One of the most striking tracks off Bochan Huy’s debut album, Full Monday Moon, sheds light on what the up and coming singer-songwriter brings to the table: hip-hop beats and soulful, socially conscious English vocals layered over the Khmer chorus and guitar riffs of one of Cambodia’s most beloved rock‘n’roll classics.
The song, a re-interpretation of iconic songstress Ros Sereysothea’s Cham Oun 16 (I am 16), is a thoughtful blend of old and young, memory and creativity, the United States and Cambodia; musical fruit born of Phnom Penh native Bochan’s experience as a refugee raised in the US.
“When I first heard this song, I saw a woman coming of age who wants to pick her own destiny,” says Bochan, whose family fled Phnom Penh for a Thai refugee camp in 1980 and, after many moves, eventually settled in Oakland, California.
While Cham Oun 16 is the innocent tale of a young woman who wonders, “What is life?/What is love?”, Bochan’s additional self-penned vocals speak to her own life story: “I am a Khmer woman/They tried to stop us/ They tried to rob us/ Like an Apsara/ I survived.”
“I feel like I’m coming of age. I’m claiming my identity as a Khmer woman. And furthermore, Cambodian culture is finding its identity and reconstructing itself,” says the 32 year-old, for whom the choice of a Ros Seyresothea song was anything but an accident.
Like many artists of her time, Ros Sereysothea, a star in the thriving Cambodian rock scene of the 1960s and 70s, disappeared during the Khmer Rouge era. Though her original recordings were destroyed by the regime, her music has been rescued and regularly covered by artists wanting to pay tribute to Cambodian rock’s Golden Era.
Bochan is apprehensive that some older Cambodians may dislike the fact that she didn’t “stay true” to the song’s original sound, but she is confident in her message.
“I’m not trying to resurrect a lost musical era or anything like that. I want to honour Ros Sereysothea and keep the song as it is. But I also want to use it to remind people that it’s time to create original music,“ says Bochan, pointing to the generic Karaoke ballads, Korean pop sound-alikes, and Western imitations that saturate the Cambodian music industry.
While visiting Cambodia for her brother’s wedding, Bochan was invited to perform earlier this month on Bayon TV. One of the other performers on the program, she says, simply could not comprehend that she had written her own song.
Yet when asked, the singer has a hard time defining her music, opting for “indie pop” with elements of soul, R&B, jazz and rock. In the end she settles for describing it as a “fusion” style.
Bochan began her singing career at an early age as a singer in her father’s band, which would often perform for what she calls the “Cambodian circuit” of Khmer immigrant community events and weddings. The family’s home was a hub for Cambodian musicians, including well-known exiles living in the US.
“That’s where I learned to speak the language and eat the food. It’s where I was exposed to the music and culture,” she says, adding that the Cambodian circuit gave her a taste for both Western (through a consistent repertoire of Whitney Houston and Celine Dion covers) and Cambodian music styles like the Khmer rock her father loved.
“I went back and forth between the two, and it helped me develop my own style, which is an East meets West sound, and that’s what I try to do with this album,” she says.
“Even though there’s not that many traditional Cambodian sounds, there are certain stylistic features of the vocals that I would attribute to being Khmer. I have a very strong vibrato, that’s something you don’t hear very much in American music.”
Indeed, Cham Oun 16 is the only song on Full Monday Moon in Khmer. The rest of the album, written fully by Bochan herself, is in English. Many of the songs are gentle love ballads with piano accompaniment, while others are more political.
The song Believe, for example, was influenced by Bochan’s time as a case worker for a mental health organisation in Oakland.
She became aware of what she calls the “deconstruction of the Cambodian family”, brought about by migration and post-traumatic stress, and the economic and social situation that refugees faced after arriving in the US.
The fact that the content of Bochan’s songs is itself a product of identities and experiences that straddle the two countries, speaks to where she sees herself fitting within Cambodia’s burgeoning art scene.
It’s only during this recent month-and-half-long stint in Cambodia, she says, that she’s felt herself belonging to the wave of young Cambodians, once scattered across the world by the devastation of the Khmer Rouge and the ensuing civil conflict, that are now returning to the country and contributing to its cultural reconstruction. “People are coming back to the motherland from wherever they migrated to,” she says, admitting that it is mainly among the community of Cambodian diaspora artists that she has found kindred spirits in Phnom Penh.
“So now we have this melting pot of culture, an array of people that are bringing back with them what they learned.” That’s why, surrounded by the creative spirit of the diaspora, she is not too concerned with being viewed as “authentically” Cambodian.
“It’s about creating something new that becomes a part of the culture,” she says.
For her next album, Bochan hopes to incorporate traditional Cambodian instruments into her compositions, and she dreams of some day collaborating with renowned chapei master Kong Nay.
But while she may include more Cambodian sounds, fans shouldn’t expect any of her albums to ever be recorded completely in Khmer, a language she is still not fully comfortable writing in.
“It just wouldn’t be me,” she says. “I’m a hybrid. It’s what I represent.”
“My father always told us, ‘You’re Cambodian American, you get to choose the best of both. You can choose your destiny.’ ”
A destiny no doubt accompanied by the strong vibrato hum of a refugee diaspora slowly, creatively, making its way home.
Full Monday Moon, which was officially released in January, took two years to make and was completely self-funded by Bochan. The mp3 version is available online for US $10 at www.bochan.bandcamp.com.