Cambodian-American Singer Fuses Khmer Classics with Oakland Beats

Cambodian-American singer Bochan grew up in Oakland.

Cambodian-American singer Bochan was born Phnom Penh and grew up in Oakland.

[This story aired on PRI’s The World and KQED Public Radio/KQED Pop.]

Cambodia was a pretty cool place to be in the 1960s and early 70s. Psychedelic rock music was introduced to the country by North American soldiers during the Vietnam War. But when the communist Khmer Rouge took over the country  in 1975, they killed all the singers and banned music (and books and dancing and poetry and pretty much anything fun or intellectually stimulating). Not surprisingly, many fled the country to avoid execution, but they still hold onto those rock songs as memories of better times.

Like Bochan Huy and her family. Bochan now a singer in Oakland, almost died before coming to the U.S. She says her family fled  Cambodia as refugees in 1980. They had to cross the jungle to the Thai border in the middle of the night — while dodging bullets from Vietnamese troops. Bochan mom, Sein Huy, says was one month at all the time.

Bochan family in the 1980s. Bochan is sitting to the right of her father.

Bochan family in the 1980s. Bochan is sitting to the right of her father.

I had to cover her mouth because she cry, she’s a baby,” Bochan’s mom remembers. “And we don’t want any noise while we try to escape. That’s why she became really sick when we get to the camp. Even to dream I don’t really want to dream about it, it’s really hard.”

Bochan’s family eventually made their way to Oakland – and all through their transition time, Bochan’s dad would have a guitar in hand — playing the psychedelic rock music of his youth.

Bochan’s dad was an accountant by trade, but he always played guitar or sang in a band. Like in 1987, when they were living in Denver, he recorded this song (which is totally amazing.):

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Bochan eventually joined her father’s band as a singer, and her brother played keyboard. They’d play at weddings, birthdays, community events… anywhere Cambodians gathered.

Bochan started her career as her father's band. She'd sing and her dad played guitar.

Bochan started her career as her father’s band. She’d sing and her dad played guitar.

Bochan would sing cover songs of American classics, and someone else would sing the Cambodian songs. But they would never try to mix the Cambodian songs with the English one – or change any of the music up really. Bochan says people were comfortable with those familiar songs.

“If I came and sang one of my own songs, I would definitely have a lot of blank stares coming back at me,” said Bochan.

Soon after Bochan finished high school, her dad got sick with liver cancer and passed away. Bochan decided to make the leap and release her own solo album — in honor of her father.  The album, called “Full Moon Monday,” is a blend of hip hop, soul music, and the classic Cambodian rock that Bochan grew up with… like the song “I Am 16.”

Here’s how that song originally sounded, when it was sung by Cambodian singer Ros Sereysothea in the 1970s:

Bochan says Ros Sereysothea was extremely famous and at the height of her career before the Khmer Rouge took over. And when the Khmer Rouge took over, they killed her and most other singers and intellectuals. That’s why holding onto the music was so important for the Cambodian diaspora. Bochan says the problem was, songs like “I Am 16” was all her family ever played.

Bochan wanted to cover “I Am 16” on her first album — but she wanted to do it differently, and create new memories with the song. Here’s how it turned out (warning…there’s an ad before the song, but it’s a great song and equally great music video):

The song features local hip hop artist Raashan Ahmad.  Bochan says she wanted it to appeal to the Cambodian youth born raised in the Bay Area.

“To put hip hop to it, to give them something familiar, where they can connect to it, that closes the generation gap between the 1st generation and second generation Cambodian refugees,” Bochan says.

Bochan’s song “Believe” looks at the struggles of refugee families. She wrote they lyrics after working as a counselor for at-risk Cambodian kids. Bochan says unlike her own family, who were educated in Cambodia’s capital city, she was working with Cambodian refugees who came from poor, rural villages. Parents would often be illiterate in the own language and unable to thrive in urban environments like Oakland.

“We’re looking at immigrant families where the parents don’t speak English and the kids,” Bochan says. “So now there’s a discord between mom and dad. There’s already a culture gap, a generation gap, right? And now you don’t have the one thing to keep the family together: language.”

Bochan is coming out with a new EP this year. It’s a blend of dance music, jazz, funk … but it also includes a cover of one of her dad’s songs from the 1980s. It’s pretty much a mash-up of Bochan’s two cultures. Bochan says she wouldn’t do it any other way — because her dad always used to tell her that as a Cambodian raised in American, she gets create her own music and her own identity.

“I get to choose my own culture. And in doing so I get to choose the best of both worlds, is what he used to say. There are wonderful things about American culture, and there are things that aren’t so great about American culture. And the same goes for Cambodian culture. And those words always stuck with me because I think that’s what it means to be Cambodian-American. Here I am, I have lived and chosen the best of both worlds.”

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