Locals leading a music scene revival

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The Sound Initiative offers music courses to budding Cambodian musicians to provide them with practical skills to land jobs in the industry. Hean Rangsey

Five years ago, Laura Baker left her native UK to work in international development in Cambodia. After spending time in the country, her interest in its culture, history and the revival of its art scene grew.

When she learned that young Cambodian musicians had a sparse support system to nurture their talents, Baker decided to launch her own social enterprise to help these young artists achieve their dreams.

“Meeting young people here and getting to know young musicians inspired me. They are amazing, you know. So I heard from different people that there’s not much support in terms of music education. They don’t really know how to build themselves up. That was how it started,” says Baker, the founder of The Sound Initiative (TSI).

“It is all about music and vocational training. Cambodia is also at the beginning of a cultural revival after years of devastation and the youth are at the centre of this revival.”

Baker is a classically trained singer who has performed throughout the UK, Europe, the US, Russia and Asia. She also holds a Master’s degree in international law from Bristol University.

In 2017, she founded TSI – a non-profit social enterprise focused on supporting emerging young talent with the resources and tools to ensure their ability to find work in the music industry.

“The Cambodian music industry’s lack of qualified musicians and sound engineers not only affects the quality of music creation in Cambodia and the ability of the youth to broadcast their voice, it also limits the chances for creative industries to contribute to Cambodia’s economy,” says Baker.

She believes that the benefits of a thriving music scene – and a supportive environment that enables it to thrive – have been demonstrated worldwide.

Music is widely understood to be a tool for empowering young people to develop confidence and their creative talents, she adds.

“Our long-term goal is to revive Cambodia’s reputation as an inspiring source of creativity in the region by putting in place programmes and initiatives that support youth keen to work in this industry,” says Baker, who spent 10 years in music school.

The TSI programme is challenging, but the young artists receive encouragement at each step and are pushed to diversify their skills as much as possible.

“For example, if you can write music or produce music well there are opportunities to write for well-known artists. Or if you are a competent music engineer, there are other opportunities in the industry doing live sound for events,” Baker says.

Chheng Chive Heang started as a student in TSI’s first training programme in 2018 and later started working for the social enterprise.

She has written music for a USAID campaign, travelled to the UK to collaborate with British musicians, and won grants and scholarships from the ArnChorn-Pond Living Arts Scholarship and Cambodia’s Children Fund.

Baker says: “All of these opportunities have developed her skills in the music industry and provided her work as a teacher, performer, dancer and emcee.”

Euan Douglas Gray, the music director at TSI, has established himself as a leading figure in the development of original Khmer artists over the past seven years.

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(From left to right) Laura Baker, ‘Wren’, ‘Mora’, ‘Flew’, ‘Slomo’, Chea Vichet, Chheng Chive Heang and Euan Douglas Grey. Hean Rangsey

“Cambodian music is already growing. They have traditional music and music from the 1960s to inspire the younger generation. I think now as we are living in a globalised world, opportunities to grow the music scene are being developed here,” he says.

“People want to write their own music and express themselves. They are young Cambodians who express themselves through Khmer culture.”

TSI Academy

Many aspiring musicians use YouTube as a learning resource but there are few training organisations or learning resources offered in Khmer. With the re-emergence of the music industry in Cambodia, there is an opportunity to create a generation of musician role models who tell their stories through music and define their generation.

Baker, who is also TSI’s managing director, tells The Post: “TSI Academy provides free services through training programmes that build confidence through education, knowledge and performance experiences and support participants in earning a living wage.”

She says TSI provides education in various subjects by offering mentoring and coaching sessions, running cross-cultural music exchanges, and providing lessons, workshops, master classes and other similar events.

TSI has two branches – TSI Academy and TSI Studio. TSI Academy is the non-profit arm of the organisation. TSI’s Music Academy programmes are currently delivered in two project-based courses – producer and artist. Both develop the learner’s knowledge and practical understanding of song development and collaboration.

TSI Studio is a professional soundproofed studio with a separate control room, vocal booth and a multipurpose live room that was launched in September at Factory Phnom Penh.

Baker says: “TSI currently offers its music studio, recording and rehearsal facilities for free to people who participate directly in its programmes. The Studio is the for-profit arm that will begin to support our non-profit programmes.”

The artists

Not long ago, Mora, whose real name is Nem Chan Money, was a novice music producer who learned the trade through various mentors. When she enrolled at TSI as the only female in the enterprise’s second group of students, her talents were nurtured and her potential realised.

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Mora, whose real name is Nem Chan Money, was a novice music producer who learned the trade through various mentors. Hean Rangsey

Mora tells The Post: “Previously I partook in an ‘FL’ Studio programme and the studio was in a bedroom. But at TSI, the programme is new and the studio is professional quality.

“When I made a song, I was as excited as if I won a campaign. I felt like I was flying,” she says.

She completed her six-month term and is now a producer, singer and songwriter with a small band that performs at pubs around the capital. Mora is currently on the search for other artists as well to complete more independent projects.

Chea Vichet learned music production from his mentors and the internet before turning to TSI.

“What I appreciated about TSI is that they put an artist and producer together who then value each other and work as a team. TSI provides a standard programme which allows me to see the world of music.”

From imagining a melody to writing a song and composing music, it takes a team of two (artist and producer) several days to produce a song.

Veth Ousa, who goes by Flew, says: “It’s up to our cooperation and how we’re feeling. Though we try to make deadlines, if we are not in a good mood, the results are lacking.

Now some of us have our own studios. We can produce music and make music for our clients,” he says.

Yem Phanit aka Wren learned to play the guitar in a three-month course, but she was very shy and hadn’t performed in public before participating in TSI’s programme.

“I love romantic songs. In this programme, I have two songs and now I sing cover songs which I post on social media,” says Wren, who is now a songwriter and vocalist.

Working with TSI

Students between 18-30 years old are selected based on their interest in the subjects taught by TSI, and their perceived potential.

People who show significant musical talent and are interested in becoming a career musician but who need further musical instruction are examples of appropriate students, according to Baker.

Chive Heang says only 10 students are recruited per term. They are divided into two groups – producers and artists – and are tasked with learning basic musical skills before choosing the partners they will create songs with.

“Our songs are unique both in terms of style and lyrics. They face challenges because they use their own style, which is different from current popular music. Lately, they’ve been leaning towards funk and jazz melodies,” says Chive Heang.

Professional musicians are welcome to collaborate at TSI as trainers or public speakers.

In a typical programme which typically lasts six months but was recently extended to nine due to Covid-19 restrictions, artists write many songs. At the end of the term, one song from each artist and producer is chosen to be compiled into an album featuring music from each artist-producer tandem. The current group’s album is available for free at https://soundwave2020.hearnow.com/

For more details on joining or partnering with TSI, visit https://www.thesoundinitiative.com/ or The Sound Initiative Facebook page.

TSI is open on weekdays from 9am to 5pm at Factory Phnom Penh.