Cambodia: Decades After the Bombs, Enter the Beatboxers

Forty years after the U.S. became embroiled in military conflict in Southeast Asia, the U.S. State Department has dispatched an American hip-hop group to bolster its image in a region still recovering from the effects of war.

The Dana Leong Band -- a hip-hop funk group from New York -- has toured Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos this month as part of "The Rhythm Road -- American Music Abroad" program funded by the State Department and administered by Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Wielding the mic at the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia this December, M.C. Baba Israel delivered an "incantation to a brand-new generation" of 300 local children invited by the Embassy to the concert. The fast-paced, English lyrics doubtlessly flew over the heads of the young audience, but the crowd quickly warmed to Israel's percussive booms and beats. In the high-flying realm of public diplomacy, it can help to be a man who makes funny noises.

"People think it's a machine at first," said Israel, describing his beatboxing skills. "They can't believe that all those sounds are coming from a human mouth."

The State Department's global music tours first began during the Cold War under President Dwight Eisenhower, who sent Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and other jazz greats abroad to counter Soviet cultural influence in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Formerly known as the "Jazz Ambassadors" program, "The Rhythm Road" tour series began featuring hip-hop musicians in 2005 in hopes of connecting with younger audiences.

The new crop of artists is eclectic, experimental and socially conscientious, with influences that span the United Nations of music. The Dana Leong Band, for one, draws from funk, jazz, classical, hip-hop and rock traditions, layering trombone riffs and cello solos with progressive lyrics ("From city to city, coast to coast / I'm the M.C. who does more than brag the most"). "It's about improvisation, free expression," said Israel. "It's another face of America that's important to represent, that's maybe not making it through music in the mainstream."

Since 9/11, the United States has revived its cultural diplomacy efforts in an attempt to rebuild its tarnished legacy abroad, with a particular focus on Muslim countries and developing nations. In 2007, the State Department dedicated $465.6 million to international artistic exchanges, more than doubling its 2000 budget for such programs.

Such efforts are meant to "engag[e] individual citizens of foreign countries as well as their governments," said Alina L. Romanowski, deputy assistant secretary of state for professional cultural exchanges. Artists, in effect, have been enlisted in the battle to win over the world's "hearts and minds" and restore the international prestige that the United States could once claim.

In Cambodia, the State Department may have found an ideal audience for its image-building efforts: a young generation more inclined to consider America the bearer of the future, rather than the aggressor of the past.

Four decades after the United States dropped over 500,000 tons of bombs on Cambodia, in an effort to eradicate North Vietnamese sanctuaries along the border, there are few Cambodians left who have vivid memories of "Operation Menu," said Thun Saray, director of Adhoc, a leading rights group in Cambodia. "Only a small number in the countryside remember, and most them are gone now."

After the 1969-70 U.S. bombing raids, the radical Khmer Rouge who took power implemented one of the most brutal regimes of the 20th century, deemed responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians. Some scholars and researchers still fault the U.S. withdrawal from Cambodia for the rise of the regime, said Thun Saray. But, he added, most Cambodians today "only blame the Khmer Rouge ideology, not the U.S." for the travesties that occurred.

"When you ask a Cambodian about our involvement here during the Vietnam War, the usual response is: 'What you did may have been bad, but what happened after you left was far, far worse. You should have never left,'" said Joseph A. Mussomeli, the U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia.

As Cambodia has begun to recover from decades of war and civil unrest, the country's economy has begun opening up to the world -- and to a torrent of cultural exports. In a nation where 68 percent of the population is under the age of 18, America can re-emerge as the bearer of opportunity, freedom and internationally recognized cool.

"Young Cambodians -- and there are many of them -- are no different than any other young people in other countries who are attuned to CNN, MTV, VH1," said Theary Seng, executive director of the Center for Social Development in Phnom Penh. "There's no better time in U.S. history than now to put into greater use 'soft power' to regain American values [and] moral authority."

At the Dana Leong Band's public concert in Cambodia's capital, a crowd of some 200 Cambodians seemed enthused about the U.S. outreach effort.

"I don't have this feeling like I'm angry -- about the American bombings, about the Khmer Rouge. Now we have different politics, different leaders," said Hong Daris, a 21-year-old accounting student. She pointed to Israel, who was riffing back and forth with the audience, eliciting laughs as he squeaked a few words in English. "He makes people have fun."

Dana Leong, the band's eponymous founder, said the group's hybrid sound showcased American ideals that might not be readily transmitted through commercial MTV broadcasts. "We're four separate people from different cultural backgrounds, all featured [musically] in different ways," said Leong, an Asian-American musician of Japanese and Chinese descent. While independent artists now have YouTube and other tools at their disposal, such outlets couldn't replace the opportunity for the band to tour in "new, far-off lands," he added.

Live, alternative music of any kind is still a rarity in Cambodia, whose once-vibrant arts scene was obliterated by war and mass murder. In Battambang, a town in northwest Cambodia, the band drew a crowd of over 3,000 people -- the largest show on the tour. Even the group's soundcheck drew scores of onlookers in Phnom Penh, who listened from motorbikes lined up along the side of the plaza.

Touch Thy, 39, a shop owner in Phnom Penh, watched as the Dana Leong Band concluded its set with a beatboxing frenzy. "It doesn't sound like the American music I've heard before," he said. "That D.J. -- he uses his mouth to go around to different places. He can go anywhere he wants."


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