From left, Sarah Yem-Groveunder, Sokvy Ngong, and Lisa Mony use water bottles in place of microphones during practice as they often do when they don't want to drag out all the equipment, in Sarah's Long Beach home. (Steven Georges / Staff Photographer)

LONG BEACH - They flop out on a couch, tell stories and finish each other's sentences.

They work on dance routines and sing with water bottles as makeshift microphones in a bedroom converted into a rehearsal studio.

They pull beats off the computer and write their own lyrics, creating a sound that is a kind of a mix of pop, reggae and hip-hop.

Initially they bristled a bit at the pop designation, but have come to embrace it - mostly.

In short, Sarah Yem-Groveunder, Sokvy Ngong and Lisa Mony could be any trio of Long Beach teenagers or early twentysomethings with starry-eyed fantasies of stardom.

So it's a bit of a shock when you learn two of them are 29, one recently married, and the other is 28.

On this night, all have come from their full-time jobs to Yem-Groveunder's apartment to rehearse, as they have done regularly in the 13 (13!) years they have been singing together as Universal Speakers.

But it's not just about romantic dreams of stardom for the three. Their passion for music is enduring and they are driven to succeed. The trio just released a third album, "Universal Love," and plan a formal release party in September.

They still get in as many gigs as they can, mostly embracing the pop image. It fits their youthful appearance - all three could still pass as high schoolers, and many of their songs are about those timeless teen themes of love and angst.

Also, Yem-Groveunder says their fan base is mostly in the young set.

The new album has more of a reggae feel, in part because, Yem-Groveunder jokes, "When you're old in reggae, it's cool. If you're an old rapper, they look at you weird."

"When we tell (fans) we've played together over 10 years they say, `You're old,"' Ngong jokes.

High school union

The daughters of Cambodian (Yem-Groveunder) Lao (Ngong) and Thai (Mony) parents, the trio got together as a singing group soon after Yem-Groveunder's 16th birthday party. Yem-Groveunder had wanted to form a band.

Problem was, she says, although she enjoyed writing songs, her singing voice was lacking.

"I'd tell them I want it to sound like this, and they'd laugh," Yem-Groveunder says. "They still do."

She surreptitiously used a karaoke machine at her birthday party to scout talent and recruit her friends into the group. They've been together ever since.

The three started practicing and playing music together after school almost nightly.

While Cambodians, Thai and Lao have been known to feud in Southeast Asia, the blending for the three girls, all daughters of refugees, has been seamless.

The only people to whom their nationalities are an issue are elders.

When the group was to play at the Cambodian New Year festivities at El Dorado Park this year, Yem-Groveunder says a member of the Cambodian Coordinating Council suggested they not mention their differing heritages.

"He said, `We're not getting along with the Thai right now,"' she recalls, referring to an ongoing border dispute between the two countries. The trio say their differing heritages should be celebrated, not withheld.

When asked if their parents had any misgivings about the union, Yem-Groveunder gave an emphatic "No."

"They were just happy we stayed at home together," she jokes.

Blended styles

From left, Lisa Mony, Sokvy Ngong, and Sarah Yem-Groveunder. Their music, a blend of reggae, rap and hip-hop, has recently been released locally and the three continue to work to make their way in the music world. (Steven Georges / Staff Photographer)


The three bring different sensibilities to the group. Ngong was a fan of Missy Elliott and Long Beach's own Snoop Dogg.

"Snoop Dogg taught me how to rap," says Ngong, who says she would play his music, imitate it until she had it down pat, "then I'd put in my own words."

Mony, who was influenced by Mos Def and Yem-Groveunder takes influences from Bone Thugs 'n' Harmony.

Individually, Ngong, Yem-Groveunder and Mony go by the handles of Vice, Versa and Versatile, respectively.

The trio first hit the stage when Cambodian rapper PraCh Ly introduced them at an event he hosted at New Paradise restaurant in Long Beach.

Yem-Groveunder said the girls were intimidated until they heard one of the other acts and realized they were better.

Up until then, Ngong says, "everything was just for fun, we (sang) it for friends. PraCh said `You should do it (professionally), We said, `OK."'

The group's first album was "No Hard Feelings," officially released in 2004, followed by "Joint Project" in 2005.

They still have to pay for the production of CDs, then sell and market the discs themselves at shows, fairs and events. Their music is also available online on their Web sites: mujestic.com and us562.com. They can also be found on CD Baby, Amazon, iTunes and Rhapsody. And the group has posted videos on youtube.

Yem-Groveunder and Ngong also have clothing line called Raga Muffins.

Yem-Groveunder recently married musician Scotty Groveunder, who performs on some cuts with the group and co-wrote several songs under his performing name "Dub Passenjah."

When not singing, all three women work full time: Yem-Groveunder is a marketing coordinator for trade shows; Ngong is a registered dental assistant; and Mony works in international purchasing.

But when they get together, the years, the jobs, the struggles melt away and, water bottles in hand, they are forever young, lost in the infectious beat of their music.

greg.mellen@presstelegram.com, 562-499-1291