Talented musician Bosba Panh Urges West to Give Cambodians “Space” to Share their Rich Culture Globally

Talented soprano sensation Bosba Panh is calling on the West to give “Khmer people their space” to share their culture on the global stage, as she becomes the first Khmer composer to graduate from the prestigious University of Cambridge.
Bosba poses for picture after graduation ceremony inside University of Cambridge’s Senate House. Kiripost/supplied
Bosba poses for picture after graduation ceremony inside University of Cambridge’s Senate House. Kiripost/supplied

Many Western intellectuals speak about Cambodian culture and act as a mouthpiece for a community they are not born into. This leaves Cambodians out of the conversation and limits their voice in academia and on the global stage, said soprano sensation Bosba Panh.

“It’s time to give Khmer people their space - and I say this by giving Khmer people the opportunity to fail, get up, and succeed,” wrote Bosba in her dissertation at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

Bosba, who started life as a traditional folk singer at the age of seven, said she was officially the first Khmer composer and music graduate from Cambridge on July 24.

Bosba identifies herself as a Western-educated Cambodian composer, influenced by French expressionism, European sacred music, and American minimalism. Her music primarily explores the theme of loss and memory. Her experience as a Cambodian folk singer and classical performance singer informs the lyricism of her music.

Bosba poses for picture in traditional outfit. Kiripost/supplied
Bosba poses for picture in traditional outfit. Kiripost/supplied

In her dissertation, Bosba compared the portrayal of Khmer-ness in the works of French composer Daniel-Lesure and Khmer composer Chinary Ung, focusing on the historical attitudes towards Cambodian culture in the West in the first half of the 20th century, and how post-colonization and pre- and post-Khmer Rouge natives portray their own culture in a musical setting.

In an interview with Kiripost, Bosba shared two points to summarize her theoretical conclusions. Firstly, she says writing music is a paradox for transcultural composers because Western music remains Eurocentric to this day, despite calls for diversity.

Bosba questioned whether it is necessary for non-European composers to defy their cultural traditions to fit the expectations of the West and what their identity should sound like in music.

She wrote that although transcultural compositions, or hybrid music, diversify what music has to offer, these works are still considered Western art music even if composers create their own versions of personal agency and aesthetics.

This perception of transcultural compositions as Eurocentric is partly due to the institutionalization of educational and musical processes that have been “sanctioned” by the West as art music, she added.

“Long story short, if you haven’t contorted or changed your culture enough to fit the West’s expectations, it is not high art,” Bosba said.

Furthermore, there is also a question about what is universally considered as “authentic.” A Khmer composer in the West might write something they truly believe is an “authentic self”, but people back home may reject that version of authenticity because they perceive the artist as somebody who has been influenced by Western aesthetics.

Westerners will perceive anything remotely non-Western as “oriental”; it is “them” versus “the other”.

“So, the whole system is sort of rigged from the start against non-Westerners who decide not to conform with European aesthetics. You can see this especially with those who get big opportunities across the industry,” she wrote.

Either musicians conform to European sounds and expectations because it is easier for these audiences to understand, or the artist “hyper-exoticizes” themselves to garner more interest from people interested in their culture. “A little bit like a tourist trick”, she said.

“It’s really difficult to find a middle ground where you remain sensitive and respectful to your culture, present it to an audience that is not Khmer and feel that the art you are creating is true to yourself,” she added.

For the second point in her dissertation, Bosba said there are not many Khmer scholars. Instead, there are a lot of Western intellectuals that speak for Cambodia and act as knowledge for a community they are not native to. In addition, there are cultural oligopolists, or “cultural brokers”, who are based in the West and use non-Western cultures for a Western audience, engaging minimally with native populations.

“This often leaves Khmer people back home out of the conversation, thus limiting their voice in academia but also on the global stage. It’s time to give Khmer people their space - and I say this by giving Khmer people the opportunity to fail, get up, and succeed,” Bosba said.

“Khmers today have more power than ever to have a voice, and the tools and platforms to have a voice or a multitude of voices. I’m tired of people only seeing Khmer identity through a single lens and image, and I hope this dissertation contributes to the understanding of Khmer identity as multi-faceted stories of resilience, power and autonomy,” Bosba said.

Bosba’s degree at Cambridge is a Masters of Philosophy in Music, Composition, a research degree that focuses on music composition. She had to write a series of original music and the dissertation.

Cover of Masters dissertation/thesis
Cover of Masters dissertation/thesis

She wrote four original pieces of music - one for a musical trio (piano, violin and viola), one for a choir, one for a solo singer and one for an orchestra.

This was an intense nine-month program and Bosba was supposed to graduate in 2021, but it was postponed to this year so her family could attend.

With her dissertation, Bosba would like to see change in people in Western countries to be more open towards the cultures of faraway countries, such as Cambodia, and create a space in academia and in the music industry for Cambodian culture.

Bosba’s long-term goal is to see Cambodian students and researchers be taken seriously on the global stage and in academia, and for the world to perceive the culture as not primitive but one that has a rich history that deserves to be studied and has Cambodian people as its spokesperson.

Bosba currently works in the music publishing industry and is based in London.

“I’m really enjoying the break from academia and enjoying a slower life. I’m still writing music and plan to stay in the music industry long-term, and hopefully split my time between Asia and the West. I’ll always be proud to be one of the very few Khmers music professionals,” she said.

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