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Lauren Yee's 'Cambodian Rock Band' honors musicians who survived the Khmer Rouge

The cast of Lauren Yee's “Cambodian Rock Band” does double duty by performing live music in the play.
The cast of Lauren Yee's “Cambodian Rock Band” does double duty by performing live music in the play.
Jordan Kubat
The cast of Lauren Yee's “Cambodian Rock Band” does double duty by performing live music in the play.
Joe Ngo and Brooke Ishibashi both act and perform music in Lauren Yee's “Cambodian Rock Band.”
Tania Thompson
The cast of Lauren Yee's “Cambodian Rock Band” does double duty by performing live music in the play.
The cast of Lauren Yee's “Cambodian Rock Band” (L-R): Brooke Ishibashi, Joe Ngo, Jane Lui, Raymond Lee and Abraham Kim.
Jordan Kubat

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“Cambodian Rock Band” is a play by Lauren Yee that explores the horrors carried out by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Cambodia’s creative community, including most of its musicians, was wiped out.

Lee’s play is centered around a rock band that is torn apart by the conflict — and what happens to the survivors decades later. Five members of the cast actually perform as the band. And the music they play is by the L.A. band, Dengue Fever, which is fronted by Cambodian-American singer Chhom Nimol.

We caught up with Lauren Yee recently to talk about the origins of the play, which is currently having its world premiere at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. 

Interview Highlights 

On what initially struck her about Cambodian rock music from this era: 

Cambodian music of the 20th Century is this collision of all its influences. It is American rock that the Cambodians heard through a lot of those Vietnam War-era shortwave radios. It's also Afro-Cuban music, it's also French New Wave. It's also traditional Cambodian music that has existed for centuries. And you basically put all of those influences into a blender, and you come out with this. I've always described Cambodian surf rock for anyone who hasn't heard it as Jackson Five on top of Jimi Hendrix — bubblegum love songs and electric guitar shredding. 

On the Khmer Rouge's motive behind killing artists and musicians:

The statistic that I've read is that 90 percent of Cambodia's musicians died in a four-year period. Some of this was just dying from starvation or just poor conditions. And a significant portion was the Khmer Rouge specifically hunting down musicians and basically eliminating them. When they first took over the country, when people didn't quite know what was going on, they sent out a message to everyone in the country and said, Musicians, artists — we need your help to rebuild our country. Come back to the capital and we are going to use your musical talent. And everyone who went back was killed. It's hard to imagine how a regime could do that against its own people, but I think it's a reminder of how much music and art and culture can be powerful, and how it can be a threat to an oppressive regime. That, in a way, music and culture is our way of holding up a mirror to ourselves and saying, This is who we are, this is what we value. If you want to obliterate memory, there's no better way to do that than wiping out all the art. 

"Cambodian Rock Band" playwright Lauren Yee.

On how she honored the cultural history of Cambodia as a Chinese-American:

I always tell stories from an American point of you. Even when the plays are set in Cambodia or in a different country. I always look at it from the angle of parents and their children and what information gets passed along or not. Which I think is a very Asian-American story of how the generations interact with each other, or don't.  And I think in particular this story requires a deep dive into the research. As someone who is writing this story who is not Cambodian and who did not grow up knowing this history, it requires you to be humble as a writer. To say, I'm going to listen, I'm going to talk to people in the community, I'm going to engage actors who do have that experience and that background. And I think it just takes more work because it's something that I didn't know before I began writing this piece. 

On how the ancestry of the play's actors parallels what happened in Cambodia:

One thing that Brooke [Ishibashi, lead actress] talks about in regard to this play is that she deeply identifies with that intergenerational trauma. That even though she is not someone who was interned by her own country, it is something that lives within her family. And that she kind of feels even 'til today. One thing in particular that I found amazing about her story is that she comes from a very musical family. Her parents are concert promoters and singers. They headline a band. And her grandmother was [known as] The Songbird of Manzanar, who recorded and performed music even in the most grim circumstances. Even though [Ishibashi] is not Cambodian-American, I think there are a lot of parallels between her family's experience and the experience of her character. 

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