- Can you give us a brief Bio of yourself.
I have found that the act of writing a bio is quite difficult, but I will try to write about the events that have made me who I am today. I was born and raised in San Jose, California. I’ve always grown up in large family abundant with cousins, aunts, and uncles; but my immediate family consists of my father, Mam Vitou, my mother, Buth Thida and little brother, Andrew. My parents are both highly resilient and intelligent survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime who have always raised my brother and I with a deep sense of how lucky we are to be born in America and the notion that we should always be the best that we can possibly be just because having that option is rare in itself. When I was young, I always felt guilty about being lucky and wanted to help Cambodia right away, but my mother would tell me that to help someone else I had to be able to help myself first. This has always stuck with me. As a child I was always naturally high on life and I am deeply grateful to my parents because they chose to grant me absolute freedom in the expression of my pure joy which is rather rare in Khmer culture since in their generation children were often kept in line. It was their little way of revenge on the Khmer Rouge and their absolute repression of everything.
Another powerful influence in my life is my only surviving grandmother on my mother’s side, Ean Bun. Because I seemed to be born in lucky circumstances, my grandmother would always give me special love because she believed me to be the reincarnation of her lost husband who was taken away during the genocide. To this day she calls me by his name and speaks on how I count money like him, drive like him, and play music like him. Even at 90 years old, she expresses undying love for him and inspires me with visions of grand love. I grew up watching Chinese Kung Fu soap operas and my mother, being the secret philosopher that she is as well as growing up reading Chinese comic books without my grandma’s permission, made sure as a child that I understood the concepts of balance, yin and yang, Buddhism and the theory behind a fighter’s style. I suppose that in many ways, I have always treated life as if I am constantly improving my fighting style and attempting to understand what it takes to become a real master, which is reaching an enlightened sense of control and balance. As for music and physical education, my father has always been my mentor in life and in essence taught me how to truly focus on whatever I do whether it be sparring, throwing a baseball or even pinpointing emotion in particular sections of music. At the age of 10, I was involved in many activities that sometimes conflicted with one another including Traditional Cambodian Dancing as well as Tae Kwon Do. While performing Cambodian classical dances asked me to be soft and graceful, performing Tae Kwon Do asked me to be tough and quick. And so, I never truly became very good at either, but what I did learn is that I enjoyed the act of performing itself and learning about this mysterious Khmer culture of mine. My parents opted to speak English to me as a child to try and prevent me from having an accent, but I learned very basic Khmer because I often was the only person who could communicate with my grandma when no one was home. Throughout my youth, my older cousin and best friend, Helena Hong, introduced me to the world of contemporary music like hip hop and alternative in addition to dance which, to this day, has remained to be a passion of mine. I am the youngest girl cousin of my large, mostly female family. When I was 12, I visited Cambodia for the first time and fell in love the minute I stepped off the plane. Seeing a quiet Angkor Wat for the first time took my breathe away and made Cambodia all the more mysterious to me. Something about being in the country and experience the family there made my heart warm and to this day, I still get this feeling whenever I step off the plane; a smile always comes to my face no matter how tired I am.
The merits of going to a rather ethnic and mediocre high school were in the discovery of various art forms. I became fascinated with guitar, freestyle rap and dance. My parents divorced in high school, which was quite traumatic for my family, but in the end of all things it has actually brought us all closer and made us all a lot wiser. Our love for one another had somehow been strengthened by this event and despite facing traumatic disapproval from the Cambodian community, I feel grateful that my parents decided to choose their happiness. In my book two sayings can apply to divorce: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and “Love conquers all.” High school academically continued to be very difficult for me as I only found the study of language, particularly Japanese, to be engaging. It is within the four years of this class did I realize that I loved studying language and culture and had a knack for it. The world seemed to fascinate me wildly.
When I entered college, I went to the University of California Berkeley and had an entire universe of knowledge opened up to me. Suddenly being challenged to the fullest degree at Berkeley actually made me the best student that I have ever been in my life, and so I am a firm believer in the late bloomer. I stumbled upon the major of anthropology (the study of humans and their cultures) and immediately fell in love. Helping Cambodia was still on my mind and so my area of emphasis became Cambodia and I decided from that day forth to look at the world through the lens of anthropology, which in many ways shares a lot of similarities with Buddhism in the sense that one must look at life with an eye of impartiality at all times. I was able to write scores more music with such an open space for expression as well study a bit of French and Khmer in detail. Finally in my last year at college, I was able to write a Seniors Honors Thesis on gender in Cambodia and won a scholarship over the summer of 2008 to go study advanced Khmer for two months in Phnom Penh. This experience would solidify my love and loyalty to Cambodia and its people. Not only did I see Cambodia’s true ugly exploitation face, but I also witnessed the pure resilience and pure hearts of the people. I remain to this very moment inspired. My experiences there would set up a lifetime’s worth of dedication to the country’s welfare. Presently, I work at an NGO that does conservation and preservation work at World Heritage Sites in developing countries including Banteay Chhmar on the Thai border. By day I am a researcher for preservation work and by night, I am a starving artist who feels nothing but grateful for this wonderful little life that she has lived so far.
- At what point in life when you decided that this is ( music) your calling?
In college, a friend of mine had posted a youtube video of my rendition of Bopha Chiang Mai for the commemoration of Day Zero in remembrance of the atrocities of the genocide. In addition I started putting up random songs that I had written with no expectations at all. Slowly over time I received a plentitude of messages from other Khmers all over the world expressing their happiness that we finally had our own artist instead of this karaoke-copying mold that current Cambodian music seems to stick to. Additionally, I recall when I was young I would watch Thai soaps and listened to their music because it was the only thing I found to be cool and close enough to my culture. However after the 2003 riots and the national insult experienced by all Cambodians, I felt deeply betrayed and vowed to stop listening. Since then, it has always been my passion for us to have our own music as well and I decided later that if no one else is going to make it, then I might as well do it. And so after receiving so many messages and realizing that I had a chance to change our narrative of music, I decided in my senior year of college to work for a while before grad school and pursue music.
Last year, I joined a band as a joke with my friends and found that making music is a blessing from the Gods. In the last year I have learned so much about making music and especially guitar. And so I intend to use all my new-found skills in combining my two greatest passions, Cambodia and music.
- Who inspired you to become a musician and why ?
Although this list can go on for days and days, I would have to say my father since he has always been a singer by night in a Khmer wedding band, my cousin Peach after seeing her play Bob Dylan songs for the first time in 7th grade and teaching me my first three chords, the musicians Carlos Santana, Lauryn Hill and Incubus. Their music has always saved me and they in turn inspired me to write my own music. Writing music had always been more of a journalistic venture, but now it has grown into something more all thanks to these people.
- Are you a small town girl or bright light big city girl and why?
I would have to say both actually. In many ways I can be quite the chameleon. I enjoy the excitement and fast pace of the city while I also thoroughly enjoy the natural beauty and slowness of a small town. The truth is I like to have a good time no matter where I am.
- Being a female and a Khmer artist do you think its harder or easier to tap into the industries and why ?
I think being Khmer and anything makes it hard to tap into any industry unless it’s doughnuts. When you really think about the American music scene, one has to remember that what they are looking for is market-ability on a large scale. I’m not too sure how market-able I am but really what I make music for is myself first, then Khmer people and then anyone else who wants to listen after that. As much as I would love to somehow have this lifestyle supported by the merits of the music, I am content right now with leading my double life to make the art that I do. But it does suck being a starving artist I shall admit.
- When and where was your first live performance and how was that like ?
I’ve been performing since I was in fourth grade at Cambodian New Years but as for my first live guitar performance, it was at my oldest cousin’s wedding. I wrote a song for him and his new wife who he had been dating for 10 years. Their persevering love inspired me and so I wrote them a love song. Surprisingly the first time I played it I brought the wedding party to tears. This was a super score for me. I thoroughly enjoyed the spine-chilling thrill of swaying the audience’s emotion with my song and I realized then and there that I definitely had to do it again.
- What do you consider your greatest achievement as far?
I am grateful for being to achieve many things in life including speaking four languages, making music, or even graduating from Berkeley. But the greatest achievement so far honestly is quite simple. My greatest achievement has been falling down to rock bottom, and always getting back up again. Very simple, but very difficult. I am grateful that I’ve been able to get back up and dust the ‘dirt off my shoulder’ in the words of Jay Z.
- If you can work with any one in the music business right now who would it be?
praCh or Dengue Fever or Ouch Savy, on the real.
- Where can we find your past project and future work?
For Music and Videos:
For Blogs, Social Commentary and Poetry:
It’s my intention this year to put out one music video every month this year until December. And hopefully crossing the fingers, I can go perform in Cambodia at the end of the year.
- most embarrassing moment.
Probably when I was in Cambodia and we were experiencing a crisis at a waterfall we stopped to hang out at. My brother was about to fall of the drop of the waterfall after tripping on the rocks, so my mother sent me to go get help from the driver. Instead of yelling help (“chuoy pong”) to the driver, I yelled (“choi pong”) which is basically the equivalent of the “F word” to him, to which he preceded to give me a very long strange eye. Finally I realized my mistake, corrected myself, he smirked then ran with me to get my brother.
- Any girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, husband, taken, not taken ,. what is your status ? the people want to know.
I was dating but decided to stop to focus 100% on this music dream of mine. Single and dating music.
- Since it a new decade where do you see yourself in life 10 years from now?
The ultimate dream in 10 years is to be an international superstar in Cambodia first then internationally and somehow also achieve my PhD during the whole process. Evil laugh! It is my dream to be the world’s first Asian Rockstar Phd. Save cultural heritage by day, and be an Asian female Bob Marley by night. Also, if things go well I would use the merits of “rockstardom” to endorse a self-sustaining foundation that empowers young and talented Cambodians in whatever way they need to grow. Ah the dream. =D
- What is your movement and why should we support you?
My dream is to write meaningful and original Khmer and English music that is relevant to the soul searching of the next Khmer generation all over the world. I want to bring Khmer music art back to life. We are a people living in exile and many of us feel lost in translation especially when speaking to one another. So many of us don’t know who we are in so many different ways. All Cambodians, no matter where they are, who they are now, or how tragic their recent history is, it is time for us to set our differences aside and realize ourselves together. It is my deepest wish that I can become one pillar of a bridge of communication between all of us through music and a movement of self-understanding.
We are always boasting pride about being the descendents of the Angkorians. One question I want everyone to ask themselves is if that kind of art was alive in our ancestors, what do you think exists within us now? It’s time to begin a new narrative of art for our descendents to be proud of. I see so much art potential in Cambodians everywhere and I think that its time we rise from the ashes of the genocide and rediscover and honor our ancestors. I believe that we can honor those who perished in the war by making an effort to understand ourselves and our culture and further communicating our discoveries through the universal language of art. Our existing parents and grandparents worked hard to preverve our culture after the war, it’s our duty to keep it alive and well.
I am deeply inspired by the great knowledge of Buddhism and want to musically translate its wisdom in a fashion that is relevant to our generation. I want to spread the magic of Buddhist wisdom not only to Khmers, but to the entire world. I believe once people begin to see the universe in terms of balance and compassion regardless of whatever they believe in, life might in turn become more meaningful and beautiful to each and every one of us. I also firmly believe in the idea that we manifest our own heaven and our own hell. If we hurt others, we usually are plagued be demons of guilt and paranoia as it stands. However, by practicing true kindness, forgiveness and acceptance, one can strive to live life with deeper and deeper notions of peace or in other words, heaven. And finally, it is also my intention to have a damn good time with my Khmer brothers and sisters throughout this entire process since it is a well known fact that all Cambodians, no matter where they are, certainly know how to celebrate life.
- 7 words to best describe yourself.
Big heart, naturally high, expressive, passionate, curious
- 7 thing you would put in your time capsule?
Both of my guitars, song book, journal, Buddha necklace, photo of my family, photo of friends
- Any last words ?
My three favorite quotes from Buddha that sum up what I believe in:
1. "Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth."
2. "He who experiences the unity of life sees his own Self in all beings, and all beings in his own Self, and looks on everything with an impartial eye."
3. "Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart give yourself to it."
( www.mujestic.com/laura_mam ) copyrighted 03/05/10