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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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