In Kampot, a Celebration of Urban Culture

KAMPOT CITY – The stuffy second floor of a non-descript concrete building on a side street in sleepy Kampot City is not where you would expect to find an assemblage of the country’s finest urban artists.

But on Saturday night, Lightbox, a community art space in this coastal town, was transformed into a stage for dozens of the country’s rappers, poets, break-dancers and beatboxers, who performed in front of more than a hundred expatriates, backpackers and young Cambodians sporting flat-billed baseball caps and bomber jackets.

A member of the Tiny Toones break dancing troupe performs during the 'Made in Cambodia' event in Kampot on Saturday. (Tori Green)
A member of the Tiny Toones break dancing troupe performs during the ‘Made in Cambodia’ event in Kampot on Saturday. (Tori Green)

Artists from Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville converged here for “Made in Cambodia,” with break-dancing troupe Tiny Toones and the Cambodian Beatbox group performing alongside poet Kosal Khiev and singer Sreyleak, whose hit “Snaeha Knong Pel Reatrey” has dominated the airwaves this year.

Mr. Khiev, who was deported from the U.S. and returned to Cambodia in 2011—a journey chronicled in the feature-length documentary “Cambodian Son”—captivated the crowd with the spoken word performances that have won him international recognition.

“Events like these rarely take place,” Mr. Khiev said. “So when it does happen, it’s always good to see, especially when you’re trying to integrate Western and Eastern culture.”

“The most powerful experience is that local Khmer are seeing those that are coming back home, and they are recognizing that if he can do it, so can I, because he’s Khmer.”

Vattinha Tola, who Mr. Khiev mentors, performed his English-language poem “Regimes,” which speaks of the darkness of the country’s recent past. He said events like “Made in Cambodia” serve to challenge more conservative ideas of what counts as Khmer art.

“This is very important because Cambodia is changing, regardless of whether people like it or not,” the 21-year-old Mr. Tola said. “The evolution is there; we’re evolving and things are going to change and it’s changing through art.”

“[The older generation] cannot understand it,” he said. “That’s why it’s my job—our job—to show them. Just because kids here are hanging, just because people are drinking and just because the girls here are dancing, it doesn’t mean we are misfits or outcasts in society.”

The event also featured artwork, video and photography by the likes of Theo Vallier and the mononymous Chifumi lining the walls. Skateboarders congregated on the street corner outside the venue.

Katharina Glynne, an Australian who organized the evening and runs Lightbox, said Kampot’s virtually nonexistent urban-arts culture made it the perfect location for the event.

“We also chose Kampot because it has never seen a skateboard, it’s never seen a break-dancer, it’s never seen a beatboxer and there is so little street art here,” she said.

“Any [street art] that is here is done by Westerners, so we’re just trying to kindle it—a little spark to get it going.”

Although street art is nothing new in Cambodia—particularly in Phnom Penh, where hip-hop culture has been spreading for more than a decade—many of those in Kampot on Saturday said the foundation is still being laid for a vibrant arts scene in the country.

Sok Visal, a filmmaker and founder of KlapYaHandz Records, spoke of an imminent “second golden age” of both Cambodian music and youth culture.

“If you look at the period before the Khmer Rouge, the ’60s and the ’70s were the golden age of Cambodian [arts]” he said. “[T]here was an exciting and vibrant music and film scene back then, and then everything was destroyed, and I think we are on our way to the second golden age in the next five, 10, 15 years.”

Mr. Tola, pointing to the dance floor after his performance, spoke of his hopes for the future.

“You see how much things are changing? You look at this, look how many people are here, including females having a good time…. Five years ago, this wouldn’t have happened,” he said.

“Ah man, I’m just so happy. I’m really hyped tonight.”

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