set to get a boost after the launch of record label Yab Moung Records Phnom Penh four months ago. No Forever, Sliten6ix and ANTI-fate are among the five bands signed up to the label, which has been securing them paid gigs in the capital.
Myley Rattle, 27, co-founder of Yab Moung and Phnom Penh venue Showbox, which hosts alternative music nights, believes the genre can attract attention across borders by encouraging youngsters to express themselves openly.
“I saw two of the bands live and thought they could easily play in Melbourne or New York with their unique and up-to-date music. I knew there had to be a way for this sort of music to be bigger in Cambodia,” he says.
“It’s unique Khmer creativity being made by Khmers, and they sing songs about everything. This stuff’s not PC, and some is in English and some is in Khmer. It’s really relevant for the slightly younger generation. It’s getting people to express themselves in a way that’s not socially acceptable.”
Later this year, it is hoped the bands will embark on a national tour, which will start and end in Phnom Penh, taking in Siem Reap, the coast and Battambang. In the next two years, Rattle hopes to get them out of Cambodia and introduce the rest of Southeast Asia to the country’s sounds.
The musicians themselves also hope to make their mark on the nation. “We want to make Cambodia proud and hope to help Cambodians understand what this sort of music is really all about,” says 23-year-old student Chhuth Sen Propey, frontman of ANTI-fate.”