MEET Phnom Penh’s newest rock ’n’ roll band – the five members of The Palm Sugar Band write their own songs in Khmer celebrating street life in Cambodia.
That’s not surprising, as all are students at Pour Un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE, or For the Smile of a Child), a Phnom Penh-based NGO aiming at helping children and youngsters from the slums surrounding the former city dump site at Stung Meanchey.
“We want to make Khmer music, but we’re influenced by rock ’n’ roll,” says lead guitarist Chan Sarun, 24. And indeed they do, by combining lyrics relating to Cambodian daily life with a musical style inspired by the West’s greatest rock bands.
Teacher Frederic de Mascureau, 28, started this project last September after weekly guitar lessons proved popular at the PSE centre. Soon his most enthusiastic students were clamouring for extra band practice sessions at the weekend.
Then the Frenchman introduced his would-be rock stars to legendary bands such as Led Zeppelin. Lying in the dark listening to Pink Floyd or The Velvet Underground at full volume was certainly a new experience for the five young men, aged between 18 and 24.
All of them lived around Stung Meanchey dump site, in frightening poverty, before finding training places at PSE. Now, four of them are students and one has a steady job.
But when they are not working or studying, they are dedicated to making Khmer rock history. “We want to create a new style,” says Chin Vibol, 20, who plays drums in the band.
De Mascureau sees the young men as musical scientists, not only jamming together but also conducting musical experiments.
Whether they write their songs in Khmer or in English, they try to portray aspects of Cambodian daily life - their first song, called Motodop, tells of a man coming from the country into the city to work, and of his enthusiasm for the capital, to the tune of the popular song Bambino.
Likewise, their song Noum Pang, with lyrics telling the story of a street bread vendor, is heavily influenced by the Beatles’ musical style, while One Day I Met One Guy, about PSE itself, has musical tones reminiscent of the Doors.
The band’s lead singer, 18-year-old Penh Buntha, also sees this as an opportunity to act as role models. “We can be an example for young people in Cambodia to focus on activities like sports and music, instead of drugs.”
The next step for The Palm Sugar Band is live concerts. They have already played before 2,000 people at a PSE event and plan to play at the NGO’s open day for parents of students on July 23.
“We want to perform as a band, and use the shows to raise money that we can then give to PSE,” says Chan Sarun. As de Mascureau plans to leave Cambodia soon, he expects his students to not only to carry on with their band but also to pass on the torch by teaching music to other children at PSE as part of the centre’s busy out-of-school activity programme.
This includes activities on evenings and weekends such as dancing, football and martial arts.