ALLISON KEYES, host:
I'm Allison Keyes, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.
May is Asian-Pacific American heritage month, where we highlight the contributions of Asians and Pacific Islanders to American society. And today, we bring you an inspiring new voice. Born in the U.S. to Cambodian parents, Laura Mam is looking to revive the music scene of her parents' home country. The regime of the Khmer Rouge was responsible for the deaths of scores of Cambodians. Its reign also depleted the country's arts and culture.
But, 30 years later, Laura and her friends are reviving pre-war Cambodian music with a modern twist. The artist is here with us today, from NPR member station KQED in San Francisco. Laura, welcome.
Ms. LAURA MAM (Musician): Hi. Thank you for having me.
KEYES: So, Laura, before we even ask you any questions, we'd like to start us off with a song "Sva Rom Monkiss."
(Soundbite of song, "Sva Rom Monkiss")
Ms. MAM: (Singing in foreign language)
KEYES: Laura, that was really cool, and the video was so much fun. So, what does sva rom monkiss mean?
Ms. MAM: It's actually quite a funny title. So, sva means monkey, and rom means to dance. And monkiss is literally the Cambodian pronunciation of the English work monkey. So it literally means monkey that dances the monkey. And what the song is referring to is it's a young woman in the '60s who is talking about a young man who's doing the twist, 'cause the twist was very big back then. And she's referring to his jerky movements because he's twisting his body, and she's calling him a monkey because those kind of movements are very - almost obnoxious and funny in Cambodian culture.
But she finds it so funny that, you know, it makes her laugh, and she keeps telling him to keep on dancing because you make me laugh. You make me go, ha ha ha ha, he he he he. So that's the whole song.
KEYES: So, that's a cover of a song that was originally done in the '60s by Pan Ron, right?
Ms. MAM: Mm hmm. That's right.
KEYES: What can you tell us about her?
Ms. MAM: Well, she's really an interesting character because - so the way I found out about Pan Ron is my aunt, who is actually the main character in the music video. She loved "Sva Rom Monkiss." It was her favorite song, and Pan Ron was her favorite artist.
And Pan Ron was one of Cambodia's first singer-songwriters - female singer-songwriters. And it was, you know, unheard of, and this music scene was an incredible time for Cambodia because music had always been something that was considered low class. It was not low class, but just something for the king to listen to and enjoy, not necessarily something that was glamorous.
But she totally put her heart and soul into singing and songwriting. And no one knows anything about her life, really. And during the war, she had definitely perished, according to what we all think. And we had no idea who she is, but she was such a landmark person for Cambodia, and yet nothing is known about her. So that's why we wanted to do her song, to bring her spirit back and make sure that it lives on in our generation.
(Soundbite of song, "Sva Rom Monkiss")
Ms. PAN RON (Musician): (Singing in foreign language)
KEYES: What do people your age know about this kind of music? Are they hip to it? Are you trying to increase their hipness to it?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. MAM: I think I'm trying to increase their hipness to it. The fact of the matter is that Cambodian music - after the war, the Khmer Rouge were so intent on destroying everything that existed beforehand. They got rid of everything. They got rid of all the artists, all the intellectuals. And they did not want this to be known. And, really, the interesting part about this music is the only reason we have some of it left over is because Cambodia didn't have recording studios and went to Singapore to record.
Even still, with those archives, most Cambodians my age don't speak the language, don't - they don't know anything about our culture because our parents don't want to talk about it. And this kind of information really isn't out there, except for YouTube, which is, you know, a revolution for us. So I really want to kind of show Cambodians that, you know, we have so much that we've forgotten. And if we were just to remember it through music, then we could have a good time while also becoming very self conscious, in a way.
KEYES: You have said that your family was very deeply affected by the war. How so?
Ms. MAM: Well, my entire family, they're all refugees from the war. I mean, on my mom's side, it's pretty interesting. She was from an elite class. My grandfather was a congressman. Her family was exactly the kind of family that the Khmer Rouge were targeting. And when the war had started - when they had started the labor camps, they took my grandfather away and that was the last that they had ever seen of him. And mind you, on my mom's side, it's all women. So without the male lead, they were very lost.
And on my father's side, he had five brothers, mother, father, and every single one of them had perished during the war. Well, one of them had made it to the United States but then later died of AIDS. So on my father's side there's nothing left. And I've seen him before cry because of this feeling of being absolutely alone.
So there's a lot of just broken chains that people, they don't want to necessarily talk about because it's very painful. I'm been very lucky to even know just a little bit of history, 'cause most Cambodian kids don't know much about their parents at all.
KEYES: Does that sense of history influence your music at all or inspire it?
Ms. MAM: Oh, absolutely. Especially growing up in America, I've always felt like I don't belong in some sense. I do belong but even within living in an immigrant community, there are not that many Cambodians within San Jos�. There are Vietnamese and Filipino, but we never quite had an identity and, next to that, we never had something to hold onto.
Ms. MAM: Our parents really wouldn't say much. So it definitely kind of - it inspires me to want to hold on to something and to know who I am, because it feels like everything has been forgotten and left in shadow. And I'd like for our generation to bring that back to light because we oftentimes we grow up not knowing much about ourselves at all.
KEYES: If you're just joining us, you're listening TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Cambodian-American artist Laura Mam.
Laura, you wrote this song "Cambodian Simplicity" when you were visiting your home - or your parents' home, I should say. How did this song come about?
Ms. MAM: Well, in college I studied anthropology and my focus was actually Cambodia. I was interested in sustainable tourism at the time and I still am.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. MAM: But I had gone out to Cambodia and we were doing this two-month long advanced study program. You know, it was not a very expensive program, so we ended up staying in this touristy area for $15 a night, in a room where I shared a bed with my roommate, you know. But in that particular area there was a lot of prostitution. It was the foreigner area, is where all the tourists were. So right next door to me actually there was this young woman who was, I think, about - I think she was 14 and she had, you know, never left this room of this Australian sex tourist.
And we lived next to him for two months. And it was really difficult for me to deal with it. Because I kept thinking to myself, you know, the only difference between me and this girl is that my mom got on a plane and got sponsored to the United States, and hers didn't. And then this is her life and this mine. And yet, it could have literally just - we could have just switched places.
You know, I spent a lot of time being angry there. And then after some time, I had seen that Cambodian people have this incredible resilience. They find their happiness in the simplicity and that was an incredible experience for me to witness. It just gave me so much faith. It made feel like there's really nothing can you get down, as long as you are able to recognize and appreciate the smallest things.
KEYES: Wow, that's quite a journey. Can we get you to play it for us?
Ms. MAM: Sure, definitely.
(Soundbite of song, "Cambodian Simplicity")
Ms. MAM: (Singing) I don't know how it's supposed to be, people always say that's nothing is free. But if you look around then you will see that beauty is Cambodian simplicity. Well, I just want to be happy and singing is all I really need. Nature, food, community, yeah. Life can be easy. No need to be needy. Dreams can be reality. If you want, to life can be sung with a rooty toot. Just look at the nearest plant and help it grow until your heart feels content. Laugh with your friends until you really feel the need to pee your pants. Kiss soft, love deep, and then you'll finally see that it's easy. Well, I don't know how it's supposed to be, people always say that nothing is free. But if you look around then you will see that beauty is Cambodian simplicity.
KEYES: What a lilting, joyous song. What are you hoping people get when they listen to that?
Ms. MAM: Well, I hope people want to visit Cambodia, one thing...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. MAM: And next to that, I just - Cambodia has a very Buddhist kind of - it's a very Buddhist country and everything is let it go. You know, just let it go and have fun. And the attitude is almost sometimes like, yeah, I went through a genocide but, you know, I've got rice and I've got fish, and I've got all the things I pretty much need, and a little karaoke here and there and it's good to go.
So, you know, I want people to be able to share in that kind of simplicity. 'Cause, you know, especially here in America, we spend our lives going. We just go, go, go, go, go; we just barely have any minutes. We don't have a chance to breathe really. And I hope that with that song that people can slow down with me and we can slow down with entire nation of Cambodia, and just take a deep breath and feel really good. And remember that everything is kind of just happy. It can be if you just let it be. You know? So...
KEYES: I know you're going to play us a song called "Refugee" a little bit later. But is there a third song that you could play for us, totally out of the blue - while you're sitting in front of the mic?
Ms. MAM: I'm thinking maybe "Love Song."
Ms. MAM: Yeah? I have a song I actually wrote for Proposition 8. I couldn't understand how we could elect Barack Obama...
KEYES: You mean Proposition 8 for the same-sex rights.
Ms. MAM: For California.
Ms. MAM: Yeah, that's right - banning gay marriage. And, you know, I'm a musician and an artist and I'm like: How could you ban love? What's wrong with you? So, you know...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. MAM: So I wrote a song in revenge for it.
KEYES: All right, let's hear it.
Ms. MAM: Okay.
(Soundbite of song, "Love Song")
Ms. MAM: (Singing) She brought her flowers in the morning to wake her to the fragrance of the dawn. Then he kissed him lightly on the head to wake him softly yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah. She felt that she could do anything with her in her life, limitless. He felt safe in his arms at night. It was a haven, so right. She felt ecstasy when she made her giggle through the night Breakups always devastating for fear of soul mate separation. Well isn't this love? Oh tell me this isn't love. Tell me it's love. Or I don't want to live.
KEYES: What are you hoping that other young Cambodians in the U.S. take from your music?
Ms. MAM: It's really about the underdog saying, you know, yeah, we're small little Cambodians, but you can do whatever you want. As long as you put your heart into something - I want them to put their heart into their work and their life because the Cambodian heart is a huge heart. I want them to channel that heart energy that we have and put it into their own lives and put it into our community again. And we have this thing that, you know, Cambodians, we're so post-war that we can't stand seeing other Cambodians doing well.
We always, you know, have some kind of gossiping issues, so on and so forth. But I think if we can manage to change this narrative and we can come together and really experience something collectively and see us all rise altogether, I think it could just be - it could change the entire story. It can be the real true happy ending for something like genocide. To just come back and to defeat the Khmer Rouge because they wanted to destroy us and break us, but they haven't and we're still here. So yeah, that's what I hope.
KEYES: Laura Mam is a Cambodian-American singer and songwriter. She joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. To hear full songs by her and hundreds more studio musicians, check out our music website. Go to npr.org and click on music.
Laura, thanks for gracing us with your lovely world and music.
Ms. MAM: Thank you very much. I had a good time.
KEYES: So we should go out on this "Refugee" song of yours, right?
Ms. MAM: The song is really about being a Cambodian-American kind of. And also just being a refugee period is now, when Cambodians go back and visit Cambodia, you never quite fit in. Cambodians will always treat you like a foreigner even though you may be Cambodian. And then Americans or any foreigner there will treat you like a local because you look like the locals. So it's kind of about that drift and the nostalgia. And the key line at the end of the song is: no matter how many times you ask me Miss, where is your home, and where are you from Cambodia, you will always be my mother. So here we go.
(Soundbite of song, "Refugee")
Ms. MAM: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)
KEYES: That's our show for today. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes. Let's talk more tomorrow.