In the right setting, a patriotic song can be contentious. With their first full-length album – called National Anthem – Phnom Penh-based progressive rock band Sangvar Day at least prove that they’re here to shake things up.
The album will be released tonight with a show that kicks off a brief tour of the Kingdom.
The band is comprised of three European musicians and one American, so it’s perhaps strange that their songs would address the issues faced by Cambodia’s youth, but they say they’re reaching out to a market that’s missing a voice.
“There are rock bands in Cambodia [of] the following formats: bands that play Cambodian rock from the ’60s and bands that follow new metal as a standard set,” says Robin Narciso, the lead vocalist.
“But I don’t think there’s been an attempt to build or explore something that isn’t conventional . . . Both musically and in terms of the lyrics, that’s what we’re trying to express.”
The tracks on National Anthem cut across a collection of stories, some about Cambodia’s most powerful and some about those most affected by the political system. At times, they channel an exaggerated anger or frustration – one Narciso hopes reaches a Cambodian audience.
“[It’s] not in the sense that we want to influence the political process but in the sense that I think rock music has the power to open up other things that traditional pop and Khmer music doesn’t have,” he explains. “We’re not doing something original . . . but I don’t think it’s been done in Cambodia.”
Sangvar Day’s music is, of course, in English. But the songs feature familiar figures: the urban dweller relocated to a new development outside the city; the high-ranking general at the beck and call of those above him; the student dissatisfied with the current system.
And their influences are also wide-ranging: it’s a rock they say that combines the political rhetoric of bands like Rage Against the Machine with the well-known sound of Tool or Nirvana.
As to whether a band comprised of Westerners can credibly speak out on entrenched issues affecting Cambodians, Narciso says it’s simply a question of using rock music to speak the truth.
“It’s not that we feel entitled or in a position of telling people what to think, but it’s a way to express our frustration with what we’re seeing,” he says. “It’s a mindset you develop playing rock.”
The band have been working on the 10-song album for the last year, and they plan to release monthly music videos that show glimpses of Cambodia (“A portrait of Phnom Penh that isn’t touristic,” Narciso says). The album is available for free online.
Julien Mariani, the drummer, adds that the band will rely heavily on social media and this videography to tap into the Cambodian youth market – people that might not necessarily be hunting for the music.
Sangvar Day bring the energy to their live shows – as well as interaction with their audience. “It’s a dialogue with the audience – or at least we hope so,” Narciso says. “We try to shake the audience up. It’s a piece of art in the sense of moving people.”
The band offers an outlet for its members, says Julian Bras, the lead guitarist – and he hopes it’s the same for its audience. “It’s more than a hobby: when you play rock music, you forget about everything. You’re just into what’s happening, and you can let go of everything else.”
“Like the Phnom Penh traffic,” Narciso jokes.
Sangvar Day will launch National Anthem with a gig tonight at Show Box at 8pm. Their tour of Cambodia includes the Kampot Readers’ and Writers’ Festival, as well as additional shows in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.