Cambodia’s rave-music pioneers

Kim, aka DJ Yoku, and Vutha Searaka, aka DJ Vetha, pose for a photo at their Halloween rave, Afterlife, last year. Photo supplied
Kim, aka DJ Yoku, and Vutha Searaka, aka DJ Vetha, pose for a photo at their Halloween rave, Afterlife, last year. Photo supplied

Cambodia’s rave-music pioneers

When environmental consultant Keithya Oungty, 25, and university student Both Kim, 22, started sharing EDM (electronic dance music) tracks with each other last year, neither imagined it would lead to them being the first Cambodians to host a “rave” party.

“We dreamed that someone would organise an event so we could be in the audience,” Oungty said. “We never imagined that we would own the event, but if you want to get things done, you have to do [them] yourself.”

With not much more than a thumping passion for electronic sounds and a few skills picked up from YouTube tutorials, the collective the pair founded with a few likeminded friends, EDM Cambodia, hosted their first party in June last year at Vito Nightclub, introducing a crowd of 300 Cambodian youths to the unfamiliar beat drops of Avicii, Calvin Harris and Hardwell.

EDM Cambodia – comprising three DJs and an 11-person event management team led by Oungty – hosted 1,200 ravers at their second event, Afterlife, in October, and this Saturday night at Koh Pich, they expect to pull a similar crowd for their biggest event yet, Raveground.

Kim, aka DJ Yoku, says it was the audience atmosphere that got him excited about EDM. “When Cambodians go to traditional concerts, usually they just sit and watch the performance, they don’t dance and jump and have the energy of raves. This is what I loved about EDM when I first saw it.”

It seems this party fever is spreading among Cambodians. Nicholas Lhoyd, better known as DJ Sequence, is a veteran of the expat-dominated Phnom Penh electronic music scene and runs a local clubbing guide, Phnom Penh Underground. He said he has noticed a recent surge of local interest in electronic music.

“We’ve noticed since the start of 2016 a massive growth in the number of Khmer people at our events,” he said. “Before then, we would literally have 5 per cent Khmer people on a good night. Now it’s about 30 to 40 per cent, which is awesome.”

The DJs of EDM Cambodia take inspiration from Western electronic sounds, but they’ve created their own niche genre of music by digitally remixing popular Khmer songs. Kim explains this is the best way to convert Cambodians to the electronic movement.

“We try to pick a catchy Khmer song that every Cambodian knows, and then turn it into our own thing by adding an EDM element,” Kim said. “So people who don’t really know EDM can listen to it and they may find they like it.”

EDM Cambodia’s Vutha Sear, aka DJ Vutha, fused EDM anthem “Burial” by Yogi and Skrillex with the Khmer classic “Chnam Oun Dap Pram Mouy (I am 16)” by 1960s Cambodian singer Ros Sereysothea – the “Golden Voice”.

Punters at Afterlife reaching for the lasers. Photo supplied
Punters at Afterlife reaching for the lasers. Photo supplied

“Vutha presented one of the most loved songs of Cambodia in a new way,” said Oungty, “We try to embrace EDM culture first, but looking forward, we certainly want to incorporate our identity as Cambodians into the music.”

Western raves are synonymous with late nights, excessive drinking and drug use – all at odds with the country’s prevailing conservatism. EDM Cambodia eschews these elements. Raveground shuts down at 10pm so fans can get home before curfew, and while beers will be served – the event is sponsored by Heineken – Oungty and Kim are expecting a relatively sober event.

“Raving is a sensitive topic, because it can conflict with our culture, so we choose to only embrace the good part of EDM,” Oungty said. “I heard that in other countries there are drugs like ecstasy at raves, but we don’t want to do this. We just want to have positive party energy.”

“In Western culture, drugs have become a part of EDM festivals, they try to have more fun by getting high,” Kim said. “In Cambodia, it is not the culture, and as event organisers, we have to try to prevent that from happening.”

Aside from keeping partiers safe, Kim says that “responsible raving” is vital to the future growth of EDM culture in Southeast Asia.

“We have seen other festivals in the West where people have died, and when this happens, festivals get shut down because they were poorly run,” he said. “So we have to be more cautious and hope that other organisers do the same so that we can keep growing EDM here.”

And EDM is having a serious growth spurt in the region. In December, the International Music Summit hosted its second Asia-Pacific panel in Singapore, where discussions focused on EDM’s expansion into Southeast Asia.

International festivals like Miami’s Ultra and Amsterdam’s Sensation have already made the move, and rumours that electronic festival giant Tomorrowland will come to Thailand next year has the local EDM community abuzz.

With popularity and profits dropping for EDM in the West, signalled by major event organiser SFX Entertainment filing for bankruptcy this year, Asia seems primed to become the next global EDM hub. EDM Cambodia recently opened negotiations about bringing over a well-known Dutch DJ, who they’re not ready to name.

“The Dutch organisers were honest with us, they said many DJs are from the Netherlands, so the EDM market is very tight there,” said Oungty. “Because it is a very competitive market in Western countries, they [want to] expand to other regions of the world like Southeast Asia, because it is very vibrant at the moment. EDM Cambodia wants to be part of that”

Lhoyd has seen a few international electronic acts come to the Kingdom since launching Phnom Penh Underground in 2013, but wants more local organisers involved in the scene.

“It will get bigger and bigger, but it needs to be a youth movement run by Khmer people for Khmer people,” he said. “This is why I am so impressed by EDM Cambodia, even though I don’t like their style of music, I have 100 per cent respect [for] them for building something up from scratch.”

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