There was always music around the house when Bosba Panh was growing up: the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Fleetwood Mac and Mozart. She listened to all of them.
After the 2010 bridge tragedy at Diamond Island, she was called upon to set the tone for the Finishing Post crowd gathered at the Yi Sang Restaurant along the Mekong River next to Chaktomuk Theatre.
She chose Ave Maria in memory of those who had perished on the bridge. Her soprano voice resonated with the natural melancholy of the Latin Christian hymn, and it seemed there was a universal nature to the music that cut across the unique traditions of every religion straight to the heart of what’s true for all humans.
In February, 2011, she performed at Angkor Wat and saw people in the audience with tears streaming down their faces.
That’s what success is all about for Bosba Panh. Regardless if you’re Cambodian or Christian, African or Muslim, Chinese or Buddhist, music flows through all souls. She admits she’s good at sad songs.
“John Lennon’s Imagine is not pop, not rock, not soul,” she said. “It is like universal music. That’s the good part. This song is not going into any category. If you want the world to listen to it, it should be universal music,” Bosba Panh said.
She leaves next week to start 10th grade at one of the best musical high schools in the United States: Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick, Massachusetts, about 20 kilometres from Boston.
She won a scholarship that will pay for half the US$50,000-a-year school fees, and she’s delighted to be going.
“We only have one life. Do something. Do something for humanity, for yourself, for your parents, for your friends,” she says.
“Sometimes at a concert, the music just flows into their souls and it is not a super- difficult melody.”
Her mother, Lili Sisombat works for the International Finance Corporation, a division of the World Bank, and is originally from Laos. Her Cambodian father, Panh Menh Heang, spent most of his career in France, and now devotes a lot of time to supporting Bosba, 15, and her brother, Panh Lauv Panh, 12, who often accompanies her in musical duets, she on the piano, and he on the clarinet.
Once she’s finished with Walnut Hill, Bosba Panh wants to attend the famous Julliard School in New York City.
“One of my goals is to bring Cambodian music to an international stage. This is our music.” She plays the guitar, the piano, the accordion and does a lot of singing.
“I’m going to meet different people. This is almost like me against the world. It is about respecting your own rules. Some people are not going to be nice. People can have their own opinions.”
Is she famous because of her own talent or because her parents pushed her?
“I don’t see how you can become famous if you don’t have the will. At first it was having music in my life. Music is my soul, my blood running through my veins. Music resonates within all my body.
“Music is the soundtrack of my life, in my dreams. Even silence is a type of music. Music is my life. I just can’t let music go.”
Bosba Panh applied for Walnut Hill and two other music schools in the United States, but it was always Walnut Hill where she knew she had to go.
“I was already confident because I had to go there,” she said.
“Walnut Hill has a special program affiliated with the Boston Conservatory, and almost every weekend every student goes to the conservatory to have special classes. This is a special high school with normal academic courses in the morning and at 2pm we start the music courses.“
It was during Christmas that Bosba Panh asked her parents if she could audition for music schools.
She chose three songs, one English and two classical. For English, she chose My Ship and classical she chose Una Voce Poco Fa and Hallelujah by Mozart.
She submitted a video of her playing those songs with a piano, along with her biography and recommendation letters. After about a month and a half, she got word she’d been accepted to all three schools: including Interlochen in Michigan and Idyllwild in California, as well has her favourite, Walnut Hill.
“Right now it feels like before attacking Sparta. Step up in front and be different. Fight for a cause. Bring up Cambodian music. Have a lot of discipline with yourself. Have rules. Have your sword next to you.
“Being an artist is already an achievement. You want to do something with your life instead of just being there in the corner of the room.”
What’s the secret of success for Bosba Panh? “I’m tough on myself. All the discipline comes from me. If you want success, you are the one who is going to do it. Not your parents, not people. This is me pushing myself.”
She also listens to Nyan Cat music when she’s studying.
“Music is a bit like when you read a book: you go into another dimension. Music is like you have a bubble and you’re floating in the air.”
Even though Bosba Panh is Buddhist, she loves singing in churches, making people happy according to the universality of music. She knows money cannot be used to purchase happiness.
“You think because you’re rich and fam-ous you can do everything? That’s completely false. We still have to find the other half of my school fees. We do a lot of saving, and we don’t travel that much.”
Hennessy fact file
Name: Bosba Panh
Education: Lycée René Descartes, Phnom Penh
Occupation: Music student, 10th grade, Walnut Hill School for the Arts near Boston, Massachusetts
Family: Father, Panh Menh Heang, Mother Lili Sisombat, brothers Sibxy Na Panh, 21, and Panh Lauv Panh, 12.
Interests: Singing, piano, guitar and bringing Cambodian music to an international audience