Seeking Inspiration From Cambodian History

Cambodian-American singer-songwriter Laura Mam

Cambodian-American singer-songwriter Laura Mam shares her soulful sound with NPR's Tell Me More. Ryan Coquilla hide caption

itoggle caption Ryan Coquilla

You would not tell from her sweet-as-honey voice and gentle lyrics that Laura Mam's family history has been one of pain and struggle.

Her parents managed to escape the brutal regime of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, but many of their family members were less fortunate. Mam's father lost both of his parents and four of his five brothers. Throughout Mam's life, he refused to talk about the painful memories. Yet, despite the silence she was able to learn bits and pieces about her family's past from a book written by Mormon relief workers who helped Mam's family get to the United States.

"There are a lot of broken chains that people...they don't want to necessarily talk about because it was very painful. I've been very lucky to know just a little bit of history because most Cambodian kids don't know much about their parents at all," Mam explains.

But in addition to the millions of lives, the viciousness of the regime also did not spare the cultural life of the country.

"Cambodian music after the war — the Khmer Rouge, was so intent on destroying everything that existed beforehand; they got rid off everything. They got rid of all the artists, all the intellectuals and they did not want this to be known," says Mam.

Now, the recent UC Berkley graduate, together with her band, The Like Me's, have made it their mission to revive the long lost, thriving Cambodian music scene of the 1960s.

"It inspires me to want to hold onto something and to know who I am because it feels like everything has been forgotten and left in shadow," Mam says. "And I'd like for our generation to bring that back to light because often times we grow up not knowing much about ourselves at all."

As a tribute to Pan Ron, one of Cambodia's first female singer-songwriters who perished during the regime, Mam and her band did a cover of her famous song — "Sva Rom Monkiss."

Mam and The Like Me's have only been able to record a few songs with the help of friends and family in garage studios. However, their powerful music and message of hope has turned them into an inspiration for the Cambodian community all over the United States.

"I really want to kind of show Cambodians that we have so much that we have forgotten and if we were just to remember it through music then we could have a good time while also becoming self-conscious in a way," Mam says.