Whenever I travel I try to find new music. It’s a bit of a busman’s holiday granted, as that is what I do in London too, but the opportunity to discover new sounds outside of the UK shores is hard to resist. Much of the music to be found by visitors to a new country is ‘traditional’ in style, and whilst there is huge value to be found in exploring a country’s history, what about the culture currently being experienced, the art being absorbed and breathed by the population. On a recent visit to Cambodia, whilst my tour group were paying exorbitant prices to a tourist tout for a night of traditional music, I sought out the sounds and shows that are making waves at the current moment, and was surprised to find that whilst most of the contemporary scene rotates around electronic and dance music, there is a growing glut of guitars and indie and alternative is starting to make a home for itself.
New label Yab Moung is the first record label working with local Khmer bands in alternative music, including punk, metal and indie rock. An Aussie, a German and an American are behind it. Myles (the Aussie) co-owns The Show Box music venue and bar, Tom is a German festival and events organiser and Chris, the American owner of Moonlight Rock in Otres Beach.
Mad musos themselves, heavily involved in scenes back home, they saw the creativity and skill in the region and knew that young local musicians would benefit from support to really make something. It all started at the first Khmer Punk show they saw. Says Chris ‘it was random and we were blown away, after some investigating it appeared that there was no venue, support or equality in terms of finacial appreciation within the Khmer alternative scene. No recording or support and the bands were some of the most unique and awesome we had ever scene.’
Knowing that these bands could succeed anywhere, be it Pnomh Penh, London, Berlin, or New York, they sought to develop a handful of scattered sounds into a thriving and cross border scene. Yab Moung plan to get the music out and about ‘accessibility to Khmer firstly and access to the world while giving the world access to Cambodia.’
They only sign Khmer bands, choosing to focus on the local talent, but do book expat and touring bands for their shows, exchanging sounds in the ‘epic, small but completely unique for South East Asia’ scene.
It’s not easy. Khmer culture is relatively restrictive compared to some other places, and this music offers an outlet for emotion and expression in a way not often seen. Community minded, they know that in a country where less than ten percent make it to university education is not something to be shunned in favour of the lure of the limelight, so whilst fostering musical ambitions they also work hard to support their education and work.
There was a rock’n’roll surge in the swinging sixties, but political turmoil and devestation inflicted by Polpot dulled the arts and music scene for a while, and recent years have seen a revival in Pnomh Penh particularly. Back at the start of 2013 The Cambodian Space Project (formed by an Australian but now very much a local band) released the first vinyl record since 1975.
It’s a dynamic and DIY ethos that keeps them bubbling. Where talent is unbound, a hard work ethos exists, and support is given, success can prosper. So what would success be for Yab Muong I ask. ‘Sucess, I imagine, looks like Khmer Punks delighting and startling New York or a dude who’s girlfriend just dumped him in Australia finding salvation through a track done one of our artists.’ A strong place to be and an inspirational aim.