The Phnom Penh Hip-Hop Festival marks new cultural movement in Cambodia
Photo by: WILLY VAINQUEUR
French dancer and choreographer Sebastien Ramirez.
Hip-hop culture has always been about expression through art such as music, dance, visual arts or fashion, and in recent years Cambodian youth has become particularly responsive to this form of self-actualisation.
The Phnom Penh Hip-Hop Festival, which kicks off this Saturday, aims to broaden the awareness of hip-hop culture in Cambodia and give Phnom Penh's youth the opportunity to explore the diverse artform through workshops, films and performances with multi-talented international and local artists.
"In 2001, there wasn't really much of a hip-hop scene here," said Nico Mesterharm, director of Meta House, who made the idea of the festival a reality, along with Alain Arnaudet, cultural attache and director of the French Cultural Centre (CCF).
"I saw the first [Cambodian] hip-hop CD in a store in Phnom Penh in 2002, and I saw it as the beginning of something big," said Mesterharm.
The CD he refers to is the debut album of Prach Ly, a Cambodian-born artist who grew up in Long Beach, California, amid poverty, crime and the growing popularity of hip-hop.
Prach Ly recorded Dalama: The End'n' is Just the Begninnin in his parent's garage in the US in 2000. Over pulsating hip-hop beats, and rhythmic instrumentals, Prach Ly rapped about genocide in Cambodia and the brutal aftermath of the Pol Pot regime.
Little did he know that his self-produced album would make its way to Cambodia, where it would become a No 1 hit on the radio and in pirated CD sales, sparking a hip-hop movement.
"In the beginning, people here would take beats and lyrics from the US, and often just change the lyrics into Khmer," said Mesterharm. "A few years ago artists started experimenting with Cambodian lyrics. At first it was just imitating what was happening in the US, but now it has evolved into a unique Cambodian trend; they have invented their own styles."
I saw the first [cambodian] hip-hop CD in a store in Phnom penh in 2002.
Alain Arnaudet of the CCF agrees that hip-hop has gradually evolved into a real cultural movement in Cambodia.
"With this festival, we hope to ... showcase some of the masters of hip-hop dance and choreography who are an example of success," Arnaudet said.
Quest for identity
The festival kicks off with a dance performance by the French dance company ACCRORAP at Chenla Theatre, followed by 10 days of films and dance performances centred on the quest for identity and voice through the various mediums of hip-hop culture.
Two workshops will also be held during the festival, where local performers will work with international dancers and choreographers to produce a fusion of dance styles.
One such collaboration will be between internationally renowned dancers and choreographers Niels Robitzky (aka Storm) and Raphael Hillebrand from Germany, and 20 young dancers from Tiny Toones, a Cambodia-based sociocultural dance training centre that reaches out to at-risk children.
"Hip-hop in Cambodia is a very recent movement, so I'm trying to teach the kids the basic steps, rhythms and philosophy of hip-hop. I want to pass on this positive energy and give them the skills to develop their own styles," said Hillebrand.
Storm echoes this sentiment.
"These kids have good hearts, and if we can give them the fundamentals, then when we leave they will still work on the skills we gave them and continue to develop, and that is the most important thing."
French dancer and choreographer Sebastien Ramirez, who combines b-boy dance styles with the spirit of Capoeira, is collaborating on a joint dance project with Phnom Penh classical dancer "Belle" Chumvan Sodhachivy.
Fusion of styles
Although predominantly trained in traditional Khmer dance, Belle looks forward to creating something new.
"Hip-hop and classical Khmer dance are quite different, in that classical dance is very slow and has strict rules, while hip-hop is much faster, stronger and open," she said. "I'm enjoying working with Sebastien very much because it is giving us the opportunity to be creative and think [about] how we can combine these two very different dance styles."
All participants seem to agree that hip-hop culture has the potential to open up doors for youth in Cambodia, and can offer a way of life that is both healthy and rewarding.
The founder of Tiny Toones , KK, hopes that the festival will show that hip-hop is not a bad thing for Cambodia.
"For example, if a kid is writing out lyrics, then he or she is learning to spell," he said. "I also want the kids to see that they don't have to hide their lives. They can aim for their goals, and it doesn't really matter where you come from or what your family background is."
The Phnom Penh Hip-Hop Festival starts this Saturday at Chenla Theatre and will continue with films and performances through May 24, ending with a hip-hop jam at Wat Botum.