Cambodian artists Kmeng Khmer are supported by NYCGB Alumna Laura Baker's The Sound Initiative.


After university, many graduates travel abroad to ‘find themselves’ before coming home. But when NYCGB Alumna Laura Baker (2002-2006) went to Cambodia, she found a whole generation of young musicians struggling to escape their country’s past, and stayed to help them. We spoke about her remarkable journey, and her kickstarter programme for young Cambodian musicians, The Sound Initiative.

NYCGB: How did you come to visit Cambodia for the first time and how did The Sound Initiative come into being?

LAURA: I first visited Cambodia in 2013 to work in Siem Reap with a women's rights N.G.O., fresh out of my Masters. I later moved to Phnom Penh to work in the burgeoning social enterprise sector. 

I had read about the Cambodian music scene that had existed before the Civil War and the rise of the Khmer Rouge regime, and listened to the people who influenced that ‘golden era’ like Ros Sereysothea and Sinn Sisamuth. After a number of years away from music, I started performing and exploring the local music scene in Phnom Penh and as a result was exposed to a network of local musicians. It was in conversations with them that The Sound Initiative had its roots.  

Interestingly, there was a key thread to all these conversations: that YouTube is one of the only ways to gain access to music education in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge decimated arts and culture in the country. Even now, the cultural industries have little momentum, and there are few resources available to support the growing movement of young musicians – who are nevertheless determined to walk a career path that hasn’t been trodden for over 30 years.

I eventually quit my job and sought out a partner to build a locally-led strategy to address this. I am currently working alongside popstar Laura Mam and her record label Baramey Production, a small company supporting original music artists. We are working together to raise scholarships funds for TSI’s music education and mentor program, and the development of a ‘music hub’ where young people can create, learn, rehearse and record. 

What are your hopes for TSI in the next five years?

Cambodian musicians struggle to get by in a country that has no copyright enforcement or protection, no financial support, few festivals, limited creative spaces and little education or awareness of the importance of musical culture to the country. There are therefore lots of areas that need work and at present we are not trying to be everything. So our initial priorities are around developing music education and building the hub to enable us have an impact on at least 60 musicians by 2020 (we’re currently supporting 20), including ongoing support of ‘graduates’. 

Do you draw on any inspiration or skills from your time with NYCGB to help you in your work with TSI?

From my experience with NYCGB, I know first-hand that music programs encourage discipline, increase motivation, and spur creativity. I believe that creativity is the product of social encounter and attending group activities like NYCGB courses where you make friends and create networks is so key to becoming a well-rounded musician and person. Those courses now feel a million miles away but on reflection, I am absolutely drawing on them for TSI, because so much of our programme is built on the importance of peer exchange and establishing a strong sense of artistic camaraderie and community.

Find out more about The Sound Initiative and their artists at their website
Contact Laura