Listen to a country’s music and you’ll learn some things. Pop songs spilling from radios tell you what the youth are dreaming about — or what dreams are being sold to them. And the sounds emanating from dark, underground venues are a clue to what they’re angry about, rebelling against. A country’s music is like its state of mind, etched into history like lines on a record.
Vartey Ganiva sits across from me at a cafe in Phnom Penh discussing the state of music in Cambodia — which, to her mind, is awash in sappy love songs. “Please tell me before I leave, did you ever love me?”pleads one popular tune. The 24-year-old is considered the only female “punk” singer in the country. And her group, known as the Vartey Ganiva band, has taken off since forming a year and a half ago, recording a slew of new cuts, performing at rock venues in Phnom Penh and scheduling live appearances on Cambodian TV. Meanwhile, I’m trying to put together what punk means in Cambodia and how it aligns with the transgressive strain that started in the U.S. and the U.K. in the mid-’70s in reaction to the commercial, overly sentimental rock music of the day.
Instead of churning out another song of unrequited love, she wrote about the reality many Cambodian women face: a lazy husband who spends his money on drugs or drink.
Offering a way in, Vartey tells me about writing lyrics while in her village outside Phnom Penh. She could hear her neighbors fighting. Again. Something about the man staying out too late. About drinking. She hears this kind of fighting a lot, she says. And so instead of churning out another song of unrequited love, she wrote about the reality many Cambodian women face: a lazy husband who spends his money on drugs or drink: “My husband doesn’t know what to do every day; he only knows how to smoke yama and cigarettes, makes a mess and drinks beer and fucks other girls, wastes money in the clubs and never gives a shit.”The song “Pdey Chongrai (Evil Husband)” is raw and aggressive, like a feminist rallying cry. And in Cambodia, that’s punk.
The upstairs at Phnom Penh’s Showbox resembles any tight, sweaty space that hosts punk and metal gigs. White walls are tagged with graffiti. A bartender pours draft beer for a dollar in the back. Onstage is the death metal band Doch Chkae, which started when Cam Projects, a nongovernmental organization, provided instruments and recording space to kids living near the notorious Stung Meanchey dump site. Given a chance, the kids — not that you’d dare call them that today — created this brutal and original music. The floor gives slightly, bouncing as Cambodians and Western expats thunder about in a mosh pit.
Vartey looks slightly out of place in the rowdy crowd. She has the delicate features and fashionable clothes of the Khmer pop darlings she listened to as a child and now stands in opposition to. She says Doch Chkae changed how she thought about music after seeing the metal-obsessed teens perform in 2015. She knows the guitarist, who asked her to write lyrics for him. At first, she tried delivering what most Khmer women seem to want: love songs as slow and sweet as if they’d been squeezed from the country’s sugarcane. But when she began singing about women’s rights, about destitute children, dump sites and drugs — about real things — she felt she was onto something more meaningful. “I love love songs,” she says. “But not this stereotype, this well-selling recipe of a woman leaving because the other guy has a bigger motorbike.”
“A man is gold, a woman is cloth” goes a Khmer proverb. While Vartey, who’s married to a Swiss expat, sees more social progress for women in cities like Phnom Penh, she says rural Cambodia retains many of the strictures of a traditional patriarchy. In 2015, 14 percent of women fell victim to financial control by their partner and 11 percent experienced physical or sexual violence, the World Health Organization reports. Even more alarming, a 2013 U.N. survey revealed that 1 in 5 Cambodian men admit to having raped a woman. “Women can’t work outside,” Vartey says about the countryside. “You can only work for your husband at home.” And men are free to do whatever they want, she adds. “If they want, they can go out and fuck another girl. Women can’t. If they do? People talk shit.”
Vartey is “challenging the current ideas of what a female singer writes about,” says Vanntin Hoeurn, lead singer of the Cambodian metal band Sliten6ix. It’s not the music necessarily; it’s the message, he explains. In another of her songs, “Yerng Ker Chea Sattrey (We Are Aware),” she belts out: “We are the women that have come to build a masterpiece for Cambodia.” Her message? Cambodia is ripe for a #MeToo debate, and the masterpiece will be a better Cambodia built by women.
Now she’s taking her message mainstream. Vartey started out with Yab Moung Records, a Cambodian metal and punk incubator run by her husband, but she just signed with TMS, a management company that plans for her to perform live shows on Cambodian television, film music videos and play more broadly on the radio — right alongside those treacly love songs. “We saw a lot of potential,” says Dennis Garcia Arce, head of TMS. Vartey brings a “touch of reality” to a market he thinks is ready for it. “She has vision,” he says.
Part of her vision is to form an all-female punk band to perform songs that claw at the reality of growing up poor, feeling trapped by your husband and made to feel inferior. There are girls from her village who want to join, Vartey says, but first they need to learn their instruments. And they’re still too young. But she thinks they’ll be ready soon. Others will be too.