How Punk Rock—Not Just Protests—Is Shaking Up Cambodia

Stories from Roads & Kingdoms
Jan. 10 2014 3:54 PM

Rocking Tradition

Protests aren’t the only thing shaking up Cambodia. Meet Southeast Asia’s newest punk rockers.

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Tom Reichelt, an expat from Leipzig, Germany, is the other half of Yab Moung Records. He tells me that most Cambodians have not heard about punk or hardcore music, and even if they have, they probably still don’t get the point. To put it more starkly, he estimates the rock scene is about 400 people in a country of 14 million. 

Cambodian punk band No Forever playing at Phnom Penh's Showbox.
No Forever playing at Phnom Penh's Showbox.

Courtesy of Yab Moung Records

Still, Cambodia has a young population—26 percent are between the ages of 16 and 30. Social media has become a powerful rallying point for youth movements, and the hardcore scene is no different. Fans interact online at the Cambo Headbanger Facebook group. It was started by scene linchpin Veasna, who runs a music school and lets bands record in his studio. He has long, straight hair; a Lamb of God T-shirt; and a reserved manner. He tells me that the Facebook group has grown from four to 272 members in the past two years—a large extended family of Phnom Penh rockers.

Sam, No Forever’s boyish female vocalist, tells me that her family doesn’t even know she’s in a band. Offstage, she’s quiet, almost elfin. But in Cambodia, women are expected to look feminine and marry boys, not dress like them. So when No Forever played on Bayon TV (a national TV appearance that her family didn’t see), critics on Facebook lashed out, saying that is wrong for a boyish girl like Sam to sing on TV. But Sam is undaunted. “Being in a band helps me to be myself, because when I’m up there singing, I don’t care what people think of me anymore,” she says. 

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The public reaction wasn’t surprising: Cambodian society has little tolerance for misfits. The country’s mores are still more geared to the collective than the individual. While Western influence is eroding such buttresses of Asian life, these differences remain. Western artists typically refer to the desire to “express themselves” when describing what they do. In Cambodia, their counterparts are still more likely to explain their art as furthering the common good.

Sam tells me that the songs she writes are meant to inspire positive social change. She had a troubled past and spent much of her teenage years at odds with her parents and her school, even dropping out for a short time. “When I was young, I did many bad things,” she admits. “Now I write songs for people who were like me, and I want them to know that it is possible to stop destroying yourself and take your life in a more positive direction.”

Like any capital city, Phnom Penh offers plenty of opportunities for vice. The problems are exacerbated by easy access to guns and methamphetamine—a drug frequently found in the bloodstreams of cops, taxi drivers, and revelers alike. Sam, who through music found an outlet for her youthful angst, is now teaching English and studying international relations.

Like Sam, Tin also stopped edging toward the cliff of self-destruction. “The music ’elps me to be myself,” he says. “I couldn’t go on fightin’ people and cursin’ people, so the music ’elps me to release that.” Rattle agrees: “If you go around screaming and roaring, people will lock you up. But if you take the rage onstage they will relate to it in a more positive way.”

In October, Sliten6ix played in Phnom Penh’s battle of the bands. Their three guitarists lined up like a firing squad while Tin detonated the mosh pit with horror-show vocals. Their darkly Dionysian performance won them the $200 grand prize. After the show, they and No Forever took full advantage of the free bar. Things got blurry. They tumbled out of the bar into the Phnom Penh neon, just like kids anywhere else.

Nathan A. Thompson has been excused from writing his biography due to an existential crisis. Find out more @NathanWrites.