An unlikely outcome – how praCh Ly’s Khmer rap music opened up and healed old war wounds

praCh Ly didn’t know it, but his limited release rap CD was going to Number 1 in Cambodia, and was bridging two generations.

Rap music isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. In the early 90s the gangsta rap sound from the meaner suburbs of Los Angeles assaulted the radio waves and split black culture down the middle with old-school R&B on one side, with a younger edgier generation on the other.

For any teenager growing up in LA it would have been impossible to ignore artists such as Run DMC, NWA, Ice Cube – and if the epicentre of rap music was the suburb of Compton, then in neighbouring Long Beach, home of several hundred thousand Cambodians in the USA, rap music provided an outlet for a generation of young migrants who had grown up with a feeling of displacement that came from being war refugees in a fairly unsympathetic foreign land.

praCh is the seventh child of a refugee family. He was born in 1979 near Battambang, and his family came to United States to escape the Khmer Rouge. His family was quite typical in that the adults seldom talked about their experiences of war: the focus was on the new life, though the new life was extremely tough. Out in the streets, the conversations of young people seem to be mostly about gangs, guns and drugs. praCh Ly loved rap music, but he found his lyrical home when one of his older brothers started telling him stories about the Khmer Rouge and about the family’s desperate escape to a refugee camp. Soon he was recording samples of music, using a karaoke machine, and throwing over these beats his hard-hitting lyrics. His album, Dalama, pieced together a song by song his own life story.

This was in the year 2000, and praCh manned booth at the New Year celebrations held by the Khmer community of Long Beach each year. There was to be live music at the event, but he was told that his music was too aggressive, that he was not able to perform. But an artist is an artist – and displaying a precocious confidence – praCh got up on stage before the main acts which were due to play, and he introduced himself. He told the audience that he was going to do a rap piece, once in Khmer, and once in English – and that if they didn’t like it – then they were welcome to boo him off the stage.

He performed his piece called welcome, first in English – just him and the microphone with no beats or accompaniment – and the younger members of the audience loved it. When he then performed it in Khmer he got a standing ovation from old and young. “Do another one,” they yelled. This was his breakthrough.

His CD sold locally in modest numbers, but unbeknownst to him, a Cambodian DJ took a copy back to the Phnom Penh, and played tracks on the radio. They got a huge reaction – partly from the government who wanted to ban these tracks, but after it was argued that the subject of the rap music was history and not the present government, the authorities relented, and the fan reaction was so strong that pirated copies of Dalama sold in huge numbers; making praCh the first Cambodian rap star.

This got him big publicity with mentions in Newsweek and other mainstream media, and it took praCh into circles he never expected. In 2002 he was shoulder tapped to become chief organiser of the Khmer New Year’s festival in Long Beach – a role that put him right into the middle of his own community. In the past 12 years he has continued to be published as a rap musician and as a poet – and he has been in big demand on the speaking circuit, lecturing on human rights.

Rap music may not be your cup of tea – but what is interesting about praCh is that he uses an in-your-face medium to tell honest stories, and expose the history faced by so many families who lived through the 1970s. He was quite surprised at how his music has served to open up conversations with families – with the younger generation, informed by his music, beginning to ask their parents about their experiences under the Khmer Rouge. This has been a healing process.

praCh is now probably regarded as the elder statesman of Khmer rap – and there are now several other names of Cambodian rap and hip hop artists both from Long Beach and from the homeland of Cambodia. It is a lively, dynamic genre. In 2004 he went on a 23 States tour across the United States and was a subject for Japan’s documentary film, which won NHK’s Best Documentary of the Year (2004).

He has also become active scoring movie soundtracks including the Khmer baseball documentary ‘Rice Field of Dreams’ (2010) and creating original music for the excellent Sundance Award Winning and *Oscar short-listed movie ‘Enemies of the People’ (2010).

Among his recent activities has been the founding and organising of the Cambodia Town Film Festival which ensures an outlet for Cambodia’s burgeoning film industry. He has been described as Khmer-America’s most influential citizen.

Advertisements

A Killing Field Documentary – a model movie

Image

While I ponder on RUN – the new Cambodian Zombie movie, one other Khmer film I saw this year was the excellent though in some regards harrowing documentary The Missing Picture.  A 2013 Cambodian documentary film directed by Rithy Panh about the Khmer Rouge the movie screened to great acclaim in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival where it won the top prize. The film was also selected as the Cambodian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards.

The film is the personal account, by the director’narrator, of his family’s experience under the Khmer Rouge, and because there is no record – the missing picture theme – of what happened, the film maker uses clay models to ‘re-enact’ the story. There is something about the crude simplicity of those models that makes the story more powerful – more subject to the terrors of the imagination.

I saw the film with a friend in New Zealand, Chakara Lim, who is an energetic champion for the local Khmer community in my city, and I asked him after the film about his thoughts. Strangely, he said, he felt somewhat unmoved despite the fact that the details of the story – the years of starvation, of families being turned against themselves, of good people being brutally punished for showing acts of compassion – all these things rang true to his own experience.

We are both storytellers and we discussed this: concluding that the narrator remains a voice behind the camera and his detachment makes it hard to sympathise.

So mixed reviews here – but I’d recommend the movie if you can find it on DVD. The history of the Pol  Pot years is a story that needs sharing and consideration: it indelibly stains the landscape of the modern Khmer people.

Into cinema? See how a new Cambodian Zombie Movie makes its mark.

Cambodian Zombies – they’re here!

Image

Cambodia had a thriving film industry in the decades before Pol Pot, but today the low entry price of digital is enabling the Khmer film industry to find it’s feet…and other missing limbs. Run is the first ever Khmer Zombie flick.

The nascent Cambodian movie industry is finding its feet at present – as well as a few other stray limbs and severed heads. This last month a new local movie has been launched successfully: a zombie flick that cost $10,000 to shoot. The name of the movie is “Run.”

Come view the trailer. (CLICK HERE)

While Cambodia has a strong history of ghost movies and supernatural tales, this film represents a 21st Century departure for the once thriving film industry – borrowing heavily from the western Zombie tropes, but putting a Khmer spin on the storyline. The Cinematography is by a western cameraman, but the movie is distinctly a product of Phnom Penh. Watching the trailer I couldn’t help but think that the zombie virus is a metaphor for many other things (corruption, western values, civil unrest) just as surely as those American-made 1950s Monster from Outer Space films were a metaphor for the lingering Communist menace of the time.

The movie features an ex-champion Khmer boxer, and at least one zombie victim who – in reality – lost limbs in landmine accidents. A black reminder of other forces that once invaded the Kingdom of Cambodia.

See more about Cambodian Movies.

Still I Strive – Uplifting Cambodian Documentary

STILL I STRIVE

Cambodian stories in the past two decades have been dominated, quite understandably, by the echoes of the Pol Pot era. Already many accounts of that awful period have been told, and many, many more are due to be shared.

But in Cambodia there is a nascent body of forward looking works -in literature, in film and in music – that exude hope and humanity and recapture the spirit that existed before the 1970s.

Among these is the documentary Still I Strive which is the story of a Phnom Penh orphanage (National Action Culture Assn. orphanage) that gives the children not only a good basic education, but also training in dance and acting. The dream is to perform for the Royal Family.

Released late in 2012, Variety gave the documentary a glowing review.

The power of performing arts to restore hope to damaged young lives is marvelously captured in “Still I Strive,” an uplifting chronicle of the curriculum at the National Action Culture Assn. orphanage in Phnom Penh. Going one mightily impressive step further than standard-issue fare, the docu combines footage of training and rehearsals with an apt action-adventure yarn starring these highly talented children. A winning debut by co-helmers Adam Pfleghaar and A. Todd Smith, pic should enjoy a lengthy fest run following its world preem at Busan. Pubcasters should check it out.

Following brief subtitled info stating that 50% of Cambodia’s population is less than 25 years old, and many thousands of children are orphans or come from severely dysfunctional homes, the docu launches with an exciting action sequence. In an open field, an army of child warriors engages in some strong but not-too-violent combat with same-age enemies wearing fearsome-looking white facepaint.

Performers are orphans from Naca, where education in the three R’s is matched by high-level instruction in theater, dance and music. According to association founder Su Savang and head instructor Peng Phan (lead femme thesp in Rithy Panh’s 1994 “Rice People”), training and performance has played a major role in helping to heal the children’s trauma.

Supporting evidence is written all over the smiling faces of youngsters as they take lessons in acting, singing and classical ballet in preparation for the regular Friday night performance at Phnom Penh’s night market. The docu’s central dramatic thread concerns kids’ dream of reaching a high enough standard to perform for Princess Bopha Devi, the greatly admired royal, once the lead dancer of the Royal Cambodian Ballet in the 1960s.

While accentuating the many positives of the story, Pfleghaar and Smith sensitively examine the deeply troubled backgrounds of four children — Real Rothana, Jin Kunthea, Heng Chham and Vin Lyny, all between 7 and about 14 years old. Many auds will shed a tear as the four recall sometimes horrific memories one moment and express unbridled optimism about themselves and their country’s future the next.

Dramatic footage is well constructed to meaningfully mirror what’s happening in and around the orphanage. Picking up new members as they wander through the countryside, the warrior children are being chased by ghosts from the past; their ultimate quest is to seek an audience with a princess. Confidently performed by all the kids, this material packs a genuine star turn by Rothana as the group’s leader. (Rothana says he wants to be a lawyer when he grows up; on evidence seen here, if he does, it’ll be acting’s loss.)

Inventively edited and elegantly lensed with some terrific crane shots in the dramatic segs, the docu is several technical cuts above the ordinary. Composer Michael Reola contributes rousing original songs and a lovely score that includes spine-tingling use of the khem, a traditional stringed instrument. All other tech work is on the money.

To view the trailer, click here.

For more on Cambodian Culture – the Golden Age of Cambodian Pop

For another quite different Cambodian movie – Run: the first Khmer Zombie flick!