As the sun went down the music roared on Tuesday when the Messenger Band took the stage at a pagoda in Svay Rieng province, about 10 kilometres from the provincial town.
The seven women – all former or current garment workers – performed for about four hours, using music to raise awareness about a wide range of social issues, from evictions to migration and indebtedness.
The songs hit home, sparking bursts of applause and shouts from the audience of about 1,000 people.
“I never heard anyone singing about being in debt to a microfinance institute,” audience member Hem Sokloeun said, noting that many of her neighbours were juggling loans from different lenders.
“I also like the songs about the migration for work because two of my children left home to work in Phnom Penh.”
Kruos commune chief Net Sanin agreed that the first concert in his commune was a hit because it was so topical.
“Every family has one or two members who have left to find work in other places,” he said, noting that his commune in Svay Chrom district was prone to drought as well as periodic flooding.
With no irrigation in the area, farming households are dependent on rainfall for their one annual rice crop. If the rain does not fall, or there is too much, they are left without food or money to repay debts accrued while waiting for the harvest, he explained.
Precarious livelihoods in rural areas are the root cause of the social issues the Messenger Band sings about.
“We try to give voice to people through songs, to motivate them to reduce discrimination or end violence and exploitation,” said Vun Em, the group’s 28-year-old manager.
“Workshops bore people so we turned to music. The songs are their stories and they enjoy listening to them. We bring their stories to them,” she explained.
Messenger Band has released four albums since it was formed with the help of a non-profit group in 2005: From Seed to Seeds, No Choice, Life and Work and Don’t Be Hopeless.
Although they may not top the charts, their songs don’t fade away and some are more popular now then when first released years ago.
The songs are for people who need them: a mix of traditional melodies with contemporary lyrics.
Songs about evictions, like Land and Life, and discrimination, Sadness of a Karaoke Girl, are among their most popular, as is Workers' Tears, which tells about life as a garment worker.
Kao Sochevika, 34, who has been with the band since its inception said their goal was not just to sing about social issues but to offer solutions. They get their inspiration from listening to people, she added.
“Wherever we go, we hear people have the same problems: homelessness, debt, eviction, sex work, discrimination or poor health. When we put these issues into songs and sing them, they always say, ‘Oh, that’s my story!’” she explained.
Kao Sochevika now works from home as a seamstress. She quit working at a factory in 2008, saying her health could no longer stand it. She works for the band part time.
Vann Houn, 27, who joined the band in 2007, also stopped working in a garment factory, saying she almost fainted before quitting.
She spends all her time with the band. Besides performing she collects stories from communities, which are then turned into lyrics and sung back.
On Tuesday night two songs about people being forced to leave their villages to find work were performed – No Choice and Life and Work – as the band knew that such migration would be common in Svay Rieng.
“Awareness should be raised because it’s very important. If people, for instance, don’t know much about migration, they may be at risk. If they listen to these songs, they will know more about migration, so their lives won’t be at risk. We expect people will learn from these songs and follow them in their life,” Vann Houn said.
On the road, they visit communities facing challenges, gather information from them about the challenge, such as its cause and impact, and ask how it can be solved.
The last step, according to Vun Em, is composing a song.
Vun Em said it would be impossible to write the lyrics without getting the inspiration from the people.
The band travels frequently, performing in the poorer neighbourhoods of Phnom Penh and nearby provinces, as well as Siem Reap.
Tuesday marked the Messenger Band’s first visit to Svay Rieng.