Throughout Cambodia’s rich musical history, women have played only a limited role, mostly as singers. Think of the 1970’s star Ros Sereysothea, or the more modern Srey Thy, lead singer of the Cambodian Space Project. But despite the prevalence of a few female singers, Cambodia doesn’t often see a rock band made up entirely of women.
But this February, Phare Ponleu Selpak is presenting Battambang’s all-girl rock band. Our Girl Band will be heading up to Siem Reap to perform alongside the Giant Puppet Parade on 18 February, in what will be their first performance outside of the Phare campus.
“In a country like Cambodia, where almost all the rock bands are made up of men” explains Khuon Chanreaksmey, deputy director of our Performing Art School, “we want people to say ‘wow’, you know, ‘girls can be rock stars too.’”
The five young women have been playing together for months now, and in the lead up to the show they’ve been practicing for 4 hours a day, five days a week. The band plays covers of Cambodian rock songs, focusing on the old hits from the 1960’s.
We caught up with them one morning recently in between practice times to find out a bit more about who they are, and why they decided to join Battambang’s all-girl rock band.
The girls gathered together on a sunny morning, sitting at a table in the Phare canteen. The young women were shy, but clearly comfortable with each other. They leaned into each other when asked a question, and converse softly together before answering.
The girls first met as students in the vocational program at our Performing Arts School. They are all students in the music program, and began practicing rock songs together as part of their modern music classes. Phare brought these girls together, yet each of the girls found Phare in a very different way.
For 22-year-old Sreypov, the drummer of the band, her path was one of obedience. “I first came to Phare because my parents told me to. I wanted to stay home and play with my friends, but they told me to go study.” Now, she says, she is happy they forced her. Her friends are here at Phare, and she loves learning all the different instruments.
For Sreypov’s cousin, 21-year-old Chhailoum, lead guitar, her path was one of resistance. “At first my parents really didn’t want me to come to Phare. I had to disobey them and ride my bike here with my cousin.” Five years on, Chhailoum is playing in the band for circus show Tchamlaek, a gig that she gets paid a monthly salary for.
“Now that I am supporting my family through music, they are happy I came to Phare. Also I’m an adult now, so it’s harder for them to tell me what to do.”
Stories like Chhailoum’s are not uncommon at Phare. Most Cambodians don’t view the arts as a valid career choice, especially not for families who are trying to live on less than $100 a month. But students like Chhailoum are changing that perception, and it’s the opportunities to earn an income with Phare that make it possible.
The bass guitar player, 25-year-old Danith, is the embodiment of the change that Phare Ponleu Selpak can bring to a young Cambodian’s life.
Eight years ago, Danith was just a regular teenage kid, studying in public school. She came to Phare and started studying traditional Cambodian instruments. A few years later, her excellence in her studies lead her to be chosen as a musician for our circus show “Chills.”
Today, Danith has traveled to France twice on tour with Chills, most recently in August 2016. This international experience has “changed my life, and shown me so much about the world”. What was her favorite part? “Trying all the new foods.”
Now back in Cambodia, Danith is feeling “nervous and a bit afraid” of performing in Siem Reap, since the girls have only been playing together as a band for a little over 6 months.
Although the girls are feeling a bit timid, this won’t be their first public performance. The girl band had their debut during our Open Day festival back in July, 2016. They played twice that day, in front of an audience of Phare family, staff, and fellow students.
“I felt very afraid before going on stage,” Chhailoum remembers, “but the show went really well, and afterwards I felt so happy and joyous.”
The stakes are much higher this time, however, and the girls are nervous to perform “on a new stage, and in front of a new audience up in Siem Reap.” They are a bit worried that an audience full of strangers won’t be as receptive as the audience full of their family here in Battambang.
But with five years of experience; months of practicing; and the support of their family, friends, and teachers, do the girls really feel so afraid?
“I feel excited for Siem Reap,” Sreypov confesses, “Sure, I’m nervous before a show, but once I get on stage, I relax and I’m ready to have fun.”
Listening in on one of their practice sessions, it seems to us like the girls are ready to go. And on February 18th, Siem Reap will find out what an All-Girl Cambodian Rock Band sounds like.
Want to support the artistic programs and students like these girls? Donate to Phare Ponleu Selpak and help us change perspectives and rebuild Cambodian culture for years to come.