"Time To Rise": Cultural Phenomenon in the Evolution of Cambodian Original Music




Prak, Rane

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The work of artists who belong to the Cambodian Original Music Movement (COMM) shows that tradition is not static, nor does it fix the past. The COMM comprises a new generation of Khmer musicians and represents a vibrant new cultural phenomenon in the post-Khmer Rouge Genocide era (1979-present). Drawing from Affect Theory, my thesis frames this cultural phenomenon as an emergent socio-political response to the Cambodian people’s intergenerational trauma resulting from years of colonialism, war, and genocide. I argue that contemporary cultural production by the COMM continues the tradition of Khmer storytelling while providing insights into the lived experiences of Cambodian artists in the present. Cultural formations, specifically songs associated with the COMM, contribute to an ongoing negotiation of Khmer identities and traditions, catering to a new generation of consumers. They use fluid representations of culture, time, and space to subvert master narratives that portray Cambodia as a country full of suffering, forever stuck in the shadows of its past. Instead, these songs allow artists to paint a broader, richer picture of Cambodia as a resilient country capable of healing, a place associated with various vibrant cultural traditions that can be adapted to meet the needs of a changing world. My research, which centers on the hybridity of contemporary and "traditional" Khmer storytelling, moves beyond the conventional imperialist paradigm that posits a dichotomy between modernity as enlightened and progressive, and tradition as conservative and backward, arguing for a more nuanced conception of the dynamic relationship between the two. These kinds of cultural artifacts are not produced purely for entertainment, nor solely as vehicles for nostalgia. Moreover, I argue that cultural productions, such as Khmer songs, play a productive role in the ongoing negotiation and construction of identity in Cambodia and among Cambodian diasporic communities. In the post-Khmer Rouge era, there was an emphasis on protecting Khmer tradition, which often included preserving "authentic" Khmer songs in “pristine” form without introducing any changes. This idea of a "fixed" tradition stems from a fear of assimilation and the loss of an "authentic" cultural identity during times of violence and post-violence. The COMM, by contrast, introduces changes to traditional cultural forms, thereby moving beyond preservation to find ways of keeping the tradition alive. Songs from the COMM provide spaces for cultural producers and consumers to negotiate identities and discuss social issues, promoting themes of evolution, solidarity, love, and the hybridity of modernity and tradition. The COMM is a space that lets different generations enter into productive dialogue on collective trauma, as well as find new avenues of cultural expression in the future. In the first chapter, I use Jan Nederveen Pieterse's theory of hybridization to explore how blended traditional and contemporary music bridges cultural producers and consumers from different generations. One song, "Time to Rise," combines the traditional Khmer genre of improvised song-making or chapei performed by folk musician, Kong Nay, with contemporary rap performed by hip-hop artist, VannDa. These hybrid traditional and contemporary cultural productions offer a middle ground for people from various generations to converse, something that is especially important in light of the widening generation gap in Cambodia. The second chapter draws upon Vijay Prashad's alternative understanding of the nation-state to explore how collaborations between artists of different cultural identities continue decolonial movements by offering resistance against hegemony. The final chapter explores how songs promote empowering narratives regarding the Khmer people.



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