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Young Singer-Songwriters Hope to Revitalize Cambodian Music Industry

Screenshot of SmallWorld SmallBand Facebook page

These young artists were selected to come to America on the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.

Van Chesda has craved the attention of his father since as far back as he can remember. But rather than wallow in self-pity after his father walked out on the family, he has turned the unrequited love between father and son into creative inspiration for his singing and song-writing career.

Chesda, 23, wrote and sang the song “Lok Pa”, or “Father”, in late 2014 to beg for his father’s return.

“This song is about my feeling toward my beloved father, who left me since when I was little and who failed to provide me paternal warmth”, he said.

Since the song went viral on social media, he has managed to reunite with his estranged father for a single meeting. While they agreed they were on different paths in life, the popularity of his song has enabled him to earn a better living.

“Being a singer, I can support myself and my family a lot better than before and this is one of the motivations for me to continue producing original songs,” Chesda said.

Oung Soria, 31, a singer-songwriter, also found his inspiration in a broken heart. His most famous song, “Nek Oun Ban Trem Sormai”, or “Miss You Only Imagine”, has reached more than 5 million views on YouTube.

“I composed this song using my own feelings and​ romance, which I used to have toward her [my ex-girlfriend],” said Soria. "I still loved her when I wrote this song, although I knew she had already started with someone else", he added.

Having graduated from a business administration degree at Pannasastra University of Cambodia, Soria is now focusing on music production on a fulltime basis. He is set to release his new album later this year.

Soria and his ex-girlfriend didn’t manage to get back together although “Nek Oun Ban Trem Sormai” she has listened to the song. The song starts with the lines, “Promised to love each other, yet you left me”, and ends with, “I would be thrilled, if you were still with me. I could give you tender loving care, but now you’re not around.”

Morm Picherith, 19, recently released an original song, “Chngay” or “Away”, describing the romantic separation of two student lovers.

Picherith said that he works best when he has had enough rest and finds his creative inspiration by observing other people’s stories, then putting himself in their shoes.

“It is not necessary that we must experience love stories by ourselves to compose a romantic song. Sometimes, we can just observe the love stories of our siblings, friends, or family members, and then we translate their emotions into a song,” he said.

Picherith is one of the four members of SmallWorld SmallBand, a group of young artists who have gained popularity with their unique skills of mixing Cambodian traditional instruments and performance with contemporary styles, known as Bonn Phum songs.

His song “Chnay” has been viewed more than 11 million times on YouTube.

Despite his current fame in the Cambodian music industry, Picherith does not regard his work as a complete profession yet. He said that he needs to study more and delve deeper into the music industry.

The Cambodian music industry, and the creative arts in general, suffer from a reliance on plagiarizing foreign songs and original Cambodian songs from the 1960s and 1970s. But Soria is optimistic that the current wave of original songs produced by young Cambodians will change the situation. “When you go original, you won’t go back,” he said.

Based on their creativity and the potential of rebuilding the Cambodian music business, Van Chesda, Oung Soria, Morm Picherith, and seven other Cambodian artists were selected to come to the United States from April 27 to May 8 on the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.

Launched in 1940, the IVLP connects current and emerging foreign leaders around the world with their American counterparts through short-term visits to the United States. This year 10 Cambodian artists are taking part.