[Editor’s note: Bosba Panh has been performing as a musician and singer since age 8, and reached a kind of fame in 2011, then only 13, with a celebrated performance of traditional Khmer music at Angkor Wat. At 15, she left Cambodia to study on a scholarship in the U.S. Now 19, she is attending the New England Conservatory of Music—the first Cambodian to study at the prestigious school in Boston. Bospa visited VOA Khmer’s studio in Washington D.C. recently and spoke to Sopheak Hoeun about her experiences in the U.S., her ambition to make the traditional Khmer stringed instrument the tro and the roneat xylophone more accessible, and her plans a for the future. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
You are the first Cambodian student at the New England Conservatory of Music. Can you tell us a little bit about how that feels?
Definitely isolated, especially if you are a girl, and you’re the only Khmer girl over there. But, people are very interested in you. And people always ask very interesting questions: what’s it like, coming to the U.S. here and usually the first thing they ask is, “You speak really good English.” And I tell them, “Well, that’s because my teachers made me learn since kindergarten, even though I went to a French school.” And you know and they ask questions about my culture, “How did you end up in the U.S.?” I think that’s the biggest question usually, because you just don’t come from half way across the world into one of the most powerful countries in the world, I guess.
I don’t like to pity myself. I am very clear with people that, just because I come from a country that is poor, a country that doesn’t have any resources, does not mean that I am less than you. I constantly work for that because I was given the chance to pursue what I love and my passion and I know that there’s a lot of children in Cambodia who have the same potential or are even more talented that I am, and the only reason why they are not in my position is because of unequal access to education. It’s not just unequal access to—especially—arts education, because one: language, second: finances. I was very lucky to be born in a middle-class family. You know, we traveled a little bit, so I got to meet a lot of people, and I was very lucky to even have certain teachers enter my life that completely changed the course of who I am right now.
In high school, you learned vocals, but now in college you study composition. What made you switch?
I studied voice when I was in high school, but I actually was also taking composition lessons on the side, and when it came time for me to put in applications to get into colleges and conservatories, a larger percentage of my acceptance rates were actually for composition rather than voice.
I think in composition, you have much larger knowledge of music and the way you can relate to different cultures, whereas in voice—I mean it’s very nice to sing, obviously I like singing, and I grew up singing—but if you think about it, how can you preserve music without knowing how to write music. Because knowing how to write music is the same thing as how do you preserve music, how do you understand other types of music outside the classical European. When I really look back at it, I think composition was the right way to go because I would still be able to sing but also still be able to bring Cambodian music to the world because I know how to analyze it, to write about it, which is what composition studies is all about.
It’s not just writing music. It’s also: how do you look at music? How do you explain the way this music works? Cambodian music is very interesting and the reason why maybe a lot of people don’t listen to it is because they don’t learn how to listen to it or how to understand it. But, if you are a composer who is from Cambodia, who grew up in Cambodian music, and you can explain to the world that this is how you listen to this music, then you can bring Cambodian music to the world and you can bring world music to Cambodia. And I think as a singer, if people really saw me as a singer, then people would say, “Ok, this is Cambodian music. She has a nice voice. She looks nice.” But am I really doing anything for a country outside of my image and outside of what I’m singing? While as a composer, I can do both of them. And that can only be if I am a composer first.
How are you going incorporate what you’ve learned from composing, using western instruments, into using classical or traditional Cambodian instruments?
The thing is how do you write for that instrument in a way that everybody can pick up that instrument or anybody who can’t play that instrument can read this music. And it’s very obvious in the European culture that they just write a piece for orchestra, a piece for a violin, a piece for a piano. It’s regular—you can put it in front of anybody, and everybody will be able to actually read it. But, if it’s for tro or roneat [traditional Cambodian instruments], how do you make it in a way that other people can learn this instrument and play it while not being a Cambodian or being outside of Cambodia.
And I think the first step would be, which is the point of the Nirmita [Composer’s] Institute, is to teach not only, the European or non-Cambodian musicians how do you understand this instrument, what are the limitations, what are the best sounds, and how can you notate it. And when you notate it, you have to also educate the actual musician of the roneat or tro, or any Cambodian instrument, how do you read this music in a way that if you pick up this music, in let’s say 10 months, a year, 10 years, you’ll still be able to play it in a way that the person who wrote the music wants it. And this can only happen if you educate both sides, traditional musicians about what is the European notation—I use the word European but it’s really universal notation because the whole world uses that notation—and then you have to tell the international students and the international teachers how to write in a way that is not impossible for the instrument because every instrument has its limitations. Every instrument sounds better this way than another way. These instruments have been here for centuries but the really sad thing is that it wasn’t on the spotlight, like other European instruments because it was not offered to the world in a way that they could comprehend. So how can you be true to the instrument and still bring it to the world? I think it’s just about educating both sides.
Does a form of recording music for traditional Cambodian instruments exist?
I think it does exist, but it hasn’t been notated because, for a really long time, our country did not have the resources that any other country has. I mean I know the instruments, I know that it’s the same note on the piano that somebody plays on the roneat. It’s exactly same note. The difference is that the one on roneat hasn’t been notated. I mean all the music in Cambodia is done by ear or by oral traditions, while in European culture or classical musical culture, it’s not done orally. You have a paper that tells this note is this key on the piano, while in Cambodian music, it’s this note sounds like this. And now, you have to learn the whole song by heart, so it’s much more of a humane process but it’s also much more fragile because if you forget the song, then it’s gone forever, while in classical musical culture, it’s just always been there.
People write it on paper. People write books about certain pieces, like some symphonies have three volumes, while in Cambodia the notation is very limited. And because it’s an oral tradition, it’s bound to change with time. There’s been a really big debate about what is authentic or what is not authentic and I don’t know because it’s just based on oral tradition, so I wouldn’t know what sounds real and what doesn’t sound real.
What is your plan for the future?
My plan is obviously to graduate for my undergraduate studies, go to masters, get a doctorate, and hopefully still be singing and still be composing. For a composer, the dream job is to only be composing, full-time. But that’s really hard and usually commissions—when people ask you to write music—it really depends what’s the demand. And I really like teaching. I think teaching is a very good way of giving back to the future generation and, especially as a Cambodian woman, it proves to a young Cambodian kid back home that you can follow your dream. It sometimes, yes, depends on luck, but a lot of it is your ambition. You will always succeed if you do the job that you love. You will always be happy. It won’t be a job if you love it. I mean yes, it will be very hard. There are some days where I tell myself, “Ok, I can’t be doing this. I’m having a really bad day. I haven’t composed. My voice doesn’t sound good,” but at the end of the day, I am content with that. And, if you are doing that, people will recognize you for the work that you do and for the passion that you have.
Are you planning to go to Cambodia to teach?
Yes! I do plan to come back to Cambodia because I grew up there. It is my country. It is my blood. I can’t just not return back to my home country. There is just an obligation for me to go back and give back to my country. But, right now, I don’t know if career-wise, I would be able to stay in Cambodia full-time because all the music centers, all the jobs for professorships are all abroad, and I think, at least for now, the only way you can better the level of music education in Cambodia is to bring the knowledge from other countries to Cambodia, and once it is recognized that you can be an artist and you can live off being an artist in Cambodia, then I will be able to be full-time in Cambodia. But I’m sure there’s other people who want to be that, but somebody has to take the first step, and I’m willing to do that even if that means not being able to live in the country that I love.