Vartey Ganiva: telling village tales with the power of punk

Varty (left) and her sister Vartey Sochetra (centre), with guitarist Sok Vichey (right) and drummer “India” in the front yard of their home.
Varty (left) and her sister Vartey Sochetra (centre), with guitarist Sok Vichey (right) and drummer “India” in the front yard of their home. Hong Menea

Vartey Ganiva: telling village tales with the power of punk

The home of sisters Varty and Vartey Sochetra, and the latter’s husband Timon Seibel, doesn’t appear at first glance too different from a typical country house.

Banana trees abound in the front lot and outdoor seating surrounds a dining table. But this house in Kandal’s Prek Lvea village is the de facto headquarters of Yab Moung Records, a primarily punk and metal label that is helping young Cambodian bands push a different sound out to the public.

It is also a refuge for musicians looking to relax in the front yard, record music in the back room studio, and for poor kids and teenagers looking for distraction – and maybe a music lesson here and there.

On a recent afternoon, 12-year-old “India” and Sok Vichey, 17, both of whom grew up at the Steung Meanchey dumpsite, were hanging out and practicing music at the house. Vichey is the lead guitarist of Doch Chkae, a death metal band from the dumpsite that has made waves since forming, winning the Battle of the Bands competition at Otres Beach in 2016 and being featured in international press.

He is also the guitarist for Vartey Ganiva, a new project featuring the older Sochetra sister on vocals, Damani “Danzo” Kelly on bass, and the youngster “India” on drums. Varty is the main lyricist, collaborating with her sister to write songs promoting the strength of women and criticising the country’s patriarchal traditions.

“The songs in Cambodia always have the girls brokenhearted and wanting to go to die,” Varty says. “And the boys just go have another one [lover]. One hundred million songs like this . . . That’s why we want to change to punk rock. We want to change the girls’ feelings.”

Varty first got involved with music when she began taking guitar lessons from Vichey. Instead of teaching, Varty jokes, he would focus on his own compositions. “Sister, I have a new original song, can you make the lyrics?” he would ask her. “I couldn’t study because I needed to focus on the lyrics,” she says. After contributing to a Doch Chkae song, Varty then began working with her sister, penning lyrics inspired mostly by what they saw around them in the village.

In one track with a fuzzy ‘90s guitar sound called Pdey Chongrai – or Evil Husband – Vartey criticises a lazy spouse who lies around drinking and doing drugs, or else sleeps around. “Oh, my husband! You have f— it all up,” she screams.

Sok Vichey practicing guitar outside of Yab Moung Studios.
Sok Vichey practicing guitar outside of Yab Moung Studios. Hong Menea

“This is a true story. Often I hear violence over here,” Vartey says, pointing behind her home. “I listen and I start writing the lyrics. I don’t know if she [the woman next door] knows. But it’s not only her — many couples are like this and if the women hear it they will be reminded of themselves.”

While Evil Husband has a straight ahead punk sound, Vartey Ganiva also slows things down to showcase her soaring voice. In Yerng Ker Chea Sattrey, or We Are Aware, a sludge-like guitar line gives way to the bouncey and upbeat verses praising the strength of Khmer women.

While wanting to stay true to the spirit of punk, Vartey is aware that the more melodic songs are an easier sell in Cambodia.

“Some people don’t want that [punk] style. But I’m so proud to have some people [who are fans].”

Neither of the sisters were originally attracted to metal or punk, but repeated exposure to performances by bands like Doch Chkae eventually changed their minds. Vichey’s conversion, though, was instantaneous. He saw the band Sliten6ix, who also record at Yab Moung Studios, perform at Show Box in Phnom Penh and was hooked.

“When you’re angry you can beat a drum and do whatever you want,” he says. “I really wanted to do that. I searched YouTube for so long and looked up distortion sounds for metal.”

Even Vartey’s mother, I Chantha, who originally discouraged her daughter from becoming a singer and worried that screaming would hurt her voice, is now a super fan of her daughters’ project. She attends every show and travelled to a gig in Siem Reap to support the band. “My mom has an open mind,” Vartey says.“She’s a really cool woman.”

“My mom is like my friend,” Varty chimes in. “We share everything together and also go out together.”

Despite having grown up in a village environment, the influence of their parents on their unorthodox style and way of life is evident. Their father, Sou Sochetra, is a painter, and his art is on nearly every wall. Chantha, the mother, worked as a caregiver for NGOs and continually takes in children in need of a good home, adding to the atmosphere of a creative refuge at the house.

Kelly, the band’s bassist, thinks the setting of the studio contributes to a raw and lo-fi sound across the label.

“Most of the Yab Moung musicians are from this small village and were the only ones doing this around here so I think geographically, it’s created a rule-breaking and unique sound because nobody has ever questioned how it’s done or how they are playing,” he says.

The band is aware of the financial limitations of what they are doing but they hope to be able to eventually release a full-length record. For the moment, they are releasing songs when they are ready online. Six are fully composed, while 10 have the instrumentals laid out. Even though the group is just six months old, already Varty is thinking about the next evolution: an all-girl punk band.

“The girls around here are all really sad. They think the men are the highest and the girls are lower,” she says. “We don’t think that.”

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