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Cambodian Music Festival Showcases New and Old Talents

Screenshot of Cambodian Music Festival website at
Screenshot of Cambodian Music Festival website at

[Editor’s note: The second annual Cambodian Music Festival will be held at Pearson Park Amphitheater on July 25th in Anaheim, California. Nine artists, inspired by traditional Cambodian, drum and bass, hip-hop and soul, and rock influences, will take the stage at the all-day event. VOA Khmer’s Emma Cramer sat down with Sorany Var, the festival’s content and logistics manager, to discuss how she caught the music fever, recruiting artists, and the international vision of the festival.]

VOA Khmer: Is this the second year of the festival?

Sorany Var: Yes, this is the second annual Cambodian Music Festival.

VOA Khmer: How did the Cambodian Music Festival come about?

Sorany Var: The Cambodian Music Festival is actually the brainchild of husband and wife Seak and Brian Smith and they have become really good friends of mine. It actually came about when Seak heard of ‘Season of Cambodia’ back in the summer of 2013. She probably heard about it three or four days prior and just booked a flight out to New York to see the Royal Cambodian Ballet and a bunch of other acts that she came back to L.A. and was really inspired to reconnect with her Cambodian heritage as a Cambodian American. So she did some research to find out what she could get involved with closer to home and she discovered Cambodian Town Film Festival that was happening in Long Beach. She connected with Caley So and Prach Ly and she did PR, public relations for them. And this is actually where Seak and I met, because I was doing red carpet interviews and questioning for them as well.

VOA Khmer: So what inspired you to jump into this project and collaborate with them on this music festival?

Sorany Var: So from the initial meeting with Seak at the Cambodia Town Film Festival, I was just inspired by watching her tenacity, running around, getting things done. She actually reached out to ask for volunteers for the Cambodian Music Festival floats that were going to be for the Khmer New Year parade in April, 2014. We were actually sitting on the floor of her living room cutting out music notes and she was telling me all about it. And I had told her a little bit about my background. My dad founded, KEEP, Khmer Emerging Education Program, in Fresno, California, in the San Joaquin Valley. It’s an afterschool program, so that’s how I learned to read and write in Cambodian and (learn) about Cambodian history. When I left Fresno, I was really eager to reconnect with my own roots so, my own personal history. Talking with Seak and seeing her passion about the Cambodian Music Festival, it just really mirrored what I wanted to do and be a part of. So that was one of the big reasons for searching for something to get involved in.

VOA Khmer: Were you involved in last year’s planning?

Sorany Var: Yes, I was.

VOA Khmer: Were there any major lessons you all learned last year to this year? Anything you are going to do differently?

Sorany Var: Yes. One of the main things and obviously going forward will hopefully change in the future I think in comparison to last year was that we had fourteen acts, fourteen artists. This year we have nine. That was a big lesson for us because these artists last year did not have a significant set, some had literally fifteen to twenty minutes to preform just a few songs. This year, with fewer artists, we have more time for the artist and to allow them to have a 45 minute set or an hour set to really showcase their work. And this will allow them to perform a variety of their music and not just one or two songs. We wanted to make sure that this year we really give them a fair chance to perform music they want to. So that’s one of the main things.

VOA Khmer: Do you have some overlap of previous performers from last year?

Sorany Var: So the whole purpose of the festival is to showcase new music and we had an overwhelming response. So we did and impromptu survey of friends and family that attended last year and we would ask them who did you enjoy seeing at the music festival last year? And we had an overwhelming response of three acts in particular, Laura Mam, Indradevi, and Jay Chan. Laura Mam, unfortunately, we couldn’t book her, because she is doing some fabulous things in Cambodia and she was just super busy so we couldn’t get her. But the other two we got to come back were Jay Chan and Indradevi so those two are coming back for sure.

VOA Khmer: Right, I saw the line up on your website (at So were there any major challenges with planning this year?

Sorany Var: Location, definitely location. It's an eight-hour music festival and we definitely didn’t want do it within an arena, an enclosed arena. We always wanted it to be an open air festival and let people move around. One of the great things about the venue that we are using this year is that it’s built within a park. Last year, it was at the Ford Theatre, although a beautiful venue, there wasn’t really any space for people to picnic. And we really want to make it a family event where you can bring the kids and hang out a little bit. We are encouraging people to come barbeque early and have fun with their family. The Pearson Park Amphitheatre that we are using this year have more room for the vendors. We are going to have a bunch of food trucks there so it’s a lot more of what we wanted last year, so, our attendees can look forward to that.

VOA Khmer: That sounds like the real music festival experience.

Sorany Var: It does, we’re excited.

VOA Khmer: Any more attractions besides the food trucks and the artists that are preforming?

Sorany Var: No, the main attraction is the artists themselves. A lot of people go to a big music festival and they do not know half the people on the line up and we really want to drive home that this is not only for Cambodian but for people that just want to experience a really awesome music festival. So music, music, is the main attraction.

VOA Khmer: What are you trying to accomplish with the Cambodian Music Festival? What’s the goal?

Sorany Var: We want to showcase artists and musicians from the Cambodian diaspora that has been spread throughout the world. We’d love to showcase everyone but we want to show artists from various genres and in relation to the golden era of music, and this explosion of exploration of music, and experimenting with different sounds that was happening before the Khmer Rouge and the genocide. We really wanted to pick back up on that experimentation of music and just really create music that was more relevant to our generation. There is nothing that can replace music of that era, but it is also our responsibility of our generation to really honor that time but to also go forward and create new music that’s relevant to what’s going on in our society with our own experiences.

VOA Khmer: I love the mixing the new with the old, it creates such an interesting sound.

Sorany Var: Yeah, it’s very fun. A lot of people aren’t sure of what to expect until we actually show them music videos and let them listen to certain songs and tell them about certain artists and their backgrounds. But it really takes going to the festival for people to really understand the goal and the mission of the music festival. It’s pretty cool when we see people enjoying the music festival. It’s really something else.

VOA Khmer: I‘m sure that’s rewarding. So where do you see the festival five to ten years down the line?

Sorany Var: International! You know the goal of CMF is always to connect people worldwide through music. As we all know, one of the unfortunate results of the Khmer Rouge was the displacement of all the Cambodian refugees to France, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Germany, US, Canada, and throughout the rest of the world. One of the main things we wanted to use as a vessel to connect people was music. We are hoping to grow, not just within the music industry but in other areas as well. Fashion, sports, lifestyle, and different forms of entertainment. There’s a lot of stuff that we are working on and we are excited to announce things in the future as we come a long.

VOA Khmer: Well, that’s quite a great goal and the more people that know about it the better. I am glad we can tell the world here at VOA.

Sorany Var: Absolutely.

VOA Khmer: Thank you so much for speaking with me today about the Cambodian Music Festival and the best of luck to all of you out there in Anaheim.

Sorany Var: Thank you so much for your time, I really appreciate it.