Rapper in search of the 'Khmerican' dream
The conjunction of a chapey dong veng [traditional long-necked guitar] and American hip-hop may seem somewhat incongruous. But for Khmerican rapper Prach Ly, fusing the disparate musical styles of his two countries is an ideal means of furthering cross-cultural understanding.
"Fusion music, especially when it is modern rap and traditional Khmer, bridges the gap between East and West," he said.
"I hope to continue educating the younger generation about the beauty of Khmer traditional arts and culture," Ly said. "And at the same time use rap to draw to the attention of a larger audience the contemporary issues facing Cambodians and Cambodian Americans."
Ly's recent return to Cambodia was motivated by a desire to explore more deeply the Khmer influences on his musical style.
"I want to understand why I love what I do - making music," he said.
Ly has thrown himself into local artistic collaborations with the aim of participating in the pressing issues facing contemporary Cambodian musicians.
With the Tonle Bassac Project Ly uses video to explore the role and relevance of art among people faced with abject poverty.
Ly is documenting the innovative ways in which students and master musicians in the Tonle Bassac squatter communities are using the arts as a means of maintaining their own identity. In the face of increasing political and economic persecution, their struggle is proof of the power of music as a tool for social change.
"It may be a slum, but the streets are paved with gold," he said. "The Bassac slum is rich because it is alive with art."
Ly wants Cambodia's ancient musical traditions kept alive for future generations. Consequently, he has spent much time working with Khmer master musicians such as Kung Nai.
"I grew up listening to musical master Kung Nai - he is my Khmer idol," Ly said. "To work with him is a huge privilege."
Ly's recent work blends traditional melodies with contemporary social concerns: prostitution, poverty, corruption, trafficking, drugs, violence will all feature heavily in his next album.
"My forthcoming album Memoirs of the Invisible War, which is the final part of my Dalama trilogy, will have a darker tone compared to my previous work," he said. "I am releasing it on the sixth day of the sixth month in the year 2006; the devil himself will be listening."
DJ S'dey, 42, a veteran of Cambodia's fledging hip-hop scene, is impressed by the breadth and depth of impact Ly has had on Cambodia's older generation.
"He is the first person to rap about the Khmer Rouge - and people are really listening," he said.
But Ly's unique style has also earned him legions of younger fans, said Chim Vannak, 19, of LoveFM.
"Ly's music is so different from what I am used to hearing from other local rappers," Vannak said. "I actually get excited and share the songs with my friends. His live performance really blew me away."
At the conclusion of his Cambodian visit, Ly said he had been impressed by the nascent Cambodian hip-hop scene.
"I have not heard much coming out of Phnom Penh," he said. "But we are definitely moving - walking at a steady pace.