Post-Khmer Rouge, Laura Mam Saves Cambodian Original Music With YouTube Virality Laura Mam is Cambodian American, and her mother, Thida Buth, is a Khmer Rouge survivor. They're fostering the pop music movement in Cambodia that was wiped out almost 40 years ago.

Across Languages And Generations, One Family Is Reviving Cambodian Original Music

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When we think about the costs of war, the impact on a country's music scene probably isn't the first thing to come to mind. But our next story is about just that, how a mother and daughter in California helped spark a songwriting revival in Cambodia in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge. Quinn Libson has the story.


QUINN LIBSON, BYLINE: Laura Mam is one of Cambodia's biggest pop stars.


LAURA MAM: (Singing in Khmer).

LIBSON: But she wasn't born or raised there. She's American. Her fame happened almost by accident starting 10 years ago, at her mother's house in San Jose, Calif.

MAM: I had been writing music and my mom was kind of interested in what I was doing. And then I think I went to her room, and I was playing the song and I was like, hey, mom, could you, like, write lyrics in Khmer on top of it?

THIDA: And it's like, I'd never written a lyric before.

LIBSON: That's Laura's mom, Thida.

THIDA: The first song, I didn't understand what I was doing. And I didn't know how to rhyme.

LIBSON: But Thida gave it a try, and it turned out she had a knack for it. Laura and some friends made a music video and put the song on YouTube, not expecting much.

THIDA: But it blow up.


MAM: (Singing in Khmer)

The comments were all just like, yes, original Cambodian music, oh, my God.

THIDA: Not just the Cambodian in Cambodia. It was also diaspora in France, Australia and Canada.

MAM: I think we reached, like, 75,000 views in one night.


MAM: (Singing) You say I don't need to be your friend but you... (singing in Khmer).

LIBSON: To understand why people all over the world were this excited, we have to cross an ocean and go back in time, to the Cambodia of Thida's childhood.


THIDA: I was from Phnom Penh. And I loved music. And when I was growing up, the music scene was huge. There were all these new artists writing all these new sounds, new music.

LIBSON: This was the early '70s. Cambodia was in the middle of a music renaissance.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).

LIBSON: And Thida's father encouraged her to dive in.

THIDA: You know, normally, dad won't let the young girl go out and sing and doing all these things. My dad said, you go play. You go do what you want. Art is beautiful. So it was a beautiful childhood I had here in Phnom Penh until the war.

LIBSON: But Cambodia was growing more unstable - bombing campaigns by the U.S. as part of the Vietnam War, civil conflict. And in the countryside, a radical Marxist insurgent group, the Khmer Rouge, was steadily amassing power. On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge invaded Phnom Penh. The first thing the new regime did was tell everyone living there they had to leave. Thida was just 15.

THIDA: We walked out of the city. Guns everywhere, tanks everywhere. My father tried to prevent me from seeing some of the dead body, right? That was the situation I was in.

LIBSON: At the time, the Khmer Rouge said the evacuation would last three days. The ordeal lasted more than three years.

THIDA: As a child, I was wild. And then the Khmer Rouge - I had to shut down the feeling. And it was as if, like, this lid put on top of something that bubble.

LIBSON: Thida's three sisters and her mom survived those years, but her beloved father did not. He was one of more than a million and a half Cambodians who lost their lives. When Thida was 19, she and her family came to California as refugees. When Laura and her younger brother were born, Thida found ways to weave bits of Cambodia into their lives.

THIDA: When they were in my tummy and when they just baby, I always sing a Khmer old lullaby. It go, (singing in Khmer). Like that, you know?

LIBSON: But neither Thida nor Laura felt a connection with the music that was coming out of the country. The Khmer Rouge had targeted and killed musicians, and the music industry that came after had been shaped by that grim reality. The result was a country whose airwaves were flooded with cheaply produced karaoke-style covers.

MAM: There was no pride in that kind of music for me.

THIDA: Even for myself, for the longest time, I listened to Thai music because it's the closest thing to home. We were longing for something of our own. It's a quiet longing.

LIBSON: The global reaction to their song showed Laura and Thida they weren't alone, so they wrote more. But the process wasn't easy.

THIDA: Because language is about experience. (Singing in Khmer).

MAM: I would write these very American songs with such American attitude. And then my mom would have to translate it into this, like, really good girl who doesn't break any of the rules and just loves with all the poetry of her heart.


MAM: (Singing in Khmer).

LIBSON: They got better at melding their points of view, and Laura's fame in Cambodia was starting to grow. But fame alone wasn't the goal. For both women, the real mission was to foster a more creative Cambodian music industry. To do that, Laura saw she'd have to leave California behind.

MAM: Cambodia at that time was still, like, this wild place to me. I'd been a couple of times but never more than two months. But I knew that when I got off the plane, I felt something, like, come alive in me. So then once I got here, it was realizing that it's not that people can't do original music. It's that they aren't allowed to in the current system.

LIBSON: This was early 2015. And Laura and new original artists like her used Facebook and YouTube to circumvent the karaoke production houses.

MAM: It gave us a medium outside of television and outside of the controlled music mediums that were existing at the time to just do music as we saw fit, and then it just really broke the system.


MAM: (Singing in Khmer).

LIBSON: Ten years ago, Lomorpich Rithy, who goes by the nickname Yoki, was one of Laura's first fans. Now she's one of the original music movement's staunchest advocates. She wears many hats.

YOKI: Filmmaker, festival director and also artist manager.

LIBSON: To Yoki, Laura was and still is an inspiration. But she says this movement goes beyond a handful of artists writing songs.

YOKI: You know, we want to use the music as the new narrative for the world to remember Cambodia in the different way because we have been judged by our past like, oh, you are the country of war. But that was us before, but it's not us now.

MAM: People kind of see original music as this living proof that we are moving forward.

LIBSON: In 2016, Laura and Thida created Baramey, their own production company dedicated to boosting original talent. The first group they signed was Khmeng Khmer, which means Khmer youth.


KMENG KHMER: (Singing in Khmer)

LIBSON: It's a pop-rap duo that's now one of Cambodia's most popular original acts.

MAM: Once I saw the power that a local Khmer voice had and how people responded to it, I was like, OK, this is the right thing. We've got to push this.

LIBSON: Five albums and 10 years after their first song together, the work has helped Thida reclaim something the Khmer Rouge stole.

THIDA: Doing this is like being young again. Because I never had a chance to be a teenager, this is what I would want it to be. You know, like, be silly. Be brave.

LIBSON: And it's given Laura the chance to really see her mom.

MAM: I mean, her poetry is what made me see her as a human, not my mother. Like, suddenly, I could see the woman who longed for love. And it's her yes that gave me the yes to go do this. And it's still her yes that I'm using to tell these artists, yes, you can.

LIBSON: When Thida's father gave her permission to be herself, he couldn't have predicted his decision would have a ripple effect through war, across generations and continents to shape his nation's music. But that's exactly what's happened. For NPR News, I'm Quinn Libson in Phnom Penh.


MAM: (Singing) When I was young, my mother told me never grow up. We could die tomorrow, so enjoy it, love. We could be gone soon. So be like a monsoon.

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