Keeping the beat alive: new sound in capital

Tony Wilson (second left), with his beatboxing crew in Phnom Penh.
Tony Wilson (second left), with his beatboxing crew in Phnom Penh. SCOTT HOWES

Keeping the beat alive: new sound in capital

Two boys in caps stand face-to-face onstage as strobe lights flash. One raps the Benny Benassi 2003 classic "Satisfaction". Then, he starts making ‘boom’ noises with his throat, while the crowd claps in unison and girls shriek with excitement.

Beatboxing has arrived in the Kingdom, decades after its birth in the United States, and it’s due in part to the dedication of one hip-hop-mad teenager.

Meet Meas Panhaboth Chakrareach, or, as he likes to be known, Tony Winson.

The 18-year-old discovered the art form last year, after meeting like-minded teens, as well as accomplished beatboxers from abroad, and honed his craft by watching YouTube clips.

Since then, he and his crew have been hired to perform at venues around the city to a raucous reception.

They have built up a vast online following, and even found themselves onstage at a political rally as part of last month’s youth-targeted election campaigns in Phnom Penh.

First popularised by the likes of rapper Doug E. Fresh in the 1980s, beatboxing – the term for creating rhythms and sound effects with the human voice – has spread from America and the UK to France and Eastern Europe.

More recently it has found its way to Southeast Asia, where surprisingly active scenes have sprung.

Alex Kaya Lay, 18, has been beatboxing for two years.
Alex Kaya Lay, 18, has been beatboxing for two years. SCOTT HOWES

Last August, the Philippines’ Miss World 2012 contestant Queenierich Rehman began the talent segment of the competition with sweet traditional singing before switching to her true talent: a rip-roaring round of beatboxing. In Indonesia, beatboxing fans were treated to a special festival dedicated to the art in June this year.

Here in Cambodia, Winson was inspired to try to ignite interest in beatboxing after meeting famous artists from more established scenes in Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam.

“You see, only Cambodia doesn’t have any beatboxers – that’s why we want to build up a beatbox scene just like [abroad],” said Winson.

Beatboxing is just one element of an emerging urban culture among young people in the capital, encompassing skateboarding, a growing interest in hip-hop, and a nascent street art scene.

It was when Winson was breakdancing at the Olympic Stadium about a year ago that he met the Cambodian-French b-boy who became his beatboxing partner.

Alex Kaya Lay, also 18, and a huge hip-hop fan, has beatboxed for two years.

“I asked him if he could beatbox and he said ‘yeah’. Then, when I saw him do it, I started to love it,” said Winson.

Online video clips teach beginners how to use their mouth and voice to create rhythms, drum beats and other sounds.

“Some people think beatboxing comes from a natural talent – it’s not true. Actually there are techniques that we learn,” said Winson.

“When I first started beatboxing, my parents weren’t happy about it.

“But once I performed on stage once or twice they changed their mind and said it was good because it’s the first time it has happened in Cambodia,” said Winson.

Since beatboxers are still rare in Cambodia, Winson and his crew – a group of ten, with mixed abilities – have been invited to perform in various city venues. Winson has a contract with Jet’s Studio, and has performed at Meta House, St Tropez and various prom nights and culture days at schools.

Tony Winson, 18, performs in the city.
Tony Winson, 18, performs in the city. SCOTT HOWES

Beatboxing made an appearance in the Cambodian People Party’s election campaign, according to Winson, after he stumbled upon rallies at Wat Botum and the night market.

“I was walking around with my friends and saw they had good bass amplifiers so I just asked them if they allowed me to do it,” he said.

“At first, they asked me what I was doing. I told them I do beatboxing, and there was a guy who knew about it, and let me do it.”

Winson is realistic about his future, acknowledging that for now beatboxing in Cambodia remains a hobby rather than a profession.

“After I graduate from high school, I will be involved with this thing for one year, and then my mum will send me to study abroad and come back and work like other people,” he said. “But, it’s good to know how to do it.”

Before he gives up for good, however, he hopes to kick off a Cambodian scene. ‘Cambodia Beatboxer’, a Facebook page created by Winson, had more than 3000 fans at the time of press.

“It’s good – at least Cambodia is not a country which has nothing,” said Alex.

“We have our own culture, and we can also bring in culture from other countries.”

Molyka Rom

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