Music to my ears

Coming to Cambodia, I expected breaking my back on dirt roads, dealing with reluctant officials and seeing worse poverty than I ever had. I got that, but so much more too. I spent my past two weekends in places I’d never thought I’d be, especially in Cambodia.
The weekend before last, I was attending the premiere of Cambodia’s first rock opera, “Where Elephants Weep,” a Broadway-like musical about two Cambodian Americans who return to Phnom Penh in the 1990s and try to make sense of their new old country and their past as child soldiers under the Khmer Rouge. The production itself, while professional, wasn’t mindblowing and I’d probably never have attended it, were it in Paris or New York. But the show–a first in a country where pop culture was once nearly annihilated–took on special significance here.

This weekend was the same experience–to the 10th power. I witnessed the first-ever rock concert at the temples of Angkor Wat, arguably by the biggest international band to have ever played in Cambodia. (That’s Placebo, among other bands, and the concert was part of the MTV Exit campaign against human trafficking.) The closest you usually get to live music here is karaoke. A few big clubs, like The Rock in Phnom Penh, feature Khmer pop singers but international bands rarely make it here. At the after-party, sipping wine with internationally recognized musicians, when my eyes met those of another journalist or expat in the room, we both seemed to say the same thing: where are we?

Sure critics can be–and have been–made. All the money that went into organizing the MTV concert could have gone directly to human trafficking victims. While officials were seeping champagne on the red carpet, there were still street children a few meters away. And maybe the only reason MTV came is because so many Cambodians get trafficked into slavery and live music events will remain few and far between in the country.

But what makes human life human is that we seek more than the bare necessities that sustain animal life. We want beauty, we want art, we want human connection. All that music brings. And the more there is in Cambodia, the better.