Cambodian popular culture in the past century has shown no reluctance to borrow from other cultures, and by the 1960s the pop sound made famous by the revered singer Sinn Sisamouth adapated western melodies, and a palette of surf guitar sounds to the unique Cambodian style of music which, I suspect, had already incorporated elements of French music, from earlier that century.
In the past 10 years Hip Hop has been the adopted style of choice. There are a number of reasons for this. First is the freeing up up of conditions since Pol Pot and the subsequent years of atrocious poverty. Music is back in its rightful place.
Second is the extremely young demographic profile of the population. Fifty per cent of Cambodians are aged 21 or younger. This makes the baby boom generation that gave us Woodstock look like a comparative blip.
Third is the nature of radio internationally to look to America as the style leader. In NZ we did the same thing in the 1970s: my ear was glued – religiously, each Sunday morning – to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40.
But in Cambodia the hip-hop spark has been ignited by at least two Cambodians who grew up in America (refugee families) but got into trouble with the law. The US deported both: young men who had never actually before set foot in their mother country. How did they respond?
Kosal Khiev responded through poetry, hip-hop style street poetry which he teaches and shares among young Cambodians. See his story here.
And KK who founded TinyToones – a breakdance school in Phnom Penh had a very similar story. See video here. Streetwise he may have been in LA, but in Phnom Penh he took some time to realise that he wasn’t the victim of the legal system so much as a young guy with something to share amongst disadvantaged young people in the slum areas. Today his breakdance school also runs classes in computing and languages as well.
These stories are a reminder that young Cambodians are interested not just in Cambodia’s past, but also in their role within the global culture.