Thursday, October 9, 2008

Across the Great Divide: Cambodian-American musical links

In coming entries, I will continue to highlight some of the groups with multinational features (i.e., "world music" ensembles) who are currently performing in the U.S., and some of whom have been featured on the Voice of America--see the previous note on China-returned Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet.

Earlier this year, a VOA English radio program by described the evolution of a California-based band, Dengue Fever, that added a Cambodian dimension to its performances through the participation of Cambodian vocalist Chhom Nimol, whom members of the group discovered singing in a Cambodian restaurant in Long Beach, California. The group's repertoire includes songs with both English and Cambodian lyrics, brief samples of which can be heard in the feature, along with interviews of members of the group, including Ms. Nimol.

Further samples of the group's music in full rendition can be found at on their MySpace page.

One of the songs to be heard there, "Singing Hands", has not only lyrics that are entirely Cambodian, but a singing style that reflects current popular trends in that country and throughout South and Southeast Asia. While the instrumental idiom remains within the realm of traditional rock, with guitars and drum set, some of the songs, such as Sri Bong, have an emphasis on modal structures reminiscent of traditional Asian music, with fewer harmonic changes than are customary in western rock styles.

In terms of intercultural communication, one of the songs, Tiger Phone Card, presents an exceptionally witty musical dialogue between a man in New York and a woman in Pnom Penh who are trying to manage a relationship while being on opposite sides of the globe, and in virtually opposite time zones. Some sample lines which combine New Age elements with the traditional trials of separated lovers: "It's 4 a.m. I check my e-mail"; "You only call me when you're drunk; I can tell it from your voice."

Moving directly to Cambodia, the VOA Khmer Service (who has had Ms. Nimol twice on their call-in shows) earlier this aired a radio feature on Bosba Panh, a phenomenal 11-year old singer whose idiom is essentially western in its instrumental presentation, and the lyrics are primarily Cambodian--though she does include even Bob Dylan songs in her repertoire!

charming write-up on her by a fan, with pictures and links to several of her YouTube videos, can be found on, a fascinating Website dedicated to the interests of the Cambodian community in the U.S. Her success is evident in her family-run firm, La Compagnie BosbaPANH, which in its diversity and energy is in some ways reminiscent of the early stages of the Jacksons in the U.S.

In the middle of last year in another radio feature, the Khmer Service showcased Kong Nay, a blind singer (echoing the tradition of American blues masters who are sight-deprived) who was then performing in the annual Folk Life Festival sponsored every July on the Washington Mall by the Smithsonian Institution. On the same page can be heard examples of various traditional Cambodian performances (as opposed to popular music in the western style).

More information on traditional Cambodian music can be found at a Website from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, which hosts a department of ethnomusicology, a constantly growing field within the global academic community.

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