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Khmer sound: hard rock, soft scene

A restrained crowd early in the afternoon on December 1
A restrained crowd early in the afternoon on December 1 at Cambo Headbanger, Cambodia’s biggest celebration of Khmer rock music. The crowd would later turn into a wild mosh-pit. Photograph supplied

Slieten6ix singer Tin, 20, stood on the loudspeakers, owning the stage. He screamed into his microphone: “I hate the f***ing Khmer Rouge!” In the audience 40 bare-chested sweaty teenage boys started to form two equal groups close to the stage, prancing like gorillas in heat. A storm of drum, bass and guitar started, and Tin broke loose with screaming vocals.

The groups of half-naked boys ran and kicked, pushed and jumped on one another.

Last Saturday, Eden Park Restaurant hosted the second anniversary of Cambo Headbanger: an event that forms the focal point of the exploding Cambodian rock scene. Two years ago there were just 20 people in the audience. This year there were 250 people going wild on stage and in the audience, around 40 of them running into each other half naked. The vast majority were Cambodian boys and girls in their teens and twenties.

“Fun, changing society, money? I don’t know what they want,” says Tom Reichelt, the 26-year old German event manager. Last week, together with two of his friends he founded the independent music label Yab Moung Records (Khmer for ‘pain in the a**’). He spent last weekend watching all the bands at Headbanger at the weekend, standing at the side of the crowd.

“There is a lot of talent here,” he says. He even believes that there will be commercial success soon.

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If it comes, it won’t be in the traditional sense: onstage tantrums, smashed guitars and lines of blow in the bathroom. This scene looks very different. Alongside noisy Deathcore bands like Slietn6ix and punk collectives like The ANTI-fate there are alt-rock bands and girly punk pop bands like Count Us In which plays Pink covers. The crowd applauds politely. Niki, the 17 year-old singer has a teddy bear badge on her backpack.

The day after the gig Slietn6ix singer Tin, the lead guitarist, Veasna, 26 and Propey, 23, the singer of The ANTI-Fate hang out at the newly opened indie venue The Showbox. The most extreme thing about them are holes in Tin’s black jeans.

Though both bands write songs about dark issues – brutality, corruption, the Khmer Rouge – their conversation is about growth rather than destruction.

“We want music to come back to life,” says Veasna, after all three condemn the proliferation of K-pop. All three want young Khmer people to be more individual and express themselves: “I tell them just don’t be f***ing same-same all the time. Be different,” Tin says.  

That expression does have boundaries, he adds as a disclaimer: “In my lyrics I try to stay away from saying s**t about the government. There is no use. I sing more about general stuff.”

Constructive? Not speaking out about issues that bother them? Just how punk are these kids?

Tin studies English at University. Propey has finished his IT degree and is looking for a job. Veasna is the director of a private music school. Tin and Propey both live with their parents and none of them have girlfriends – or any concept of groupies.

“Most girls are scared away by our music,” Tin says and all three laugh.

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Before he discovered soft rock online, Tin had no idea about the genre.

“I was a little kid without many friends searching YouTube. I just started listening to soft rock and then wanted more. Heavier and heavier.”

Eventually he started listening to metal and deathcore, and one day screamed along and found he was good at it.

Bandmate Veasna found him when he uploaded a video of his vocals to YouTube and the two of them formed a band – two years ago now. Because the rock scene is so small in Cambodia it was very hard to find like-minded people, and harder to get expensive equipment: the ANTI-Fate front man Propey played with a borrowed acoustic guitar for three years until he could afford his own electric one.

Like Veasna and many in the scene, he learned most of his guitar skills by watching YouTube videos.

The influence of Western internet videos is so strong that most of the bands sing mostly in English – even their own songs.

It is hard to write metal songs in Khmer, Propey says: “It just sounds too soft.” He promises to try to “go more Khmer” in his song-writing soon.

It is Khmer youth that they want to revolutionise – in their own quiet way.

“We have a goal in changing things. Make people open their minds. It doesn’t have to be extreme.”

One thing that they won’t trample on is parental ties – a crucial part of the Cambodian culture that they want to express through their music.

“One day our parents will understand. But I will also stick to ideals that my parents have because I am Cambodian,” he says.

For now it shows that there is a growing scene of young people that have their very own, Cambodian idea of rock and change. They are passionate, and confident that their spirit will attract fans. All three men agree that Cambo Headbangers, the heart of the Cambodian rock-scene is about solidarity.

On the Cambo Headbanger Facebook, under a looming picture of skulls, there is a list of rules for members: “regard to everyone in the group, esp. girls,” “don’t talk bad words,” and finally: “let’s enjoy the music together as a family” – naked thrashers and teddy bear backpackers together.



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