The four-hour bus trip from Battambang to Phnom Penh takes less than seven hours, so we made pretty good time, really. I notice that, these days, I don’t think twice about the death-defying manouveres of the bus drivers as they play chicken with oncoming lorries in order to overtake motorbikes carrying four people, two sacks of rice and a baby. I must be getting used to this place.
Phnom Penh is a city where the paradoxes of a highly stratified nation are very visible. Festering piles of rubbish stretch for metres in front of swanky riverside restaurants. Children, the elderly and people with disabilities beg night and day outside Aeon Mall, a shining colossus of glass and steel where, inside, people watch 4D films and eat hamburgers.
I’m walking though the streets close to Chba Ampov market, looking for the place where I will meet Shhort, the general manager of Tiny Toones. In fact I hear the Tiny Toones headquarters before I see it; a low, heavy bass throb snakes underneath the hum of tuk tuks and the chattering of market sellers.
Tiny Toones is a non-profit organisation that uses hip hop to engage vulnerable kids in Phnom Penh. It started in 2005 when Tuy Sobil (aka “KK”) arrived in town. Born in a Thai refugee camp, KK grew up in the projects of Los Angeles, fell into gangs and was eventually deported to Cambodia, a country he had never previously visited.
When the kids in his neighbourhood heard that KK was a break dancer, they started showing up at his house. Many young people in the area were involved in drugs and gangs, and he saw that these kids would likely fall into the same mistakes that he made himself in his youth. Soon, he was running break dancing classes.
Seven years on, the classes in KK’s living room have evolved into an NGO offering activities for around 200 kids. They can learn dance and music, while also attending classes in Khmer (Cambodian language), English and computer skills.
Shhort tells me that he thinks hip hop has a special role to play in engaging the kids in the community, due to the genre’s genesis as a platform for marginalised young people in the US to talk about their experiences of systemic inequality. “These kids are not privileged, they come from rough backgrounds. Hip hop gives them a way to write about their own stories. They can take out their frustration and come up with new, creative ways to express themselves.”
We peek into the recording studio where some students are listening to a beat, brainstorming lyric ideas. “They write about their lives,” says Shhort. “They write songs about their neighbourhood, their families, their parents’ struggles. But they write happy, funny songs too, about getting in trouble with the teacher and stuff like that.”
Shhort sees hip hop growing more and more in Cambodia, as more youth become inspired by rising artists such as DJ Kdep, a graduate of Tiny Toones.
Tiny Toones doesn’t necessarily want to produce Cambodia’s next generation of hip hop artists, though. The organisation seeks to engage kids and encourage them to stay in school. It’s working; in the beginning, none of the kids KK was teaching in his living room were attending school regularly. Nowadays, 80% of the kids are attending public school, and the remaining 20% spend the whole school day at Tiny Toones instead of hanging around in the street.
In fact, the kids wrote a song about education, called “Anakut” (“Future”), in which a group of kids rap and sing about the importance of studying for reaching their goals of being pilots, doctors and engineers. The video for the song features pint-sized rappers in tiny pilot costumes, definitely worth a watch…
High-flying careers are an amazing goal, says Shhort, but really the organisation exists to set kids up so they can make a meaningful contribution to their society.
“It’s about implementing a mind change. That’s where it starts. For me, if they can be a productive person in their community, then we’ve done our job. When the kids come here, they’re unhappy, low self-esteem. To put that smile on their face, to me, that’s success.”
Later that night I check out an open mic at Paddy’s Rice Irish Bar on the riverside. The night is run by Jack Diamond, who, as it turns out, I’ve been emailing with for music venue advice because he also runs Leng Pleng, Cambodia’s only regular live music gig guide.
I run into Dina Chhan, a painter, who is there to see a friend play. I met Dina when I performed at her exhibition opening in Battambang. I chat with her and some of the other musicians who give me tips on places to play gigs in South East Asia. It’s a sort of ‘small world’ vibe that reminds me of playing gigs in Melbourne, where most of the audience are usually other musicians, artists or filmmakers and everyone seems to know each other, or at least know somebody you know. I love that about playing music in different places; you get to tap into the communities where some of the most interesting folk hang out.