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Air Guitar and Apsara Dancing: The Crowd Loves the Like Me's

By: Roswell Thomas Posted: March-05-2011 in
Laura Mam - Cambodia - Photo Credit - K.P.R
Roswell Thomas

At the end of a dusty, half-abandoned mall, Parkway Studios is a multi-tiered concert hall hewn from a thick concrete that gives it a subterranean feel. Early in the evening, Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” was blasting over the crowd as KlapYaHandz prepared to take the stage. Loosened-up Expats were putting in dance work, as you’d expect. The more conservative Cambodian half of the crowd was mostly standing still or taking iPhone pictures – again, as expected.

Suddenly, classic Khmer music surged through the speakers. Some expats paused, mid-groove, but the Khmer crowd surged to life as KlapYaHandz rapped over the kind of music you usually hear at Khmer karaoke. KlapYaHandz held their shoulders with the loose swagger of hiphop, but their hands traced the precise, exquisite paths of Khmer dance.

It was a fitting opening for the Cambodian-American Like Me’s. “They bring a lot of new style and they have that Khmer style in there,” explains KlapYaHandz’s Lisha, who joined Laura Mam on vocals for an emotional duet after rapping for KlapYaHandz’s set. Lisha also performed with the Like Me’s at Bayon Temple.

The Like Me’s took the stage to thunderous applause. Laura Mam walked out with rockstar confidence, clearly accustomed to her band’s celebrity reception in Cambodia; Monique Coquilla (drums) stopped, still incredulous, to take a picture of the wild crowd. Once Loren Alonzo (keyboard) and Helena Hong (bass) took their places and a last-minute sound issue was fixed, the Like Me’s started their set.

Though they’ve spent most of their careers on the other side of the world, YouTube had already brought the Like Me’s into Cambodian homes before their tour. Many expats hadn’t heard of the Like Me’s before they arrived in Cambodia, but much of the Cambodian audience had been eagerly following the band in America. “Most of them know about them through YouTube,” says Lisha, who accesses her hip-hop influences through the site as well. She and Mam had struck up a musical relationship before meeting in person – “we’re connected online, we chat here and there,” she says, but of course, “right here face to face we had a lot more chances to exchange experiences. We thought of two songs while we were backstage waiting to perform at Bayon Temple.”

The Like Me’s YouTube following was out in force on Thursday. Introducing one song in Khmer, Mam invited the audience to sing along, suggesting they might know the words – and they did. Some Khmer women in the audience had even, it seemed, prepared choreography in advance of the concert. In a move not often seen at rock shows, they formed small dance lines and moved in practiced uniformity.

Most Cambodians were more spontaneous, shaking their butts, throwing their hands up and jumping around, all pre-concert calm forgotten. At least one Khmer man proudly displayed his skills on the air guitar. The expat community, for its part, kept up, unable to sing along but easily moved by the fresh, catchy rock songs.

It was an emotional concert for the Cambodian-Americans touring their homeland, featuring songs like “Refugee,” written “for Cambodians living in the diaspora, who miss it,” explained Mam, and “Devotion,” a rock ballad “from my grandma” that showcased the Like Me’s frontwoman’s formidable guitar skills.

When asked how Cambodian audiences compare to American crowds, “I have to say the Khmer audience is way more rocking, they get a lot more excited, the energy is really thick, you feel crazy on stage,” says Mam.

The audience welcomed the Like Me’s home with open arms, waving Cambodian flags and shouting declarations of love in English and Khmer between songs. For their first number, the Like Me’s were accompanied by a children’s chorus standing in a balcony; only two had microphones, but the roughly 30 students in matching t-shirts all sang as loud and earnestly as if the whole hall could hear them.

There was no one who wasn’t dancing to the Like Me’s final number, Sva Rom Monkiss, a classic Khmer song rendered in the style of 60s rock. “This is an old song!” exclaimed a surprised French-born Cambodian who is apparently not one of the 76,000 people who have watched the YouTube Video. “This is an old song but it is new!” he shouted, dancing like crazy with the rest of the full hall.

The Like Me’s are part of a growing movement to make Cambodia’s mark on international music. “For the young generation, they don’t really pay attention to an older or traditional song,” says Lisha, and their music tastes can run towards Cambodian bands merely parroting Western styles – “it’s embarrassing." Lisha may be a hip hop, but she brings a thoroughly Cambodian spin to music: "I used to be an apsara dancer, I studied that at university, I know my culture," she says proudly. "I want to put in hip hop culture and rock culture and combine them.”

“We hope that this story speaks to ending the silence between the young and old Cambodian generations,” Mam writes on Sva Rom Monkiss’ YouTube page. “It’s about time that we make this small but necessary effort to understand ourselves by understanding each other.”

After the show, the band was energized by their reception. “Tonight we saw people singing along and dancing, my eyeballs were bulging when I saw all the people” reacting, said Helena Hong. “It was beyond anything. I think it’s changed us in that we’re ready to do more and keep going.”

Back in the states, the rock stars all have day jobs. “This is our vacation,” says Mam, laughing. “We don’t even know what the real definition of rock star is but this is pretty damn cool.”

The Like Me's play a free concert at Koh Pich tonight before flying back to the United States Sunday morning.

See their Facebook and web page for more information.

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