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Slum-dog metal band Doch Chkae earns fame abroad

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Doch Chkae after their performance at the Wacken Open Air Festival in 2019 in Germany. Photo supplied

Slum-dog metal band Doch Chkae earns fame abroad

At the live heavy metal music concert at Wacken Open Air 2019 in Germany, four members of a Cambodian band rocked the stage with songs that were mostly about their lives.

Though the audience did not understand the words, one of the songs, Jivit Doch Chkae or “Life is like a dog”, was about living in dump sites.

It was not strange for a member of this heavy metal band to perform shirtless, but what surprised the international audience at the end of their concert was that he covered his body with the Cambodian flag.

Sok Vichey, a Doch Chkae band member says: “That was one of the best moments in our lives because it was our first experience travelling overseas to perform.

“We didn’t think we had so much support or that people even knew us. We were very proud to be the ones to represent and lift our national flag on the international stage.”

Lives behind the scenes do not look as cool as compared to when they are performing on stage since all the band members are from slum areas.

From working as recycling collectors at rubbish dumps in Steung Meanchey, the band members formed Doch Chkae (or “Like a Dog”) in 2015.

Having neither proper education nor degrees from any music school did not deter the ambitions of this Cambodian heavy metal band from becoming performing artistes in their own right.

Guitarist Vichey, 22, tells The Post: “We are a group of four but we started as only three neighbours – Ouch Theara, Ouch Hing and myself.

“We were born in very poor families where our homes are located at the dumpsite itself. We picked the leftover food to eat and collected recyclable plastics to sell,” he says.

It took a while to realise their dream, but it was great to finally come to the point where they could rise above their social environment, he said.

“Once in a while, an NGO came with food for us. One day we met Moms Against Poverty. We were chosen to stay under their care and support, and that was when our lives truly changed,” says Theara, 22.

He says they were allowed to pursue whatever they wanted to learn. That was in 2011. Theara was 13 years old and felt he was too old to start going to school.

“I tried to do my best but I suppose not everyone can study. I gave up and told the NGO I wanted to learn a skill rather than enter a traditional education system. Thankfully they understood and supported my decision,” he says.

Soon, Vichey and Theara chose music and went to Music Art School in Beong Keng Kang. One hour a week was all they had.

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Doch Chkae band members during their early days as recycle collectors at a rubbish dumpsite in Stung Meanchey. Photo supplied

Having to cycle to classes, they were often late or missed them entirely. Undeterred, they copied lessons, self-studied and sought help from the NGO members.

The other two band members, Ouch Hing, who is Theara’s younger brother, and Sochetra Pich had never attended music classes as they were busy with school.

Band name

It was not until Timon Seibel, a director at Moms Against Poverty, took them to a concert where they saw SLITEN6IX – the first heavy metal band in Cambodia – perform on stage that their eyes were opened to possibilities.

“Our first thoughts were … what are they singing? We didn’t understand a single word. All we saw was they’re moving like crazy and nodding their head like it’s going to fall off their shoulders. We didn’t know what type of music they were playing.

“But then, we felt they were cool and realized that we could make similar music to calm ourselves and control our bad tempers,” says Vichey.

Vichey and Theara say that when they were younger, they had anger management issues and often ended up in fights. Seeing the performance gave them the idea that music could be an outlet for all their anger.

“When we were angry, we could go into the music room and play as loud as we wanted. It really helped us. It probably won’t take away 100 per cent of our anger, but at least it reduced it,” says Vichey.

In the beginning, the band had no singer. But later, Theara, who was keen on singing, practised by himself and, having natural talent, became the band’s vocalist, thanks to some help from YouTube.

The two younger members, Sochetra (bassist) and Hing (drummer), both 18 years old, learned their music skills from Vichey who composes the songs and the melody.

Going international

Being a heavy metal band, Doch Chkae began to earn their fame with a sort of music new to Cambodia. The band was invited to perform their heavy metal music, mostly about their real lives at dumpsites, at many expatriate bars in the Kingdom.

International fame eluded Doch Chkae until a German journalist sought the band for an interview after learning about them through Facebook.

The journalist wanted to write about the band and release the story in a German newspaper.

Vichey says: “The effect of the write-up was unbelievable. Our band gained wide fame in Germany. Our story caught people’s attention and we were invited to perform at Wacken Open Air.

“It is one of the biggest music festivals in Germany. That was in 2018, and famous musicians from many countries were invited to perform, too.”

He says they got their passports ready in advance, but the German embassy declined to give them visas. He felt it was because they were poor.

“But on reflection, it is more likely that the embassy felt we wanted to enter Germany to do something illegal in their country,” says Vichey.

Fortunately for them, they had the support of many Germans who figured out a way for the band to board the plane and head for Germany successfully the following year.

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Doch Chkae has earned a reputation abroad but fame continues to elude the members in Cambodia itself where metal hasn’t gained ground. Photo supplied

As a result, Doch Chkae performed several songs at at Wacken Open Air 2019 music festival and gained world recognition for Cambodia.

Singer Theara tells The Post “They were amazed to see how we are full of life and confident of the future.

“We’ve been to Vietnam twice and were shocked at how they enjoyed our music and even knew Khmer words like orkun (thank you) and chum reap sou (hello). It was such a memorable time for all of us in the band.”

Local audience

Sadly, Doch Chkae’s music has not won over Cambodian audiences despite having been around for five years. The feedback they receive has largely been negative.

“I cannot blame Cambodians because I had the same impression of heavy metal music when I first heard it.

“And I know this is outlandish for Cambodians as our music is loud and we scream all the time. I just hope they value us and the music we perform because it comes from our hearts,” Vichey says.

The band has written about 13 songs and the best feedback they have received was for Doch Chkae and Khum Knea Doch Chkae (Bite each other like a dog) where the lyrics concerned their background living in rubbish dumps as recycling collectors.

It was hard work to be united in the early stages of their musical journey as all the band members were young. Another problem was that their songs did not have a market in Cambodia at the beginning. But they say they were always prepared for this.

“Love keeps us moving forward and the good news is that we have signed a contract with Seila Records. We believe in the next few years, Cambodians will open up and support all genres of music.

“We have spent half a decade dedicated to our music genre and we don’t want to give up just like that. We will continue to work hard and improve our music.

“Also, we want to express our gratitude to Moms Against Poverty, because we are what we are today because of this NGO. So thank you for giving us hope and helping us discover our love in life,” the band collectively says.

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