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Key of E: How Cambodia’s Young Composer Is Hitting All the Right Notes

Safiya Charles / Khmer Times Share:
Bosba Panh will begin her sophomore year at the New England Conservatory of Music this week, where she is studying musical composition. Bosba Panh

Bosba Panh took the nation by storm when she burst onto the scene as an eight-year-old folk-singing sweetheart – but you’d be mistaken to believe that’s how she got her start. The talented young musician began her musical apprenticeship three years earlier, under the tutelage of an unlikely instructor.
“My first guitar teacher was Brazilian,” Ms. Panh goofily recounted. “So weird right? Like in Cambodia. That was about 13 or 14 years ago.”
A talented French-speaking Brazilian with a knack for Beatles’ songs – the same songs she grew accustomed to hearing waft in from her parents’ radio – would help to hone her skills.
“There was an ad up and my dad saw it and said ‘Ok, I’ll just sign you up for this guy’,” she said, deepening her tone playfully to mimic a man’s voice.
“And I said, ‘Ok dad’,” the singer said blithely. “I was five, I wasn’t questioning anything.”
The wonder kid became a multi-instrumentalist before hitting her teens, taking up classic guitar at age five, singing by seven and piano player at the tender age of 12.
Back then, she was a small raven-haired girl with a voice beyond her time, a talent the country had never quite seen before. Watching her early performances, it’s hard not to be impressed. In a video from 2007, the 10-year-old looks completely at ease – comfortable and confident as she serenades the crowd. Spinning around in a choreographed circle, she motions charmingly to the audience then flashes an immature smile, her hair so long it envelops a great length of her childish frame.
When we meet in 2016, it is clear that in some ways, little has changed about her. The dreamy vocals and saccharin sweet melodies are still blissfully present, and at 19, she maintains the poised ability to carry herself with an air of sophistication reserved for women well beyond her years. But the juvenile locks of hair no longer hang low, now only grazing neatly past her shoulders, and the sprouting ideas of an immature schoolgirl have blossomed into the well-thought convictions of a young woman – ready to shatter stereotypes and bolster an education system she believes is in need of desperate repair. The little girl with the big voice is all grown up.
Early Beginnings
In the late ‘60s, Cambodia found itself in the midst of civil war and faltering on complete chaos. Neighboring Laos had already fallen into disrepair, engulfed in the entangling turmoil of the Vietnam War. Fearing for their lives, Ms. Panh’s mother, a young woman from Vientiane, and her father, a young man from southern Cambodia, fled to France. They arrived in a 60s-70s era Paris, full of music, movement and philosophies. Many years later, the two would meet and marry.
Despite their grim beginnings, Ms. Panh credits this exodus as a future catalyst for her musical development. The Stones and Beatles songs that her parents grooved to on the cobbled Parisian streets of Europe would become the giddy notes she poetically strummed on her guitar in balmy Phnom Penh.
“For growing up in Cambodia, I had a lot of Western influence because my parents were immigrants in other countries…Living in between Eastern and Western cultures definitely shaped me as a musician.”
Another benefit of that cultural confluence? Language. The polyglot is fluent in four languages, performing songs in Khmer, Lao, English and French. If you’re keeping count, that’s two instruments, three if you count vocals, and four languages.
While the performer owes her musical inspiration to her parents, she can also credit them with instilling the foundations of her ideological fortitude. Ms. Panh is the child of a Lao businesswoman and a musically-conscious, Khmer stay-at-home dad. While her mother fulfilled the role of family bread-winner, her father nurtured her musical development – a traditional role-reversal that has no doubt impacted how the talented artist views herself and the society in which she functions.
“My mom was really in charge of the finances, and my dad, he was driving us to school and all our lessons. That’s how they chose to run the family…and both of my parents were able to raise me very well.”
Yet theirs is an uncommon arrangement that runs contrary to much of the country’s traditional values and strict gender roles.
“I think my parents were very open about giving me a well-rounded education…a lot of women in Cambodia are not educated because their parents take them out of school before they can complete high school,” said Ms. Panh.
“How do you tell these people that you can empower your daughter to be something greater than just a stay-at-home mom? Work does take time away from the family but it doesn’t affect the outcome of your children, it actually empowers them.
“I’m very empowered by my mom because she is a working woman and she’s very well-respected in her field. That’s how you then empower young girls to pursue education and really take charge of who they want to be.”
A Budding Opera Singer
A coloratura soprano, Ms. Panh’s operatic voice is characterized by its airy disposition and agile ability. Running through leaps and bounds, the songstress’ tumbling notes boldly advance from a gentle coo to a trill melody, her voice soaring high then slowly floating back to ground like a parachute puffed with air.
Inspired as a child by the sultry sway and enraptured melodies of one of the world’s most famous operas – starring one sizzling soprano as lead – Ms. Panh would go on to develop her operatic abilities.
“I grew up with almost no arts education. It was kind of just like I went to concerts and had music lessons and that’s it,” she said.
“I started opera because my parents bought this DVD called ‘Carmen’. I watched it and was like ‘Woah, I really like this music. I want to be like the lady on TV’.”
Dreamy-eyed and full of imagination, her emulation of the silver screen idols would eventually develop into something concrete – a musical scholarship at the notable Walnut Hill School for the Arts to sing classical opera. At the exclusive boarding school in Massachusetts, a fearful but fervent 15-year-old would embark on a journey to find her voice, develop her talents and make her country proud.
“There were many shocks – I was 15. I had no idea about this country,” she said.
And her new classmates proved to be equally clueless about Cambodia.
“I think first was just telling people where Cambodia is. People would say, ‘So what are you?’ and I’m like ‘What do you mean?’” she said while feigning a puzzled expression.
“Are you asking me about my double nationality or where I live? Yes I’m from Cambodia, but that’s one half, and I also have French nationality because both of my parents are naturalized citizens. Then you know, I’m based in Boston but my family lives in DC.
“So I would just look at people and say, ‘You’re gonna have to be more specific about that or I’ll have to tell you my life story’,” she said.
The young student would soon realize just how vital an asset that patchwork heritage was.
“When you come from a developing country and you’re thrown into a very elite boarding school for the arts, it’s very scary, but it was very reassuring to me that my parents were able to give me a wide range of cultures to listen to and draw my inspiration from. Because otherwise, I think it would have been very, very hard for me to find my voice,” she said.
And find her voice she did. Three years later, Ms. Panh would add yet another accomplishment to her ever-growing list: admission into the New England Conservatory of Music (NEC) – a Boston school as prestigious as it is old – as the first Cambodian woman to attend in its history.
There, the classical singer would make a decision to step back from the microphone and climb up the ladder in the musical hierarchy, bursting through any barriers blocking her way. Switching her focus from voice to composition, the nascent composer made a decision very much rooted in her vision for the future.
“I’ve had discussions with my parents and we’ve had fights about it but I think it’s for the best…you have to look at the bigger picture…I want to improve arts education in Cambodia…[so] composition gives me a foundation. If you’re a singer, then you’re going to spend most of your time singing, but that doesn’t really prepare you when it comes to implementing arts education.
“I don’t think being a voice major would have taught me the skills to be able to do what I want to change Cambodia.”
She also admits that as a singer, living in the spotlight hasn’t always been so easy.
“Like I told my parents in switching to composition, consider it a break from having sung for the past 13 years, you know? When you’re being followed by so much media, so much of your worth has been reduced to just how you look on stage…it’s all about how much you appear on TV and in newspapers and all of that stuff – it doesn’t feel so great.
“You kind of want a break at some point to do something different.”
The Power of Representation
The spotlight can be particularly critical towards women, who are most often trained as singers leading traditional Cambodian ensembles. They most certainly excel in this role, but it can become suffocating and restrictive for those who aspire to something greater.
“You learn a lot about the position of women in the arts, in traditional music at least. Yes, women are very prominent in the arts in Cambodia – as in they’re singers and dancers. [But] if you really look at traditional ensembles, they’re mostly men. When I was very young it was already very clear to me that I could only be one or the other.”
Ms. Panh believes this implied restriction has a discouraging effect on many women’s choices to seek higher education or employment in the field upon graduation.
“At Walnut Hill and NEC there are a lot of girls, but in the end they don’t end up in music. So how is it then that there’s a lot of women that learn music but then when you go to a symphony concert most of the orchestra is made up of men?
“I think it’s because at some point, women are being discouraged from the arts.”
This discouragement may come in many forms, from the chiding pleas of concerned parents to the outright values of a society.
“I feel like a lot of people approach these women and say things like, ‘You should just get married’ or ‘You should move on from that’. But what if she doesn’t want to get married? What if she wants to be an artist?
“But if the whole society is discouraging that, that’s very overwhelming for these women.”
Ms. Panh sees the antidote in representation.
“I think the power of representation really matters. The more women you see in the arts, then the more young girls know that they can be artists. The more women in sports then the more young girls know that they might have a shot at that.
“A lot of people attach certain values to women but you have to remember that those are just societal concepts, and the only way you can go against it is to just keep doing what you’re doing and just let that speak for itself. As a girl, you can do whatever you want.”
A Vision for the Future
High on her list of wants is reform of arts education throughout the country. Ms. Panh believes that cultivating the arts can only help to improve the lives of Cambodians and encourage more young people to preserve the country’s traditional arts culture.
“By making your children more aware of music and the arts, it develops their brains…You can use art not only to entertain people but also to educate them about social issues. In Cambodia, you still have a lot of violence against women, you have children who have been sexually abused but people don’t talk about it because it’s taboo.
“By putting it in the arts in a more subtle way, you do educate people about it. In some ways, I think people underestimate the power of the arts and the power of social change through arts education.”
In July, the budding composer returned to Cambodia for the first time in four years. This experience brought forth a swell of emotions.
“When I came back, I was looking at my own country through different eyes.”
The artist would act as a musical advisor to the Nirmita Composers Workshop – a two week intensive program headed by award-winning Cambodian composer Dr. Chinary Ung – offering regional composers and traditional musicians a rare opportunity to collaborate and create new music under the instruction of a renowned faculty of international artists. This kind of collaboration is critical in developing an artist’s skills.
“It’s very important because it teaches you what’s good, what works and what doesn’t work…In a way, having a teacher teaches you to be a teacher yourself.”
As an arts educator, Ms. Panh hopes to bring the arts to the masses, aspiring to develop an arts-based curriculum that could be taught in public schools throughout Cambodia and to one day develop a standardized form of musical notation uniquely written to compliment Cambodia’s traditional instruments.
“Part of the reason we’re so behind everyone else [musically] is because we don’t have the resources in our own native language. My plan as a classically trained Cambodian artist is to translate and bring these resources that we have in the western world and make them available to Cambodians.”
Now entering her sophomore year at NEC, the second-year composer is more confident in her surroundings and grounded in her resolve, despite what any skeptics might have to say.
“People use fear to stop others from doing. I’ve gotten terrible comments about me just being in the arts as a young female artist, but I just do it…Yeah, you’ll still have those sexists comments, but the facts are the facts,” she said.
“The only thing you can do as a woman in the arts is work on your craft, seek opportunities for yourself and just don’t listen to the haters.”

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