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.

Cambodian punk band No Forever playing at Phnom Penh's Showbox.
Punk band No Forever playing at Showbox inPhnom Penh, Cambodia.

Courtesy of Yab Moung Records

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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia—Tin, the lead singer of Cambodia’s gnarliest rock band, slaps his friend on the shoulder and says, “Let’s get fookin pissed ya nobhead,” before downing the rest of his beer. The 21-year-old rocker, who has rarely left his native Phnom Penh, taught himself English by watching gangster films until he talked like a Manchester scallywag. His accent is wildly incongruous with his delicate Khmer-Chinese looks.

His band is called Sliten6ix, and it’s part of a handful of groups that form the nascent rock scene in Cambodia’s largest city. (According to Tin, the band’s name is a portmanteau that combines slit and sewn in order to describe the curative power of music; there are five members, with music forming a metaphysical sixth member.) They have no local music influences, as there is no history of rock music in Cambodia. The Southeast Asian country enjoyed a short-lived surf-rock scene in the 1960s, but the Khmer Rouge quickly crushed it.

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The scene, small as it is, resonates with the larger upheavals in Cambodian society—the unprecedented success of the leading opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, in last summer’s elections and the recent wave of mass protests show how increased education and Internet access have led people to begin to question the current authoritarian government. After decades of war and its aftermath, Cambodians are finding their voice.

Thanks in part to that upheaval, there is, for the first time, a Cambodian hardcore, metal, and punk scene. Myley Rattle, a Kenyan-born poet and promoter who co-founded Yab Moung Records, Cambodia’s only rock label, tells me that the scene is similar to what New York was in the 1960s—really small and very original. 

Rattle also runs Show Box, a bar that is home to the freaks and punks of Phnom Penh. Aptly located between an open sewer and the genocide museum, the bar has walls webbed with graffiti; Khmers and expats chat at the bar, and the stereo hums with hardcore ragga and rock. Khmer spoken-word artist Kosal Khiev turns up with his new purebred puppy and greets Conrad Keely, the frontman of And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. Keely made his name in Austin, Texas, but is spending a lot of time in Phnom Penh these days. Show Box is cool but chaotic. Rattle’s newest venture at the bar—hosting Cambodian cooking classes—nearly failed when his chef passed out drunk. Luckily the lead guitarist from No Forever, a local band, stepped in to teach the team of foreign NGO volunteers how to cook Khmer mango curry.

Cambodian rock groups like the ANTI-Fate and Sliten6ix have found their efforts met with confusion. Cambodian society is conservative and hierarchical. The majority of the country is still living essentially a peasant lifestyle, where religion, family, and farming trump all. Rebellion and rock music is not so much scorned as disregarded. Most Cambodian kids listen to K-Pop or Cambodian singers whose videos always seem to end with a spurned boyfriend blasting the sky with a gun, his face twisted by heartbreak. 

Back at the bar, Tin is blasting his vocal chords onstage with Sliten6ix. He ricochets between shrieks and growls while the band ignites a blast furnace of guitars with experimental tempos and punishing breakdowns. “I used to be in a screamo band,” Tins tells me after the performance.  “Y’know with screamin’ and singin’ at the same time? But then I decided fook that—I want even more hardcore.” Sliten6ix are followed by post-punk band No Forever, who include traditional Cambodian melodies in their heavy sound, somewhat reminiscent of System of a Down’s use of the Armenian scale. Both bands are signed to Yab Moung Records.

The Cambodian rock bands have not yet put out any official releases. The Yab Moung crew are working on a mix CD they plan to send out to industry contacts in England, Germany, and Australia. But apart from a small collection of Phnom Penh reprobates, no one else has heard their tracks.

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