Meet Musician Laura Mam
by Tharum Bun
On Feb 13, 2010 I wrote to Laura Mam, a Cambodian-American musician, for an email interview (some of her quotes in my news stories at the time). About 10 years later, I publish this full, unedited interview with Laura Mam, now popular songwriter, and music producer and successful businesswoman (CEO & Co-Founder of Baramey). In this conversation, I asked her about her upbringing as a Cambodian-born American living the United States, her love of Khmer original music, and her dream as an artist.
Tharum: Please tell me a bit about your childhood.
Laura Mam: I was born in the city of San Jose in California. Actually my brother and I are the only ones in our family to be born in the United States.
Tharum: Where do you live?
Laura Mam: Currently I live in San Jose.
Tharum: Which school did you attend?
Laura Mam: I went to San Jose schools before college, and for college I went to the University of California, Berkeley and graduated in Anthropology with honors.
I now work for a non-profit organization that does conservation work in developing countries of world heritage sites. In fact we do work at Cambodia’s very own Banteay Chhmar in Banteay Meanchey Province.
Tharum: Did you leave Cambodia as a girl after the Khmer Rouge (KR)?
Laura Mam: Actually, I was born after the Khmer Rouge period here in America. But my family did go through all four years under the Khmer Rouge, and escaped to Thailand after the Vietnamese had invaded.
Tharum: Did your mother tell you at all about her life in Cambodia? How did you feel about it?
Laura Mam: When I was young my parents would tell me small things. But our sponsors wrote a book about my family’s experience during the Khmer Rouge called “To Destroy You Is No Loss” and I was able to learn about my entire family’s tragic experience under the Khmer Rouge by reading.
I continue to read this book over and over again as I get older to try and understand my family and the hardship they went through more and more.
My mother has always made me aware of her plight and made sure I knew how lucky I am to be in America. But she also liked to tell me a lot about Cambodia’s glory before the Khmer Rouge had destroyed everything. I have spent my life asking her and my whole family questions about what happened and who they were, and who were Cambodians before the war?
The only person who doesn’t talk to me about it so much is my father and I believe it is because it is too painful for him. He lost his entire family in the war except one brother who later died in the United States.
I have always felt extremely sad about what happened and sometimes it feels like too much pain to bare because I have seen both my parents break down and cry when they have nightmares about the war. It took such a toll on their lives and seeing their pain has always made me feel strongly about never letting such violence happen again in Cambodia.
Tharum: Where did your parents live in Cambodia before the KR? And what did they do? Are they musicians or?
Laura Mam: Both my parents lived in Phnom Penh city before the KR, but were from completely different worlds. My father was poorer and was a young active student.
He was in Lon Nol’s army at one point and after the KR took over, they sent him to a youth camp at which he became a very talented hunter for the village, which kept him alive during the KR period.
My mother was the daugther of a Congressman, Buth Chuon, and had been very privileged along with her sisters. They went to French schools and my grandfather even sent my mother to an English school when he began to see the French were losing power.
They were arranged to be married while they were in the labor camps under the Khmer Rouge. Without the Khmer Rouge, my father and mother would have never been married or even known each other for that matter, but they did because it was considered less of a threat.
As for music in my family, my father is a wonderful singer and still sings in weddings to this day. He taught me a lot about how to express emotion when singing and I have always been inspired by him.
My mother was a rebel since she was young and loved to listen to rock music. I believe that I inherited the ability to groove to music from her, because she certainly knows how to.
On a more interesting note, I have always thought myself to be special because I taught myself how to play guitar, however I found out only a couple of years ago that my mother’s father was a great self-taught musician himself, especially with tro.
And what’s strange is that my grandmother always calls me by his name and loves me very much because she believes me to be his reincarnation.
So I think there is more music in my blood than I know.
Tharum: When and how did you get into music world?
Laura Mam: Well music has always been in my life in terms of listening to it whether it be Khmer karaoke, hip hop, funk, latin, and alternative rock. Since i was very young, I have been dancing to beats with my older cousin Duong and learning the detailed nuances of grooving to a beat.
When I was a teenager my other cousin Pich taught me three guitar chords. From there I started learning on my own by meeting musicians who taught me small things and learning songs off the internet. After a while, I started writing my own songs because it acted as a journal for me whenever I was sad. It became my therapy.
And finally in college, I started playing for crowds and started feeling comfortable putting these journal songs out to the public. Youtube changed my life by allowing me to connect with all kinds of different encouraging people. These people inspired me to write music for the people and from my heart without fear.
When I joined my band last year, I became addicted and feel now that I never want to stop.
Tharum: Your favorite music instruments?
Laura Mam: I can play the guitar the best and of course I love my guitars more than any other instrument, these days I enjoy electric guitar more than acoustic guitar. But I can also play some piano and sometimes write music on the piano instead.
After joining my band, I also learned how to play a bit of the bass and a bit more of the drums. The drums are my second favorite instrument because I have too much fun with them.
Finally, I learned how to play some Tro (Khmer violin) like my grandpa two summers ago when I was living in Phnom Penh, I want so badly to have a real master teach me because I figured most of it out on my own by looking at people’s fingers, but I would like to get better so I can start incorporating it into my music.
Tharum: Who inspires you the most?
Laura Mam: I would have to say that Lauryn Hill inspires me more than anyone. Lauryn to say the least had style and grace. She understood the beat and how to make people groove while simultaneously moving people with her amazing lyrics and spirituality.
She understood deeply what love is. But most importantly, she stood tall as a representative of refugees and of her people since she was a refugee from Haiti.
Furthermore, she knew how to break their hearts and heal them with her soulful voice. Someday it is truly my dream that I can do this for our people.
But as for a musician that inspires me the most, Carlos Santana all the way!
Tharum: In your Bopha Chiang Mai version, you commented about the relationship between Cambodian and Thailand. Do you think artists can play a role to heal the wound between the two countries?
Laura Mam: Absolutely artists can play a role in healing this wound. I believe that the situation with Thailand is very difficult. Not only do you have a thousand year rivalry fueled by the wounds of war, but you also have a very recent nationalist rivalry that in some ways is very politicized.
There is a story that my mother always talks about that clearly demonstrates for me the situation on the border.
On the one hand, I think that the government of Thailand truly owes Cambodia and my family a very large apology for their actions after the fall of the Khmer Rouge; which included rounding up Cambodian refugees who made it across the border to refugee camps, putting them on a bus, and sending them off the cliffs of Preah Vihear to die in the heavily mined forests of Northern Cambodia just because they didn’t want to deal with us.
But on the other hand, when my family was being sent off to their death, it was Thai villagers on the border that wrapped up food and supplies for these refugees because they knew what was going to happen to these victims and did what they could to help.
What this tells me is that the border that exists between Thailand and Cambodia is illusion and the problem lies with the Thai government, not the Thai people. Yes we have bad blood between us, however, we are brothers and sisters.
We share Buddhism, Sanskrit, a monarchy, and are both still reeling from the effects of post-colonialism. And to put it in plain words, the border is a line that was drawn to split territory for the French and the English.
People need to remember that pre-colonialism, there were no borders, just villages, and a King you paid patronage to.
We should also realize that war, especially nationalist war, is the last thing Cambodia needs with Thailand.
I just want Khmers to remember that extreme nationalism is one of the reasons the Khmer Rouge were even able to rise to power. I never want Cambodia to resort to violence again.
I think that we have lost enough lives for one century. No matter how deeply our pride has been hurt by the Thais, we should remember that the issues between the two are more political then they are personal.
As an artist I want to express this opinion so that people will know how to recognize the difference between these two things. Buddhism honors compassion above all things.
Both Thais and Khmers respect and recognize the wisdom of Buddha’s words and through this unity and collective understanding, Cambodians and Thais can both heal and overcome the difficult lesson of forgiveness.
Tharum: How do you like writing your own music?
Laura Mam: I love writing my own music and I would encourage everyone to try it. It seems hard at first but it really isn’t, it can become the most healing therapy there is.
It doesn’t matter how good the song sounds as long as you express your heart the way that you hear it. Whenever there is pain, deep or shallow, writing music nurtures me.
Each song I write is usually an emotion that I can put away by capturing it in the song. Furthermore, it’s just a lot of fun.
I like to make people laugh and smile, it brings me joy, and through writing music I can control where and when I want people to feel that way. It’s very empowering!
Tharum: What can help Cambodian artists to be on their own in term of creativity?
Laura Mam: A safe space to express themselves. Creativity is often spurred by the chance to perform. And Cambodians love to perform, it’s in our blood.
I hope that someday there will be an event similar to an open mic. Where artists can come and express themselves in a respectful and safe place and get popular recognition for their art publicly. It is when artists come together that creativity seems to jump.
You learn a lot from being around a lot of different kinds of artists and seeing life as art, it can inspire more creativity than most people know.
Tharum: What online services like YouTube, Facebook, and Tumblr can do for you?
Laura Mam: The online services provide that safe space that I just spoke about.
It gives you an international and anonymous audience, so that your voice can be heard around the world and the world can give you their opinion.
Plus it gets you connected to others like yourself, which can be a very pleasant experience.
Tharum: Thought of doing something in Cambodia? What would be your dream project(s)/initiative(s)?
Laura Mam: My dreams for Cambodia are ambitious! My dream is to play the Olympic Stadium in Cambodia for everyone with Preap Sovat! I want Preap Sovat to sing a song to music that I wrote.
I want to write music with any Khmer artist that wants to take their art to the next level.
I want to bring new original music to Cambodia, music that we didn’t take from any other country. Music that is written by a Khmer heart, sung by a Khmer woman, and played by a Khmer musician.
I hope to bring to light the fact that we Cambodians don’t need to keep up with Jones’ (Koreans, Americans, Thais, Chinese) to feel good. Art and pop culture is already within us.
My dream is to coax this out of the youth and to inspire Cambodians to simply understand themselves and their history by expressing themselves.
My main question for all Khmers is if the Angkorians were our ancestors and created all that amazing art in the temples, what kind of art do you think exists within us?
It is time to bring this art out, no need to copy anyone when we have it right in our blood.
Tharum: If you were to describe the person you’re, how would you write it down in 3 sentences?
Laura Mam: I love to have a lot of fun and think that fun is essential to leading a good life.
I believe deeply in the simple but powerful wisdom of understanding and choosing compassion.
I love my people and my country with all of my heart.
Hat tip to my friend Prum Seila who referred me to her YouTube music video (Bopha Chiang Mai), so that I started to reach out to her for this long interview.
To suggest someone I should interview, please send me an email here.