Garment workers form musical group to entertain while raising awareness of the struggles of women, from domestic abuse to sexual exploitation
Members of the Messenger band perform at Meta House on Saturday night.
THE crowd falls quiet as the slight Khmer women file to the front of the room at Meta House on Saturday night. Their dark heads are bent shyly, and their faces soft and demure in the fading evening light. Tonight is one of many concerts they have presented, but like any good performers, they are always a little nervous.
As the women begin to sing, their voices - crisp and aching - ring across the night like lost birds calling to a home that is rapidly changing. They sing of land grabs, greedy development and sex workers as the poorest of all. Their eyes are distant and unfocused, and their graceful hands rest across their bellies, their fingers swaying sometimes, to the music.
The audiences are captivated by the Messenger band, and when they sing their final song, everyone is asking for more.
The Messenger band is an all-female vocal group formed in September 2005 and made up entirely of garment workers. The group members are the successful participants of a competition held by the Womyn's Agenda for Change. The idea was to create a group that would inspire with their music and that could sing from real experience to carry messages of hope across Cambodia from one disadvantaged group to another.
People will come up to us and tell us, ‘Yes! It is my story, you have told my story!
"I think it helps people," says Vun Em, leader of The Messenger band. "I think it's good for farmers to understand about sex workers and for parents to know that their children leaving for the city are having a hard time there, working so much and getting little money for their labour," she said.
"It helps people to know that others across the country struggle, and that they need sympathy too."
When the group first formed, their families and neighbours were critical. Already disapproving of their low-paid work at the textile factory, their opinions of the young women dropped further.
"Our neighbours thought we were ‘bad women' because we stayed out late every night practising our music, and sometimes we didn't come home and slept at the centre instead," Vun Em said. "Our families also didn't like it; we would hardly see them because we would work all day in the factory and then practise in the centre during the evenings and weekends."
But the band says attitudes are beginning to change and that the public is starting to see their strength.
"Before I joined the Messenger band, I knew nothing about the outside world," said group member Kao Chevika. "I was afraid to introduce myself, or to talk with people. But now I am so much happier, so much more social, and I know how to communicate effectively. I am braver now."
Band members say that their music is successful because they are not forcing people to change but suggesting it instead, through lyrics, role play and entertainment.
"When we sing about sex workers or domestic violence, it's hard because people are conservative and don't like to feel blamed. This is why talking directly often doesn't work," said Vun Em.
"But with our songs the idea of change forms in their own minds, and they come to good conclusions alone. One of the girls in our band used to suffer from domestic violence, but her father has stopped now. After listening to songs about our struggles, he realised how much harm he was doing."
A few members of the band have now stopped working at the textile factory and are conscious that they must stay "in touch" with local struggles and people. The Messenger band often use their audience to test that their music still reflects social realities.
"When we visit the provinces we gather lots of information about life there, and the problems people face. People talk to us quite openly, because we are woman, we are seen as ‘gentle'. We then compose songs out of the things they have told us, sing it back to them while we are still in their town, and ask them, ‘Is this true? Are we singing your story?'
"When we see tears on their faces we know we are close to the reality of their lives. People will come up to us afterwards and tell us, ‘Yes! It is my story, you have told my story!" Vun Em said.
Messenger band manager Hin Kunthea said she was often in awe of the girls, their tirelessness, and their strength and confidence, which has continued to grow day by day.
"I feel this group has so much potential, that they are becoming a powerful force. They are fantastic! They are always learning and they work so hard. I almost can't understand how they can be like this. These women work just as effectively as the people who go to university, because they are willing to open their minds."