Spreading Sounds

After growing up in South Central Los Angeles, graduating from college and starting a family, Seak Smith began seeking a better understanding of her heritage, one that extended beyond the horrors of the Pol Pot regime.

“I was really obsessed in learning about the Khmer Rouge growing up…. I was really trying to figure out why this happened and why did this even take place,” Ms. Smith said from her home in Los Angeles this week.

Cambodian Music Festival founder Seak Smith, center left, waves to the crowd during the finale of last year’s show alongside co-founder and husband Brian Smith at the Ford Theatre in Hollywood, California. (Cambodian Music Festival)
Cambodian Music Festival founder Seak Smith, center left, waves to the crowd during the finale of last year’s show at the Ford Theatre in Hollywood, California. (Cambodian Music Festival)

“I was so concerned by it that I didn’t see anything else about Cambodian culture besides the Khmer Rouge,” the 37-year-old said. “I was really clouded with that image.”

The daughter of a former soldier who served in Lon Nol’s U.S.-backed Khmer Republic, Ms. Smith was born in a refugee camp along the Thai border during the Pol Pot era. Due to her father’s ties to Lon Nol, her family was among the first Cambodian evacuees to arrive in the U.S. in late 1980s.

In 2013, Ms. Smith attended the Season of Cambodia festival in New York and the Cambodia Town Film Festival in Long Beach, California, and was inspired to launch her own festival, a celebration of Cambodian music. In August, some 500 people showed up for the first Cambodian Music Festival in Hollywood.

Looking to build on last year’s success, this year’s event takes place in Anaheim, California, this weekend, with 1,000 people expected to turn out, including members of the Cambodian diaspora from across the globe.

While the majority of the acts on the bill are comprised of ethnic Cambodians raised the U.S.—such as R&B singer Jay Chan and Indradevi, a psychedelic electro trio—the event will also feature British rapper Grant Massey, aka Gobshite, and EVRYWHR, a Grammy-winning American singer-songwriter who collaborated with Cambodian artists while traveling the country in April.

Electronic trio Indradevi perform at last year’s Cambodian Music Festival. (Cambodian Music Festival)
Electronic trio Indradevi perform at last year’s Cambodian Music Festival. (Cambodian Music Festival)

Ms. Smith said some performances would blend contemporary beats with the classic rock-‘n’-roll sounds of Cambodia’s musical heyday of the 1960s.
“We’re paying tribute to a lot of artists from the ’60s and ’70s Cambodian rock ‘n’ roll, where the traditional Khmer sounds and Western influences—whether it was The Beatles or Jimi Hendrix and Santana—influenced the music,” she said.

“Artists today are doing exactly the same thing: They’re taking music that they grew up with, which is often the Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea that they hear their parents playing, and they take that music and infuse it,” she said. “So if they’re growing up in Philly, they’re mixing the hip-hop and the Sinn Sisamouth stuff together.”

Savy, a pop artist who was born in Battambang province in 1979 and arrived in the U.S. when she was five months old, said she hoped the festival would introduce Cambodian music to the wider non-Cambodian community on the West Coast.

“If the point was just to bring in Cambodians, I think we’d have a lot more traditional, established bands that are doing more of the restaurant circuit and even going back and forth between the two countries, but I think we wanted to reinvent,” said Savy, who will be performing at the festival.

“I think we’re definitely trying to attract a better audience [this year] because there’s only 276,000 Cambodians in America totally—that’s a medium-sized city in California and that’s not enough people to really gain a foothold and traction on a global stage,” she said.

Ms. Smith, the festival’s founder, said the event had already served as a catalyst for conversation between members of Cambodian families in the U.S. on subjects that have long been avoided.

“I got a really touching email today from one of our sponsors, and she said that because of the work that the music festival is doing, it’s helped her to ask questions of her parents that she’d never asked before,” she said.

“It’s really helped her to connect with them better, and she finally understands why they were listening to all this music so much, the music from the ’60s and ’70s, and why that’s so important to her parents, why they latch on to that era so much.”

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