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Posts Tagged ‘Khmer Rouge’

Photo: Laura Mam.
The artist’s mother writes the Cambodian lyrics. It makes her feel like a teenager again. She says, “This is what I would have wanted to be, you know, be silly, be brave,”

In today’s story, a pop star of Cambodian heritage stumbles on the fun of sharing her parents’ language with audiences hungry for a contemporary vibe.

Quinn Libson reported the story for National Public Radio (NPR) in February 2020.

“Laura Mam is one of Cambodia’s biggest pop stars, but she wasn’t born or raised in the country. She’s American, and even though both of her parents are originally from Cambodia, she hardly spoke a word of the country’s language, Khmer, when she first became famous there.

“Laura’s fame happened almost by accident. It all started 10 years ago, at her mother’s house in San Jose, Calif. It was Christmas Eve and Laura was home after graduating with a degree in Anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley.

” ‘I had been writing music and my mom was kind of interested in what I was doing. I think I went to her room and I was playing this song. I was like “Hey mom, could you write lyrics in Khmer on top of it?” ‘ Laura says. …

” ‘The first song, I didn’t understand what I was doing and I didn’t know how to rhyme,’ Thida says.

“But Thida gave it a try, and it turned out she had a knack for it. They called the song ‘Pka proheam rik popreay,’ which means ‘morning flower is beautifully blossoming.’ A few months later, Laura and some friends made a music video and uploaded the song to YouTube, not expecting much.

“The morning after the music video went live, they woke up to a big surprise. The video had reached 75,000 views in the course of a single night. But it wasn’t just about the numbers. The viewers’ reactions stunned them.

” ‘The comments were all just like “Yes! Original Cambodian music, oh my god!” ‘ Laura remembers. The comments came streaming in from all over the world. …

” ‘I was from Phnom Penh. And when I was growing up the music scene was huge. During that time there were all these new artists writing all these new sounds, new music,’ [Thida] says.

“This was the early 1970s and Cambodia was in the middle of a music renaissance. … While most fathers at the time might have discouraged their young daughters from diving headfirst into Phnom Penh’s music landscape, Thida’s father was different. …

“Thida says. ‘It was a beautiful childhood I had here in Phnom Penh until the war.’

“[In] the background of Thida’s childhood, bombing campaigns by the United States as part of the Vietnam war and political upheaval meant Cambodia was growing more and more unstable. And in the countryside, a radical Marxist insurgent group — the Khmer Rouge — was steadily amassing power. …

“Educated, urban families like Thida’s were considered politically suspect and were forced to live under intense scrutiny in regime-controlled villages.

” ‘As a child, I was wild,’ Thida says. ‘And then [during] the Khmer Rouge, I had to shut down the feeling. It’s as if there’s a lid put on top of something that bubble[s].’ … When the Vietnamese army swept through Cambodia in 1979, Thida’s family fled across the border to a camp in Thailand. And in 1980, when Thida was 19, she and her family came to California as refugees.

“Thida wanted her children to grow up feeling fully American — Laura and her younger brother had American friends and spoke English at home — but at the same time, Thida found ways to weave bits of Cambodia into their lives. Much of that revolved around music. …

“The Khmer Rouge had targeted and killed musicians. … The Cambodian music industry that came after had been shaped by that grim reality. The result was a country whose airwaves were flooded with cheaply produced, karaoke-style covers.

” ‘There was no pride in that kind of music for me,’ says Laura. Thida agrees. … ‘We were longing for something of our own. It’s a quiet longing.’

“The global reaction to the song they wrote showed Laura and Thida they weren’t the only Cambodians who felt that way. So they wrote more. … The process wasn’t always easy. For Thida, helping Laura transform her lyrics from English to Khmer often meant not just translating words, but translating culture as well. …

‘I would write these very American songs with such American attitude and then my mom would have to translate it into this really good girl who doesn’t break any of the rules and just loves with all the poetry of her heart,’ Laura says.

“But they got better at melding their points of view, and Laura’s fame in Cambodia started to grow. But fame alone wasn’t the goal: For both women, the real mission was to foster a more creative Cambodian music industry. To do that, Laura saw she’d have to leave California behind. …

“Moving to Cambodia opened Laura’s eyes to what was happening behind the scenes of the country’s music industry. ‘Once I got here, it was realizing that it’s not that people can’t do original music, it’s that they aren’t allowed to. [Karaoke] houses were like “No, you can’t do original music because that would be only one album a year and I need to sell 12 to 25.” ‘

Read more about this mother-daughter success story and why they created their own production company, here.

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Photo: Michael Sullivan/NPR
Nathalie Chaboche inspects peppercorns on the vines at her pepper farm in Cambodia. During the dark Pol Pot years, it looked like many good things would never come back. This plant is one that did.

I’d love to be able to give you a hopeful story about Planet Earth post-coronavirus, but lacking that, here’s one small reason to remind ourselves that we can get through almost anything. It’s a story about a plant returning to Cambodia after what truly seemed like the end of the world — the brutal Pol Pot regime.

Michael Sullivan reports at National Public Radio (NPR), “Pepper is believed to originate from southern India. But some chefs, including the late Anthony Bourdain and the Michelin-starred French chef Olivier Roellinger, have been drawn to pepper produced in Cambodia, specifically in the province of Kampot. That’s where a near-ideal combination of sea, soil and climate produces a very aromatic, nuanced — and expensive — spice.

” ‘It has a unique taste,’ says Nathalie Chaboche, whose La Plantation began planting in southern Kampot seven years ago and is now one of the province’s biggest pepper producers, producing 25 tons last year, and employing 150 people full-time and another 150 as day laborers during the harvest season. …

” ‘It should not be too spicy, because if it’s too spicy, it just burns your mouth. Kampot pepper is not too spicy. It’s mild-spicy. … It’s like a wine,’ she explains. ‘You can taste it like a wine, and then you can keep the taste in your mouth for a very long time.’

“Cambodians have been growing the Kamchay and Lampong varieties of pepper — the kind known now as Kampot pepper — for centuries, but it didn’t really become a significant cash crop until French colonialists started sending it back home in bulk in the early 1900s. …

“Chaboche didn’t know any of this when she came to Cambodia eight years ago with her Belgian-born husband, Guy Porre, to start what she calls a ‘second life’ after both left lucrative technology careers in Europe and the United States.

“They came to this laid-back province on the Gulf of Thailand to look for a place to live quietly near the water. They decided on a whim to visit a pepper farm.

“They were immediately hooked. There was just one problem.

” ‘Yeah, we knew nothing about pepper,’ Porre admits. ‘We knew nothing about farming in general. We’ve always been in the software business.’

“They knew enough, however, to learn from the best — Cambodian farmers whose families have been growing pepper in the region for generations.

” ‘They came to me in 2013 needing pepper vines,’ says 36-year-old Hon Thon, whose farm is about 25 miles from La Plantation. ‘They needed 2,000 vines, so I cut them from my farm and from some of my neighbors’ farms and brought them here.’ …

“Now … Thon splits his time between working here and on his own farm. He says there’s good money in pepper — along with financial freedom not available to most day-wage earners. …

“The pepper industry almost died during the the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. … When the fighting ended and the Khmer Rouge were defeated, some farmers, including Thon’s relatives, returned to their lands and slowly nursed what vines remained back to health.

“It took time. Twenty years ago, only a few tons of pepper were grown annually. Last year, the 400-plus members of the Kampot Pepper Promotion Association produced roughly 100 tons. …

“[But] smaller farmers often feel squeezed as larger producers, such as La Plantation, have come to dominate the market, and middlemen under-pay small farmers for the pepper they produce.

“Chaboche says she understands the frustration. ‘I think it’s very difficult for the small farmers. … That’s why we want to buy their production at a fair price and find a market for them.’

“The couple [also] are aiding the pepper promotion association’s effort to get fair trade certification for Kampot pepper, which would help the association’s smaller members.”

More at NPR, here.

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