Cambodian Music Festival premieres Aug. 3! Interview with Founder Seak Smith

by Tom Nguyen

This Sunday, August 3, is a historic first Cambodian Music Festival at Ford Theatres that is signalling a great blossoming and coming-of-age for the Cambodian community not only here in Los Angeles but across the nation and the world. What started out as one woman on a mission of self-discovery has turned into a first of its kind music festival that is resonating with the Cambodian global diaspora. Seak Smith, founder of the festival, talked to us about the inspiration and significance of this festival and the amazing eclectic lineup of artists. Read our interview below and don’t miss out on this spectacular festival this Sunday because the next one won’t be in LA!

EnClave LA: How did this all come about? Did you have any previous experience putting on an event of this magnitude?

Smith: Let’s start with the 2nd question…No, I’ve never put on a festival or concert or any kind of live show ever before. My experience and background is in event-planning…mostly parties and fundraisers.

The inspiration for it…I’ll try to make the story as brief as I can. Last year, around Spring time, I had this gut feeling that just came over me that I was feeling disconnected with my Cambodian roots. One day I woke up and felt I really need to reconnect, because I grew up in a very Cambodian neighborhood. I grew up around a lot of Cambodian children and refugee kids and I learned how to write Khmer, was in a classical dance troupe. So I was very connected to my roots as a child but having my own family, I was starting to feel disconnected.

I stumbled upon this event called Season of Cambodia that was taking place in New York and I thought I had to be a part of it so I booked a flight and jumped on a plane to NYC to spend a weekend attending some of the performances and exhibits. It was the first time traveling by myself. I literally found out about the event and was on a plane 2 weeks later.

The festival was a 3 month long festival spread out throughout New York City at 33 different venues. I came back from that really inspired that there was this revival of the arts. I came back to LA and thought what’s next? I stumbled upon Caylee So and Prach Ly doing the [first] Cambodia Town Film Festival [Editor’s note: returns Sep. 4-7] and ended up volunteering and that event inspired me some more because of all the amazing filmmakers and producers and people making big moves for the Khmer community.

After the film festival, my husband suggested, “You know you’ve been working with Dengue Fever for a few years…you have all these artists at your disposal, why not a music festival?” and the light bulb went off! This was mid-September and I started making phone calls and before I knew it I was looking at venues and fell in love with the Ford Theatres and it took on a life of its own.

EnClave LA: That is really amazing that you just had this inspiration and this path that lead to you to this and it’s really snowballed.

Smith: It totally snowballed! Real planning started in November and once we booked the Ford Theatres, we announced the date in late December. A lot of the things since then has taken us by surprise: the level of interest in it, the people who want to support it financially and doing other stuff across the globe. It’s pretty amazing the reach the festival has been able to garner, through social media mostly, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

To know that people are booking flights to come to this 1st time festival. People don’t know what to expect, they don’t know who I am or if I can pull this off and they just know through word of mouth and social media. So that’s very humbling that people are spending $500-1000 just to get to this festival.

EnClave LA: Do you think it’s because you putting this opportunity out there, it’s a ripe moment for the Khmer community both here and abroad to want to do something like this? We know there’s a renaissance happening in the Khmer community in Long Beach with renewed sense of pride and rediscovery of the culture and the arts especially because it was suppressed by the Khmer Rouge. Is the time ripe now?

Smith: I think so. I think if we would’ve come up with this idea 2 years ago, it probably wouldn’t have worked. We probably couldn’t have garnered the support we have. There is this kind of sense of renewed pride. While it was happening to me out of the blue, it was happening to a lot of other people, too. So yes, the timing is just spot on because people are coming back to their roots.

A lot of us grew up in very impoverished areas throughout the whole country. Most of the artists grew up in inner city housing projects. And so did I…I grew up in a housing project in LA right outside downtown. So growing up as refugee kids, it was tough trying to balance fitting in and your background. There was a lot of embarrassment and trying to quell or suppress who you are. So yes, I think the timing couldn’t have been better.

EnClaveLA: We have a pretty big audience of world music lovers in LA and probably their first exposure to Cambodian music was through Dengue Fever, the first to put Cambodian music on the map here. So besides having this wonderfully loved and popular local band headlining, can you tell us what music lovers new to the Cambodian community can expect?

Smith: When we set out to do this the idea was to give a tapestry of Cambodian music and what’s happening right now in the current music scene. We wanted artists that were inspired by 60s rock or inspired by Cambodian sounds and traditions. Some artists I already knew about and some I’d never even heard of before this festival. The guideline was we wanted people with a positive message, people who were doing music that was interesting and different and we wanted to show the range of talent within the Cambodian community.

Intradevi is one of my favorites because they’re this electronic group where they’ve taken the sounds of some of the classic 60s and fused it with electronic and techno sounds. Their show is going to be full of lasers and lights and fog and craziness and costumes.

JL Jupiter is a hip hop artist out of Philadelphia and his music is very 90s hip hop which has a very nostalgic sound for me but he brings a very positive message about his struggles. He raps about his father leaving his family when they landed here in the United States, his struggles about being a refugee kid so he brings that experience to his music. We want people to understand that when they’re at the festival, the music has a lot of different layers of meaning to it.

Then you can go to Laura Mam who’s out of San Jose, who’s become a YouTube sensation and has done really well touring Cambodia. To me she reminds me of Jason Mraz, very soothing and folksy at times.

So I think there’s something for everybody. I think whoever joins us is going to be pleasantly surprised by the different range of sounds and level of talent.

The other part of the mission is we knew there was great talent out there and they weren’t getting the respect or the dues or the platforms to push their music out there. We thought if the opportunity isn’t there for you, create one for yourself. As a minority, we know how tough it is in the music business in general, whether you’re Vietnamese, or Filipino, or’s really, really tough.

This is the way to do it and to do it at the Ford Theatres was a big deal to me because it’s a historic theater and it’s in Hollywood. At the time I didn’t think of the significance of how it would appeal globally to people, but once people in Cambodia, Australia, and France hear that it’s in Hollywood, it has a glamorous ring to it. So from a marketing point of view, it worked out really great!

EnClave LA: Not only did you get the timing right, you got the location right! We love the venue and organization too. They do a lot of different types of cultural programming there.

Smith: Absolutely, we couldn’t have picked a better venue. It’s a well oiled machine. For a 1st time festival or event, I highly recommend them. They just know what they’re doing, from staffing to technical people, just all around, from ticket sales to their event coordinator, they have it all figured out for me. Its been such a pleasant process. I love the organization, I like what they’re doing. We’re in good hands. We’re actually the biggest show they’ve ever done.

EnClave LA: For you and your team, what has been the biggest challenge and biggest lesson?

Smith: The first thing I want to point out is there wasn’t really a team. Just so you know, it was literally myself and my husband for many, many months and literally just added to our staffing just a few weeks ago. Technically it’s a 4 man team. It’s a very small operation. I work a regular job, my husband works 12 hours a day and we have 3 children and so all of this was in between. You know, if it’s something you’re passionate about, you make it happen, you figure it out. We found our footing, we found something that we love, we found our purpose, and we’re helping artists and helping the culture, so between all of that, it does fuel us to keep going because we do have moments where we’re like “What are we thinking?” This is quite an endeavor and the cost is enormous to bring out 15 artists and the production of the show, housing everyone, and an amazing VIP event the night before, and you know, you just put one foot in front of the other.

EnClave LA: So speaking of the high cost, was funding a challenge for you or how did you go about that?

Smith: Funding was the biggest challenge. It’s hard, we’re not a nonprofit. Eventually maybe we’ll become a nonprofit but that process takes some time. So it’s hard to ask people to donate to a venture where you’re selling tickets and it’s not a nonprofit. Everybody has a cause they want to support so unless they really want to push the agenda of music and art, people don’t want to fund it.

But I’ve been very fortunate because I’m super verbal about what I’m doing with the project. So when I meet people and talk to people, I I just lay it out there. One of our biggest sponsors is this woman from Long Beach who owns this clothing boutique called BeMe Boutique. Within 5 days of knowing her, she became a sponsor and funded a good portion of this event because she has a very personal story about the music. Her family was in the refugee camp and her dad would duplicate old 1960s Cambodian rock on cassette tapes and he would sell them, and that’s how the family survived. So she has a very interesting story on why the music is important to her and why what we’re doing is what she believes in. So when they arrived in the United States, the music was what helped them get up on their feet and then eventually, they were able to open very successful businesses and are very successful business people in Long Beach.

I have other stories and a lot of them are women. They somehow connect with me as a Cambodian woman and as we were interviewing for the LA Times, LA Weekly and LB Post, I really had to dig deep and I realized that through all of this is a lot of self-discovery, finding out more about my family and how music has influenced me through my childhood. My dad is a drummer and played for big bands in Long Beach at weddings and so I didn’t realize when I started this but as I was going through this, the music is a soundtrack to my childhood. It was blaring in the background constantly every single day and I didn’t realize it until I was going through this whole journey of self-discovery and being interviewed for it, and having to answer why I was doing this and what was the motivation. So it really has been this amazing journey of figuring out my family history and how much music plays a big role. So that’s been priceless for me to come to some of these realizations.

EnClave LA: That’s really powerful and we think a lot of people are going to be having that experience through your project and this festival in the same way that they have this very personal connection to the music and what it means to them and what they’ve been through.

Smith: And we’ve been fortunate. People share these stories with me and there are many times I’m balling my eyes out because these stories are so personal. And these are the reasons why people are traveling so far for it because there is this personal connection. We have this one girl from Sunnyvale, Northern California, whose mom’s husband wrote a song for Sin Sisamuth. So that’s the reason she feels the music is the connection to her mom’s youth, because there’s nothing left. Most families don’t have photos when they were younger because they got destroyed. Some people came here with 1 or 2 photos if they were lucky and so for her, it’s just a way for her to know about her mom’s youth. There’s lots of stories like that.

So for all these personal connections, they really do validate that it’s not just a music festival. I think that it’s really important to project that to people that they understand this isn’t just a concert with a bunch of artists. There’s more to it.

EnClave LA: Definitely. And you’re also giving back to the community as well. You’re taking 10% of the proceeds for the Cambodian Children’s Fund. Tell us about them and why you chose them.

Smith: For every venture I’ve ever done, if I can contribute and be socially responsible, that’s always my mission so that was never a question. We were always going to donate. We chose Cambodian Children’s Fund because I follow Scott Neeson and his story and how much impact he’s had in the last 10 years of doing this and what he gave up, his life of luxury as an FOX executive and so he just has an amazing story for dedicating his life to these kids. We talked to them and asked them if they had some kind of performance or music program for the children and they do. So I agreed that as long as the funds go to the arts and go to giving the children music lessons and things like that, we’d be happy to donate to them.

EnClave LA: We have no doubts this will be a great success. It really does take a whole community to put this together, to be mutually supportive and get our voices and our stories and our music told. We really appreciate the work that you’re doing to spearhead this and that leads us to our last question: What are your next plans after this festival? Do you plan to make this a return festival?

Smith: We absolutely hope so! Obviously we have to assess what the success is once the festival is over and we’re hoping for a big success. We get lots of messages from other artists who want to be a part of it…from people who are far away and can’t afford it. If all goes well after August 3rd, we’re going to make plans to probably take the 2015 festival to the East Coast. The ball is already starting to roll on that. I’ve gotten messages from Cambodia that they want it out there. I’m not sure the youth in Cambodia are quite ready for this music soon but maybe 2016 could be a Cambodia destination. It’s definitely not going to happen in LA again. It’s going to go around to different cities. I’m sure those have its own set of challenges but that seems to be the direction it’s going because we’re getting quite a bit of demand from other people. So we’ll probably hit up areas that have a large Cambodian community like Lowell, Massachusetts, or Philly, Seattle-Tacoma so it’s probably going to move around or at least that’s what I’m hoping.

EnClave LA: This is what we really admire about you. You are definitely a visionary. You’re always 5, 6 steps ahead of where you want to be. We really look forward to this festival and all the future work to come from you. Thanks again for your time.

Smith: Thank you so much!

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