October 18, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Anne Elizabeth Moore's Hip Hop Apsara : Ghosts Past and Present offers a crisp and often surprising portrait of modern Cambodia through photographs and prose. Moore calls the book a "visual essay," I think it breathtakingly original and effective.
More or less, I've been toying with this playlist for almost five years. But songs that can accurately describe a culture in the midst of rapid change under globalization are hard to find. And for Cambodia, with its recent history of mass killings, untold losses in both a civil war and an illegal American bombing campaign, and continued struggles with endemic poverty, death metal seems totally inappropriate (although you may be surprised to hear, exists). There are also punk and pop-punk songs laden with jokes about Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, and the Cambodian child sex trade. Unlike the former, the latter are catchy and upbeat, but reflect no nuances of the extremely complicated political and economic situations in which Cambodia must be understood.
It is a complicated place. My recent book, Hip Hop Apsara : Ghosts Past and Present, is a lyrical essay in pictures and words that describes the country's move from a static state of mourning into one of rampant and unprecedented economic development. In image and text, loss and desire are sifted through to explore the state in between; that beautiful half-noticed sense between smell and sight, and between hearing and touch, that is pure unverifiable memory. It's mostly a picture book, containing a few essays, but I like to think of it as an apology, a coming-of-age tale, an exposé, and a love story.
My last book, Cambodian Grrrl: Self-Publishing in Phnom Penh, was partially an act of journalism (also memoir); my other work on the nation has been reporting on the garment industry. With this one I got to focus on the sheer beauty of the place—true beauty, of course, always retaining a hint of terror within it. Most of the images are of these big aerobics dance parties held in the public way in Phnom Penh. The young women I write about in Cambodian Grrrl first took me there and tried to teach me all the dance moves, including the apsara—Cambodian ballet. I quickly realized I can't dance, though, so I concentrated on making good, experimental photographic images of what was basically a park full of genocide, mass killing, torture, abuse, and starvation survivors—and their children—learning how to trust each other in public space, move their bodies for pleasure, and have fun. People just emerging from poverty, finally able to afford to eat enough that they can spend calories exercising. It was really joyful.
A lot of the images are about what happens when traditional forms begin to adapt to globalizing forces. In the public exercise and dance images, traditional moves get combined with hip-hop choreography, showing how people move on from loss. In the final images, of a concert I was lucky to attend in Kandal province of this amazing group of musicians called The Messenger Band, the images are of how traditional notions of gender and sexuality are impacted by the garment trade and the local sex industry—both responses to Cambodia's embrace of global capitalism. The concert space offers a chance for Cambodians to rethink the way they participate in this new political economy, and question who supports it, and who is supported by it. The book is really about the moment before tradition shifts, to more efficiently allow for profitability.
The playlist is similarly constructed: There are some hip-hop songs, some apsara: but the real space I want to show you is the one in between, the ghostly unseen area left when tradition and horror fade. Some folks may be growing comfortable, but who are we failing to see?
Orchestre Pinpeat – "Musique Du Ballet Classique Khmer - Classical Ballet Music Aspara"
This is apsara music, the traditional Cambodian ballet sounds that sort of pervade the country and establish it as a place for profound art and culture. It took me some getting used to, and the dancing's rough: deliberate, slow, graceful moves. Not anything I can pull off. That's why I put out a book of photographs instead of a music video.
Of Montreal – "Suffer For Fashion"
Like most Western music, this catchy song has a distinctly different sense when you're running around an impoverished country trying to interview the young women who make clothes for H&M, the Gap, Zara, and Nike for wages equal to less than half what it takes to survive in the country, with no health care to speak of, and a government that, occasionally, shoots young women for demanding changes to these conditions. I don't think that means we have to disrespect either form: I just think we have to be careful when we want to talk about both Of Montreal and the real actors in the fashion industry, who have a very different take on suffering. Luckily, we can use the same language to compare the two.
Janis Joplin – "Mercedes Benz"
I will admit I've been writing about the economic condition of international women since the work I describe in Cambodian Grrrl, which started in 2007, and although I've heard this song for my entire life, I just got it, when someone suggested this song to me for this playlist. "I'd like to do a song of great political and social import," Joplin sort of jokes as introduction. And then sings a song pleading for religious intervention into a woman's depressed economic situation. Awesome.
Lupe Fiasco – "Bitch Bad"
There's no tamping my love for Lupe Fiasco, but there's also no getting around the fact that this is a dude who does not live in a feminist or truly anti-corporate environment. His beats are unbeatable, his lyrics smart, and his approach to songwriting blends a desire for audience with a genuine hope for social change. He tends toward didacticism—smart people sometimes do—which is a totally different thing than "mansplaining", as Spin called it (alongside "half-baked," "preaching to the converted," "moronic," and other choice slurs), and, yes, his five-minute song fails to properly contextualize the entirety of rap culture's current approach to gender and sexuality, which has also been a charge. But Lupe Fiasco—fellow Chicagoan, compadre, hottie—is pushing himself to learn, to reflect, and get his head around how culture works. In this case, some complicated gender politics are going down in hip-hop culture, which is partially why they've been adopted in Cambodian youth culture. Lupe can explain it to you.
Kangsadan – "Khmer Bhotisat"
Another very traditional Cambodian song, because if you get too comfortable thinking this is about American culture, you're wrong.
Fugazi – "Cashout"
Land rights in Cambodia—in the city the government's actually sold land out from under people's homes, literally, for personal profit, and in the provinces illegal logging has also been traced back to government officials, who recently murdered one of the only journalists willing to cover the story—are the biggest loss in all this economic development in the country. "Development wants, development gets. It's official. Development wants this neighborhood gone so the city just wants the same talking about process and dismissal."
Universal Speakers – "Hurry Love"
This all-girl reggae-influenced hip-hop outfit from Long Beach, California has three members from Cambodia or with Cambodian parents. The song's adorbs.
Björk – "Declare Independence"
This song is so good I couldn't take it off the playlist, even though it's getting kind of long. "Don't let them do that to you!" Thanks, Björk!
Devaraja – "Apsaras of the leper king"
Just for variety. Pop and lyrics aren't the only way to get a point across.
Green Day – "Fashion Victim"
That being said, pop and lyrics are pretty great. Can't vouch for the song's casual use of genocide, but linking mass killings to the garment industry is, like it or not, relevant to Cambodia's economic development. There, the only job available for women in the country is in the garment factories, and pay stands right now at about half living wage. I reported for Truthout in April on mysterious mass faintings that were afflicting garment workers; within a year thousands of women had fallen to the ground, unconscious. The faintings have continued, by the way, but no one's reporting on them anymore. New sense to the term fashion victim, eh?
"Miz Da Griz Of Nu Treez – "Boom Bap (feat. Pryme Mega Of Nu Treez, Phinale, Miz Da Griz Of Nu Treez, Jah Born Of Nu Treez, Memo Jackson & L Haggood Of Mentally Unstable Records)"
Phinale's a Lowell, MA-based rapper, who created his name by Khmerizing the word Finale, so this is the perfect song to close out list. He has a guest slot on this track, and he said this great thing in an interview with the Cambodian Alliance for the Arts:
"My journey with music is about taking the only route to success while the main doors are closed to an artist like me. Music is the only way to save my life and I'm going risk it all by any means. It can be a love, street, or club song at the end of the day we all will be in a better place. So when I'm writing a song or composing a beat I will give you my best like I'm fighting to the emergency exit sign. I ain't trying to be famous, I just want to be on your playlist."
Anne Elizabeth Moore and Hip Hop Apsara : Ghosts Past and Present links:
Booklist interview with the author
Gapers Block interview with the author
Great Minds Think Aloud Literary Community guest post by the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Cambodian Grrrl
The Matthew Filipowicz Show interview with the author
Moonlight Gleam's Bookshelf guest post by the author
My Life. One Story at a Time guest post by the author
Our Town interview with the author
Outside the Loop interview with the author
The Rumpus essays by the author
Time Out Chicago profile of the author
Working Writers interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists