The Messenger Band

DECEMBER 24, 11 AM

I arrive in Cambodia thirty hours late, due to a blizzard in central Europe. I am sleeping next to a posh pool in a Phnom Penh hotel, when I get a text from Saem Vun, a singer with a musical group called The Messenger Band.

I have known Saem since I chanced upon a concert she and her bandmates had given a year previous. The group was formed in 2005 by the now-defunct Cambodian NGO Womyn’s Agenda for Change, in order to bring the concerns of garment workers back to the provinces from which these young women originally come. Over 300,000 women uphold the nation’s third-largest industry, directly supporting in the process over 20% of the nation’s 14 million inhabitants by sending money back home to farming families. In fact, young women are often sent by parents to the city for this express purpose. Sometimes proof-of-age documents are forged, and always the girls are pulled from school—and many aren’t prepared. For the hard labor. For the big city. For being away from family.

Or for the corruption. Although it’s an illegal charge, many workers report having paid interview fees of around $50 to be considered for their jobs. New arrivals in the city don’t have that kind of money—it’s close to a month’s salary—and some visit high-interest money-lenders or take on illegal and dangerous work. Right off the bat.

The Messenger Band writes songs in the traditional Cambodian folk style, and choreographs moves to accompany their laments. Villagers are riveted: the subjects of these songs are their daughters, their nieces, their friends. More interesting, the subjects of the songs are also members of The Messenger Band. All former or current garment factory workers themselves, the varying group of women that perform as the band are well-versed in the issues that affect women in Cambodia. Saem worked in the factories from 2000 to 2005, but now works full-time with the band. “We are tired but we say nothing,” one song goes. “We are hard working and much of this money I earn is dollars to help my mother.”

I had sent Saem an email before leaving the US: “I wish to travel with you to your next concert,” I explained. “As you know, I have worked with political punk bands in the US for a long time, so I would like to know how similar it is, to be a political band in Cambodia.”

Her text wakes me from my jetlagged fever dream. “MB is going to hold a concert in Kandal province tomorrow, Saturday 25th. It would be great if you can go.”

“Note:” she adds before her signoff. “We are going to leave early in the morning.”

This makes me nervous: Cambodians wake up with the sun. Here, early turns out to mean 6:30 on Christmas morning, which means I would have to wake up and prepare to leave at 4 am following several 24-hour periods with no sleep.

“Sorry,” I explain to Saem. “I cannot do that.” I can stay awake until 4 a.m. to see a band, sure. But getting up for one on Christmas morning, even as a non-Christian in a Buddhist country, strikes me as morally and spiritually unacceptable.

Easy enough. Saem arranges for me to ride with a friend of hers by tuk tuk, the brightly painted motorcycle-lead benched cart, later in the day, leaving more than enough time to catch the 6:30 p.m. performance in the nearby province.

The previous Messenger Band concert I attended was in a performance venue, intended for Western tourists and ex-pats, but this is not the band’s primary audience. “The voice of garment workers must be used to shout to tell all Cambodian women that to be a servant is very difficult,” they sing in one song, in tones unheard in American pop tunes, and all the more effective because of it. “We have no freedom and no rights.”

It’s a message lost on, say, a recently widowed Australian who came to Southeast Asia for a month to recoup. She has both freedom and rights. The next day I would be surrounded by Cambodian women who had neither, who’d sent their daughters off for a bid at economic stability, but the cost was a difficult life. And somehow I was sure it was going to be fun.

 

DECEMBER 25, 2:15 PM

Saem’s friend, we’ll call her Neary, is dressed mostly in clean white, with long sleeves to keep out the sun. I have just arrived from a country suffering a seemingly endless series of blizzards. I am wearing black and eager to soak up all the sun I can. We clamber into the tuk tuk.

“It is far away, so our driver will bring someone with, to drive back. Is it OK with you?” she asks. I do not have a problem with this. I am personally only capable of riding a motorcycle for about 25 minutes before the lower half of my body goes numb, and we’re looking at a journey over three times that long. But she’s not asking out of a concern for my social well-being. The presumption here—partially because I have a travel budget, but also because, as a white person, I am perceived to be wealthy—is that I will pay for the tuk tuk.

Our driver is friendly. (Although, truth be told, most Cambodians are friendly.) “Cheung Eck!” the spare driver turns around to tell us cheerfully partway through our journey. To our left is the Killing Fields memorial.

Neary confesses she has never been there. “It is too much for me,” she says.

She is not the first Cambodian I have met that’s passed up the opportunity. In fact, in 2007 a group of five young women asked me to take them there for the first time. One was particularly affected, and when I asked her afterwards why, she explained that it had helped her piece together something that used to happen when she was little. She used go to her schoolyard with a friend to dig up long white rocks, which she collected and brought home to her parents. Instead of praising her ingenuity, however, her parents gave her a scolding. At Cheung Eck, she realized why: her schoolyard had been one of the several killing fields spread around the countryside, spaces set aside to deal with those identified as enemies of Angkar, the name the Khmer Rouge used to refer to their organization. As the four-year hardline communist regime came to a frenetic end, the volume of those identified as enemies grew significantly, until, as recent estimates conducted in advance of the Khmer Rouge Tribunals indicate, between 1.7 and 2.2 million people died or were killed, over a quarter of the population of the country.

Although the terminology is under dispute, this makes every Cambodian alive a survivor of the mass killings, including the parents of Neary, and the members of The Messenger Band. Still, it is not uncommon to come across young people between 20 and 30 who do not believe the Khmer Rouge existed. “Didn’t you see The Killing Fields?” A young man told me once, referring to the film. “The American movie? With actors?” He meant it as proof that the entire period had been fictionalized.

I mention this to Neary, and she tells her own horror story: a lecturer at her university who teaches that the Pol Pot years were entirely peaceful. When my new friend balked at him, the lecturer asked what proof she had that things had really been that bad, since she was a year too young to have experienced the Khmer Rouge years herself.

Neary called horsepockey. “You don’t need to work in the factories to know those women have difficult lives,” she spat, referring to the back-breaking labor, even under ideal conditions, that women faced in the garment manufacturing plants. Neary was a full-time student now, and part-time labor organizer, but had helped run the Womyn’s Agenda for Change when The Messenger Band was formed.

At the time, garment workers earned a base pay of $55 per month, when living wage in the country is nearly twice that. With overtime, many send home around $50 per month, but this still leaves large income gaps—even, again, under ideal conditions. And in 2009, 93 factories closed and 60 suspended work, leaving 68,190 workers—close to 20 percent of the force at last tally—out of jobs, according to official Ministry of Labour records. Work picked up slightly in 2010, with a few new factories opening up in the countryside, but strikes over the summer lead to layoffs of labor leaders in the fall and many were out of their already low-income jobs. Some turned to sex work, an industry—euphemistically called “entertainment,” that boomed at the same time. So too, public health officials charged, did HIV rates.

Neary’s point about the lecturer was that she didn’t need to work in the factories to see that the women who did had a profound impact on the economic and public health of the entire nation. But, as was also the case with the Khmer Rouge years, the real story was difficult to find when people retained a vested interest in hiding facts.

It is this injustice that The Messenger Band seeks to uproot. Just updated. With a beat you can dance to.

 

DECEMBER 25, 3:35 PM

There is some confusion about the path we must take, as roads outside of cities are so few as to be unmarked. There is, however, a poster I cannot read in Khmer, and because it features females with microphones, it is most obviously The Messenger Band. There simply aren’t any other bands—or, frankly, groups of other, perhaps non-singing women in the country—that it could be.

The lyrics from one of their songs, “The Voice of Garment Workers,” is typical of their approach:

We are all garment workers, we live in bad conditions, we struggle

with difficulty…

The song that we sing is about the real life of garment workers,

please pity us and consider the life of garment workers. How we are

suffering? We are faced with suffering and problems because the factory

owners exploit us.

When the workers are in trouble, who can help to solve the problems?

Where is justice? When I need you, why do you ignore me?

I inform the navigational team—Neary, the driver, and the backup driver—and they agree: girls with microphones. We are in the right place.

 

DECEMBER 25, 3:45 PM

We pull up to a dusty field in Chrey Royoung village, Kondok commune, in the Kandal Steung district of Kandal Province. To the left, a metal roof covers a concrete floor. People busy themselves inside it. At the far end, a giant black square sits incongruously on the parched and carved land, plowed after the last rain a month ago, now hardened into grooves about eight inches high. A rusty pickup truck backs towards the shape, and a gaggle of thin, brown young men begin unloading 12 massive speakers.

“That’s a lot of speakers,” I mutter out loud. A woman to my left—she turns out to be a garment labor organizer—agrees.

“But compared to US,” she says, “Not the same sound.” Hopefully not, I think. I spent much of my twenties and a significant part of my thirties standing in front of just one of those buggers, and I’d recently adopted a more mature stance toward music that featured the benefit of allowing me to hear things the next day.

The lone generator intended to power both the sound system and the lights arrives via tuk tuk. A free umbrella distributed as advertising on behalf of the beer company Angkor shields it from the sun. In the US, we might have the luxury to consider such a thing ironic. The Messenger Band sings songs intended to advocate for members of the sex industry, which itself is directly linked to the Cambodian national beer companies, who hire women to distribute their wares and provide other entertainments for customers. They are called beer girls. In a documentary I saw recently, a beer girl explained that she would happily give up having sex with customers for money, if only the beer company paid her enough to live on.

But the luxury of outrage is not available in Cambodia. Here, we must simply appreciate a thing able to shield a generator from the sun.

I chat idly with another labor organizer from IDIEA, the union for motodop and tuk tuk drivers, who tells me what’s on the bill: The Messenger Band will be joined by a group of trans women, and in addition to songs, skits and dances will be performed. Plus, I’m told: a fashion show!

 

DECEMBER 25, 4:15 p.m.

The kids from the village flirt with me by walking by slowly and saying “hello!” in bright, friendly voices, and then running away when I respond in kind. They mostly seem impressed that this is a communication device, and not some secret code made up to annoy them in school or on TV. Although this exchange, repeated multiple times, provides the primary entertainment for the moment, other kids watch as carnival stands and food vendors begin to set up shop along the entrance to the field. One extremely dirty kid in his underpants chases bikes through the dirt grooves. Many sit and gape at the roadies.

Soon, the kids pull out another trick: The strung-together syllables of “Jingle Bells,” which we sing together without comprehension (myself included, if we’re to get philosophical about it. Jingle all the way? What was that even supposed to mean when you weren’t celebrating the holidays in a hundred-plus-degree heat?).

Suddenly an even more exciting thing happens: roadies start hanging banners on the black stage in the center of the field. “People over Profit” one says. “We need Accessible, Quality Health Care,” proclaims the other. A third, for the curtain behind the stage, is missing and this is an emergency. It is too far to go back to Phnom Penh for it, although this is considered for a moment. The Khmer respect for formality will not let the absence of that banner stand, so the country’s brightest labor organizing and public health policy minds get together to repaint it while a group of trans people practice catwalking the stage.

 

DECEMBER 25, 5 PM

Watching an entire village gather in a field in a southern province of Cambodia to celebrate, feed, and entertain trans women and an all-girl pro-labor and human rights musical group is so far beyond anything I have ever experienced in the American punk underground that I spend some time alone recalibrating what I mean by the word “awesome.”

The first in a series. Band and audience photographs courtesy of Anne Elizabeth Moore. Skulls photo by Toby Simkin. Published under a Creative Commons license.