When my red record light starts flashing, Bosba Panh is cool and collected. The 19-year-old has an air about her that is way beyond her years, and naturally so: she was famous before she even hit puberty. The celebrated performer began learning her first musical instrument at the age of five, singing at seven and performing her first televised appearance when she was just eight years old – a hefty string of accomplishments in very little time. At age 15, she left Cambodia on a scholarship to Walnut Hill, a prestigious arts preparatory school outside of Boston in the US. Since then, she has matured from a soprano singer to a classical composition major at the New England Conservatory of Music.
In July, Panh embarked on a journey to reacquaint herself with her roots, returning to Cambodia for the first time in four years. Among her reasons was supporting the Nirmita Composer’s Workshop, a ground-breaking effort by world-renowned Cambodian composer Chinary Ung to revitalize the country’s performing arts culture and the first of its kind in the region. Panh is impassioned to make arts education available to all Cambodian students and yearns to create a community where local artists can explore their talents and achieve success at home, rather than developing those talents abroad.
In the first of our two-part interview, she talks with The Weekly about the early beginnings of her musical career and her experience as a Cambodian woman and performing artist finding her way. [This interview has been edited for length and clarity].
The first instrument you mastered was the classical guitar, which you began playing at age five. Do you remember the first song you ever learned to play?
It was a Beatles song, “Eleanor Rigby.” It’s a really good song, my favorite. There are other songs by the Beatles but this one has a personal attachment to it because it was my first, and it stuck with me because of my parents. They were refugees in France, [my dad] because of the genocide in Cambodia and my mom, who is from Laos actually, because of the revolution. So my parents fled to Paris, that’s where they met in the late 80s and early 90s, which means they lived in France for about a quarter of their lives. That was right in the middle of the 70s so it was the height of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones. My parents listened to Elvis Presley, even George Michael, they would play this kind of music at home. But the Beatles really stuck with me, you know? The melodies, the way that the music spoke to people. For growing up in Cambodia, I had a lot of Western influence because my parents were immigrants in other countries.
Do you think that’s helped to shape where you are musically today?
Oh yeah. On a more professional and adult level when you’re composing, usually the more influences you have the better it is for you to find your own voice in terms of writing your music. So that’s why often even non-classical musicians, like say pop artists, listen to a lot of genres of music because it influences them: they learn what they like, what they don’t like. There are certain types of things that work for you and certain things that don’t.
In 2001, when my family moved back to Cambodia from Laos, there wasn’t that much music and the internet wasn’t readily available to everyone. I remember my street wasn’t paved until 2005, before then it was dirt. When you looked on TV you couldn’t get all the channels you get now even if you had a subscription. People were still listening to radio in the morning. Because of that, I guess, not a lot of people my age got that influence until way later in their lives, like their early teens into their late teens.
I think you develop differently when you’re exposed to a wide range of music say from when you were five, because then you grow up with it, you become more open-minded and it’s also the prime age to develop musical talent. I didn’t know back then — I was just listening to what my friends were listening to at school. And I also think going to a French school influenced me. A lot of the people there were also from middle class families who could afford an internet connection. We had people coming from France and also from other countries so they brought their music to school. Maybe if I had attended a Cambodian public school I wouldn’t have had that. I was really living kind of in between cultures. There was the conservative Cambodian family at home, but then I went to school and everyone was very open-minded, from various countries and backgrounds.
I didn’t realize how much that would impact me as a musician until I went to the United States. There were many shocks – I was 15, I had no idea about this country – but musically I could fit in easily within the community of artists at Walnut Hill because we had the same influences. They also grew up listening to the Beatles — I mean there was also Brittany Spears and all of that. But when you come from such a — I don’t like using the word poor country, but a developing country into the most powerful country in the world, where everybody has so much access, people are like ‘Yeah I’m going to a concert’. If you were in Cambodia, you’d say, ‘There was a concert, what?’ 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. Living in between Eastern and Western cultures definitely shaped me as a musician.
Let’s talk more about your family’s middle class roots. What effect did that have on your musical education?
I would say one way is definitely finances. Just getting the instrument and then getting the teacher, how many lessons you’re taking a week — I was taking two to three lessons. So definitely there’s the financial portion. But what’s really important to remember about middle class Cambodian families is that these are people who are intellectuals.
We all come from a poor side that pushes us to grow intellectually. On both sides of my family, if you look at their history, they started as farmers then they decided to send one child to school and they pushed them. They said, ‘You’re not going to be a farmer, you’re going to be the only one who goes to school and then university’. Most of the very intellectually powered individuals [in Cambodia] come from middle class families, like we can see with Kem Ley. He was from a very modest background like my parents were, but he was a very smart person and he eventually got his doctorate and then became an activist.
If you really look at the country right now, there’s a middle class that’s growing and that’s because of better access to education, there’s also access to internet which does educate people on some level and there are NGOs that help people to afford schooling. My dad knew that if I were at a public school, and I don’t want to speak ill of them in anyway, but I would be limited in the resources available to me.
You described the culture shock of arriving in the United States and then the resulting fear of being thrown into an elite boarding school culture at Walnut Hill. Since then, you became the first Cambodian woman to attend the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music (NEC). Throughout these experiences did you ever feel as if you had something to prove?
Yes, definitely. I think when you talk about proving there are two ways: there’s proving yourself as a Southeast Asian and then proving yourself as a woman. There aren’t a lot of Southeast Asian women [in Boston] so you really stand out in a crowd, especially in the music schools. Usually there’s a big American population, a big Chinese population, Korean and Taiwanese. So because there’s not a lot of Southeast Asian people, you do stand out, and that’s actually making a statement — just by being there you’re already proving yourself.
The second part is as a female composer. I don’t really like this whole idea of women being superior to men or men being superior to women. I’m just another person like you. In the field of composition, I think it comes down to who writes the most music and whose music is well liked.
The way it works at school is we have a series of music concerts every month from October to May. So every month you have the opportunity to put up new music, which also means that you only have one month or even less to finish your composition if you decide to put music up at every concert — which is what I did.
It shows that as a woman and especially as a freshman woman, because I’m entering my sophomore year now, that even though I was young and I was female and I didn’t have as much experience as everybody else, I still worked hard. That’s how you prove yourself as a composer, by writing music. The fact that you can write quality music and you can turn it around in a month or less than a month, that shows professionalism and time management.
Ultimately, the only way that I can prove myself as an artist and as a female artist is to be excellent at my craft, because then nobody can deny it.
When you left Cambodia in 2012 to commence your musical education, you were granted a scholarship as an opera singer, but at NEC you decided to establish yourself as a composition major. Why did you make the change from voice to writing music and what was that like?
There are many reasons! Where do I start? The most straightforward one is that when I applied for all these music schools, I applied both as a singer and as a composer but I was accepted mostly as a composer. I think that’s because there aren’t a lot of female composers so they tend to accept more women in that field if you have the talent. So I got accepted into most of the really good schools with scholarships as a composer and I told myself, well, if I’m a composer that doesn’t stop me from singing, so I chose composition.
The second reason is because it gives me a foundation — I mentioned before that I want to improve arts education in Cambodia. So I had to look at the [voice] curriculum. 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.
When you really look at the faculty of these schools of music [the professors] were either theory majors or composition majors. And if you want to get a university position as a professor, they usually interview composition majors. So it makes more sense as an arts educator to be a composition major.
I think just looking at what I want to do later on in life, being a composer made more sense, and it doesn’t change anything in terms of singing – you actually have more time to sing or do gigs outside of school because the curriculum is very different between the two disciplines and it even gives me more insight into singing. But 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.
I told my parents that I’m very grateful my years as a singer culminated in me being a composer, out of all things, because you have to look at the bigger picture. As a singer, it’s all about your appearance, people don’t really care how much work you’re putting into it. While as a composer, people recognize that work, as an arts educator people recognize that work. So I’m just trying to make my work more relevant to what I want to do and I think when it comes to arts education, my work is more relevant as a composer. Some people say ‘Yeah, but you won’t be as famous’ and I tell them that’s not the point. You don’t become an artist to seek fame. Fame should be a reward for your hard work. You don’t work hard to become famous, I mean unless you’re the Kardashians — that’s different.
Bosba Panh and Nirmita Composers Workshop participant Chek Samnang. Panh is holding the ‘khsae diev’, a traditional Khmer
mono-chord instrument, at the Siem Reap workshop which was held in July. Supplied